Victorian Fashion Overview
One of the toughest areas of research is the fashions for women of the 1860's. Although what people wore is very well documented there is much that is contradictory to popular beliefs. What we do know is that most of the fashions of the 1860's were greatly influenced by two prominent rulers: Queen Victoria and Empress Eugenie of France, and one famous female editor.
Empress Eugenie was married to Prince Louis Napoleon on January 30th 1853. It is said that their marriage was a controversial arrangement since it was based on love instead of pre-arrangement. Eugenie did not mind this controversy and criticism , for she loved her husband very much. She was extremely well educated and was a political companion to her husband, and was actually named "Regent" ruler in his absences in 1859, 1865 and 1870. When the second French revolution occurred, she and Napoleon fled the country in 1871, and lived in England until his death in 1873.
Eugenie was a beautiful woman, elegant and genteel, and when she chose to wear full crinolines in public in 1855, she changed European fashion forever. With the help of her own personal designer, Charles Worth, set the standards of dress in France and the rest of Europe. Glorious colors, large patterns, and yards of trim accentuated these massive and elegant court dresses.
Queen Victoria came to rule England on June 20th 1837 at the tender age of 18. As every monarch had before, she needed to marry, and did so on February 10th of 1840 to her first cousin, Prince Albert. Albert not only became her husband, but also her constant companion and political advisor. In the time they were wed Victoria gave birth to nine children and became a leader in the fashion of the day. This all changed when her love, Albert, died of typhoid fever on December 14th 1861. This devastated the queen and sent the entire country into mourning. What is rather ironic, is that Victoria began the trend of the traditional white wedding that we in modern times are familiar with, but also set a standard for the etiquette of mourning loved ones. And although the rest of the family moved on after the standard time of mourning, Victoria would remain in black for the rest of her life, always remembering the love of her life. It is said that when Princess Alice was married in 1862 that the wedding party was allowed to wear colors for the wedding, but the reception that night everyone was back in black mourning attire.
Victoria’s role as a fashion "diva" of sorts was limited, but still very powerful. Aniline dyes were discovered, quite by accident by 15yr old William Henry Perkins in 1853, and colors could be had on fabrics that were never available before. But like many new inventions, it took a very long time for this process of synthetic dying to take hold. Queen Victoria helped the advancement of these dyes by having dresses made using this process. And so more vibrant colored dresses made their appearance at the English court. Also to her credit, the Queen brought the plaid back into fashion, as she fell in love with the style while on holiday with Prince Albert in Scotland. To this day the royal family has a plaid, the Balmoral plaid, that is reserved for them only. Until her trip, plaids were thought of as heathen and crude due to their association with the clans of Scotland.
But what was the common woman of the Victorian era to wear and where did she get her ideas from. First we must look at what was in place at the time. One in six women in America owned a sewing machine, with the Wheeler Wright company leading the way. Singer, however, was one of the first companies to offer a payment plan and thus increased their production and their sales. The safety pin had also been invented and patented in April of 1849 by Walter Hunt, who ironically invented the first sewing machine in 1834 which was also the first eye pointed needle sewing machine, but he lost interest in patenting the machine for he feared it would cause unemployment. As mentioned earlier, the first synthetic dyes were available, and being in the midst of the industrial revolution, fabrics and trims could be made quite easily and were readily available for women across America.
Most women, other then the members of high society, could not afford what was being worn in the European courts, but still strived to wear the latest trends. They looked for inspiration from periodicals of the time such as Harpers and Peterson’s. But one of the most popular was headed by the first female editor in the country, Sarah Josepha Hale, and was called Godey’s Ladies Book. Mrs. Hale took great pride in her magazine and included everything from wonderful recipes to poetry from up and coming poet, Edgar Allen Poe. But most importantly she had Americanized fashion plates included in every issue, with suggestions of fabrics and trims to use. These plates were different from others that were in production because Sarah would have the plates redone once they reached her desk. The main reason for redoing the plates was to show women that not everyone in the world had small wasp, or tightly synched, waists. She believed that the only people who profited from these overly constricted waists was doctors and undertakers. Many women died from having their corsets synched in too tightly, and Sarah was not an advocate for such trivial beauty tactics. She did advocate physical activity, such as walks at the seashore, outings in the country and regular bathing. It is said that her magazine was so popular that ladies in small cities would pool their money together for a subscription and wait in earnest for it to come so that they could begin creating their dresses or changing and updating ones that they had. No woman wanted to be unfashionable, and would often take garments in their armoires and make alterations to update them. Even the poorest of women did not want to be left out of the fashion loop and would make minor changes to update their wardrobes. It was proper for women of all classes to not dress outside their class. A woman who had little money would be considered wasteful should she try to dress like a woman of wealth. And the opposite was considered tasteless as well. A woman of means would not be looked upon well in society should she dress like a poor woman. It could indicate her fall from social ranks and she could be excluded from societies soirees and functions.
Patterns on fabric were prevalent, from small geometric shapes to large florals. The larger the print the more wealth one had, so as a re-enactor this is very important to consider when making your dresses. The large prints were hard to match and thus contained waste in order to match one panel of fabric to another. So a woman who had money was able to afford the waste.
The same is said of trim. Trim was a direct reflection a woman’s husband’s wealth. The more money you had the more you could afford to spend on frivolous details such as lace, fringe and tapes. A woman of moderate means could make a trim out of extra fabric that was left from the project or would recycle fabric from a worn dress and turn it into accents on a new dress.
Women wasted nothing and so when a dress was finally beyond repair, it was often cut up and made into quilt squares, giving us a wonderful research tool in what patterns were worn and used. Often a mother’s dress was recreated into a daughter or son’s outfit. Children’s clothes were kept and passed down from one sibling to another, and when money was not readily available, a son may get the hand-me-downs of an older sister. In some cases it can be seen that mothers and daughters would have the same dresses made from the same material, thus indicating that the mother bought the whole bolt of material for the family. Another recycling trick was when a skirt would get worn out on the bottom and was beyond repair, the entire skirt would be taken apart and the waist would become the hem, and vice a versa.
Etiquette of the time also dictated what could be worn and when it could be worn, but as research continues some of these beliefs are being proven as false. What we do know is is that is was inappropriate to show any chest skin before noon. High neck lines were worn for morning visits, shopping or church. As the day progressed it was acceptable to wear what is known as a tea bodice, which revealed the neck and upper chest. This bodice style was worn to social gathering in the afternoon, such as a poetry reading or tea, and often for informal dinner receptions. The shoulders, neck, arms and bosom were more prevalently shown in a formal dinner dress or the beautiful ball gown for formal functions such as galas and balls, going to the opera or theater and formal soirees. These fancy dresses were decorated extravagantly and were often the crowning jewel in any woman’s wardrobe.
In the following pages we will attempt to show you wonderful examples of such dresses to give documentation to dresses that are seen on our ladies in the photo gallery pages, but to also give a glimpse into what women really wore and what life was like for those in the 1860's.
By clicking on the links below they will lead you to different styles of dress from the most common styles to the gorgeous ball gowns of the times. Come back often, for as new photos and examples are found they will be added. Also listed are links to some of the most wonderful research sites on the internet that have been found by members of this group.
Victorian Fashion Websites
Démodé - a wonderful site for researching museums from around the world and viewing original garments. A highly recommended site!
New York Public Library - when you get to the digital gallery, enter in the word search area "dresses united states 1860-1869". The search page should direct you to some 200+ prints from the original magazines of the time. They are wonderful to look at and a great source for dress design.