The Victorian era, which spanned the length of Queen Victoria’s reign from 1837 to 1901, was a period of rapid economic and social change, fueled by the Industrial Revolution. This has had a profound impact on every industry – including fashion. As clothing became cheaper and faster to make, it became available to the masses.
“Everything from spinning to weaving to steam shaping bodices became industrialized, which meant that fashion became readily available across the spectrum of classes,” says Valerie Steele, director and chief curator of the Museum at FIT.
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Working-class men and women could wear the same styles as the aristocracy, although they bought mass-produced versions made from cheaper materials. New ways of retailing, including department stores, magazines and mail-order catalogs, meant that everyone could keep up with the latest fashions. As a result, silhouettes and trends have changed rapidly compared to earlier periods.
According to Steele, one of the most significant shifts was that fashion began to differ by gender rather than class. This reflected the democratization of fashion, as well as the changing roles of women in society.
“In the 18th century, both men and women wore highly decorative silk clothing that set them apart from the rest of society,” explains Steele. “But in the 19th century, women’s fashion spread across all social classes and became quite different from the clothes worn by men. Men began to dress in dark wool, while women wore colorful silk.”
Below are some of the notable fashion trends of the Victorian era.
New, extravagant shades
Many of the greatest inventions in history were created by accident, such as penicillin, matches, chocolate chip cookies. The same is true of synthetic dye, which was developed by the British chemist William Henry Perkin in 1853 while trying to develop a cure for malaria.
Called “mauveine,” the compound produced vivid purple hues when used as a dye for silk, cotton, and other fabrics. The new shade quickly caught on, and even Queen Victoria wore a vibrant purple dress to the 1862 International Exhibition in London. As novelist Oscar Wilde wrote in his famous 1885 essay on fashion. Philosophy about dressing, “A good color always gives pleasure.”
Before Perkin’s discovery, dyes were painstakingly obtained from natural sources such as insects and plants, making them prohibitively expensive for all but the wealthiest members of society.
“Color was one of the great indicators of class,” explains Valerie Steele, director and chief curator of the Museum at FIT. “They were very expensive, and therefore very elite. Suddenly they were available to everyone. Pink, which required very expensive dyes from Brazil and Sumatra, suddenly became a popular color that even maids could wear.” As a result, wealthy women in the late 19th century began wearing pale pink to distinguish themselves from the lower classes and their vivid magenta dresses.
Gloves for every occasion
The Victorians were preoccupied with class, and fashion was one way of revealing – or concealing – one’s status in society. Hands could tell you a lot about one’s position in the social hierarchy, and having soft, slender and white hands was considered a sign of refinement. They meant your hands weren’t exposed to the sun or physical labor, which could leave your skin tanned, calloused, and rough. As a result, both men and women wore gloves not only to protect their skin from the elements, but also to hide the effects of working-class labor on their hands.
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Women always wore gloves in public, and it was considered inappropriate to show bare hands outside the company of family or friends. Men were also expected to wear gloves, although it was more acceptable for men to remove their gloves in public, such as when shaking hands with an acquaintance. Different gloves were expected for different occasions.
According to The Lord’s Book of Etiquette and the Manual of Politeness, published in 1860, an upper-class gentleman might go through six different pairs of gloves in one day, depending on his social calendar.
Like low-waisted jeans in the modern age, fans have gone in and out of fashion since their invention more than 4,000 years ago in Egypt. During the Victorian era, they became extremely popular again, in part because they allowed unmarried women to engage in playful, flirtatious behavior while still adhering to the strict social conventions of the era.
By opening, closing or fluttering the fan, the lady could send coded messages without words. Parisian fan maker Jean-Pierre Duvelleroy, who made fans for Queen Victoria herself, published a leaflet called The language of fans explaining what each gesture means. For example, bringing a fan handle to the lips meant kiss Me. Oscar Wilde even wrote a popular play, Lady Windemere’s fan, about the power of these subtle overtures.
Fans were popular among all walks of life. Upper-class women wore large, ornate fans that were made of fine materials such as ivory and silk, and decorated with painted ostrich lines, according to Victorian fashion accessories by Ariel Beaujot. Lower-class women bought mass-produced fans, and some unmarried women even got a job making them in the second half of the 19th century in the growing fan-making industry.
“The fashion industry has provided employment for a large number of women, with increasing roles for women in the workforce,” says Steele. One significant change in the Victorian era was that women moved from running their own tailoring shops to working in male-owned factories and studios as industrialization transformed the industry.
Long before Kim Kardashian, women in the Victorian era brought the exaggerated backside to the height of fashion. This was achieved with the invention of the bustle in 1857, by an American inventor named Alexander Douglas. An undergarment that cinched in at the waist and featured a metal cage or padded pad, slips were designed to create a full, rounded shape at the back of the dress and provide support for heavy, elaborate skirts.
Bustier skirts did not immediately become popular as ladies were still inclined towards bell-shaped skirts created by crinolines. Made from very stiff woven horsehair or steel cages, crinolines were popular with women of all social classes despite the fact that they were uncomfortable and impractical: climbing stairs or sitting down was almost impossible in a crinoline.
Moreover, they were dangerous. In 1858, the March 16 edition of the magazine The New York Times reported that a young Boston woman died after her crinoline caught fire; the same article revealed that 19 similar crinoline-related deaths had been reported in London in the previous two months. The times wrote that this danger should make young ladies “extremely circumspect in motion and conduct, if it fails to dissuade them from adopting a fashion so full of danger.”
In the 1860s, women began to favor the bustle, which created a slender silhouette from the front and sides. This was a bit more practical, but still required women to sacrifice movement and comfort to achieve a fashionable shape. The busts hung heavily from the waist, causing back pain and requiring women to twist their bodies to sit down. In 1888, The Boston Journal of Medicine and Surgery published a letter from a doctor denouncing the ill effects of haste. “It is incomprehensible why people should fashion their clothes in such a way as to feign a deformity they do not have,” he wrote, “And of all these incomprehensible deformities, busyness is the worst.
In 1881, a group of British women founded the Rational Dress Society, opposing any fashion that “deforms the figure, hinders the movement of the body, or in any way harms health.” Tight corsets, high-heeled boots, heavy skirts and, of course, tights were their target.
While impractical fashions persisted until the end of the Victorian era, the Rational Dress Society heralded the political and cultural changes of the early 20th century that would bring greater freedom and civil liberties to women.