The Victorian era, which spanned the length of Queen Victoria’s reign from 1837 to 1901, was a time of rapid economic and social change, driven by the Industrial Revolution. This had a profound impact on all industries, including fashion. As clothes became cheaper and faster to manufacture, they became accessible to more people.
“Everything from spinning to weaving to the steam molding of corsets became industrialized, which meant that fashion became readily available to all classes,” says Valerie Steele, director and chief curator of the museum. of the FIT.
WATCH: How department stores liberated women in the Victorian era
Working-class men and women could wear the same styles as the aristocracy, although they purchased mass-produced versions from less expensive materials. New retail modes, including department stores, magazines, and mail-order catalogs, allowed everyone to keep abreast of the latest fashions. As a result, silhouettes and trends changed rapidly from previous eras.
According to Steele, one of the most notable changes was that fashion began to be differentiated by gender rather than class. This reflected the democratization of fashion, as well as the changing role of women in society.
“In the 18th century, both men and women wore highly decorative silk garments that set them apart from the rest of society,” Steele explains. “But in the 19th century, women’s fashion spread across all social classes and became quite different from the clothes that men wore. Men began to dress in black wool, while women wore colored silks.
Here are some of the notable fashion trends of the Victorian era.
New extravagant shades
Many of history’s greatest inventions were created by accident, like penicillin, matches, chocolate chip cookies. The same goes for the synthetic dye, developed by British chemist William Henry Perkin in 1853 while trying to formulate a treatment for malaria.
Called “mauveine”, the compound produced vivid purple hues when used as a dye for silk, cotton and other fabrics. The new hue caught on quickly and even Queen Victoria wore a vibrant purple dress to the 1862 International Exhibition in London. As the novelist Oscar Wilde wrote in his famous 1885 essay on fashion, A clothing philosophy, “A good color is always a pleasure.”
Prior to Perkin’s discovery, dyes were painstakingly derived from natural sources such as insects and plants, making them prohibitively expensive for all but the wealthiest members of society.
“The dyes were one of the big markers of class,” says Valerie Steele, director and chief curator of the FIT museum. “They were very expensive, and therefore very elitist. Suddenly these were available to everyone. Pink, which required very expensive dyes from Brazil and Sumatra, had suddenly become a popular color that even servants could wear. As a result, wealthy women in the late 19th century began to wear pale pink to distinguish themselves from the lower classes and their vibrant magenta dresses.
Gloves for all occasions
Victorians were preoccupied with class, and fashion was a means of revealing – or concealing – one’s status in society. Hands could say a lot about someone’s position in the social hierarchy, and having soft, thin, white hands was considered a sign of refinement. They meant your hands weren’t exposed to the sun or physical labor, which could leave skin looking tanned, calloused and rough. As a result, both men and women wore gloves not only to protect their skin from the elements, but to hide the effects of working class labor on their hands.
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In public, women always wore gloves and it was considered inappropriate to show bare hands outside the company of family or friends. Men also had to be gloved, 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 The Gentlemen’s Book of Etiquette and Manual of Politeness, published in 1860, an upper-class gentleman could go through six different pairs of gloves in a single day, depending on his social calendar.
Like low-rise jeans in the modern era, fans have come into fashion since their invention over 4,000 years ago in Egypt. During the Victorian era, they again became hugely popular, in part because they allowed single women to engage in playful and flirtatious behavior while adhering to the strict social conventions of the time.
By opening, closing or flapping her fan, a lady could send coded messages without saying a word. The Parisian fan Jean-Pierre Duvelleroy, who himself made fans for Queen Victoria, published a leaflet entitled The language of the fan explaining the meaning of each gesture. For example, raising the handle of the fan to one’s lips meant kiss Me. Oscar Wilde even wrote a popular play, Lady Windemere’s Fan, on the power of these subtle openings.
Fans were popular among all social classes. Upper-class women carried large ornate fans made from fine materials like ivory and silk, and adorned with dyed ostrich features, according to Victorian fashion accessories by Ariel Beaujot. Lower-class women bought mass-produced fans, and some single women even found work making them in the second half of the 19th century in the growing fan-making industry.
“The fashion industry has provided jobs for large numbers of women, with increasing roles for women in the workforce,” Steele explains. A notable change in the Victorian era was that women moved from running their own tailoring business to working in male-owned factories and workshops as industrialization transformed the industry.
Long before Kim Kardashian, women in the Victorian era made exaggerated posteriors the height of fashion. This was achieved through the invention of stirring in 1857, by an American inventor named Alexander Douglas. An undergarment that hung around the waist and featured a metal cage or padded cushion, bustlines were designed to create a full, rounded shape at the back of the dress and provide support for heavy, elaborate skirts .
Bustles were not immediately popular, as women were still fond of the bell-shaped skirts created by crinolines. Made from very stiff woven horsehair or steel cages, crinolines were popular among women of all social classes despite being uncomfortable and impractical: climbing stairs or sitting down was nearly impossible in a crinoline.
Moreover, they were dangerous. In 1858, the March 16 edition of the New York Times reported that a young Boston woman died after her crinoline caught fire; the same article revealed that 19 similar crinoline deaths had been reported in London in the previous two months. The Time wrote that this risk should make young women “extraordinarily cautious in their movements and behavior, if it fails to dissuade them from adopting such a perilous fashion”.
In the 1860s, women began to favor the bustle, which created a slim figure from the front and sides. It was a bit more practical, but women still had to sacrifice movement and comfort to achieve a fashionable shape. The bustles hung heavily from the waist, causing backaches and making women twist their bodies to sit down. In 1888, The Boston Medical and Surgical Journal published a doctor’s letter denouncing the harmful effects of agitation. “Why people should fashion their dress in such a way as to simulate a deformity they do not have is incomprehensible,” he wrote, “And of all such incomprehensible deformities, restlessness is the worst.
In 1881, a group of British women founded the Rational Dress Society, opposing any fashion which “distorts the figure, hinders the movement of the body, or tends in any way to injure health”. Their targets included tight corsets, high heeled boots, thick skirts and, of course, bustles.
While impractical fashions persisted into the late Victorian era, the Rational Dress Society alluded to the political and cultural changes of the early 20th century that would bring women greater freedom and civil liberties.