The Victorian Period was from the 1837s to 1901 during the reign of Queen Victoria. In the United States this covers major events like the Antebellum period, the Civil War, Reconstruction and the Industrial Age and the expansion West or the Frontier or Territorial periods. It is a large chunk of time so covers some diverse fashions.
This post is going to look at some real historical pieces from recent sales from Augusta Auction in New York City. These are amazing pieces that are museum quality costumes . If you haven’t read it already check out my earlier post of Fashion by Decade 1790s to 1890s.
Rules of Victorian Fashion
1. Dresses were ankle length or longer
2. Daytime dresses had high collars, evening dress had lower collars or short sleeves
3. Undergarments: several layers of chemise, petticoats, bloomers & corset
4. Gloves worn everyday
5. Waist was at the natural waist line and tightly fitted
6. Generally only undergarments had buttons, ties or laces visible
For example, the navy day dress above has a tight fitted bodice that has hidden closures or is pinned closed. The top has a high collar and long sleeves. In this dress the sleeves are narrow and slightly puffed at the shoulder. The skirt is long and in this case narrow but has a bustle. The skirt, bustle and sleeve shape indicate the late-Victorian period. This dress is from 1888. It probably would have been worn with removable lace cuffs.
Skirt shape and sleeve style may vary. Vibrant colors, textures, patterns or prints were common. Embellishments like lace, trim, fringe, tassels or bows on bodices or jackets were common. Collars and cuffs were often removable or easy washing.
This pre-Civil War day dress in blue and black plaid silk has a rather different shape. Worn with a hoop skirt and several petticoats to make a round bell shape. This makes the waist appear smaller. It also shows a time of prosperity as it takes lots of fabric. it also has the high neck and long sleeves. Imagine Scarlet O’Hara in this dress as it is from the 1850s.
In this case the sleeves are wide bell-sleeves with tassel trim. Like most dresses it is actually two pieces as the bodice is separate from the skirt and is pinned closed. It would likely have been worn with a removable lace collar and removable inner sleeves to keep the arms from showing during the day. It would have cost about 2 months of a man’s wages for a dress like this. Most womem had only 3 or 4 dresses. This would have been a “best dress” for going to town or visiting people for tea time.
For evening dresses, the neckline was lowered and sleeves were shorter. Often one skirt had two matching bodices, one for daytime and one for evening. Long evening gloves would be worn with an evening gown or party dress. The above is a silk brocade dress from the 1850s.
Most of what survives are upper-class garments in wools, silks, velvet and satins and the occasional printed cotton or plaid. Most poor people’s clothing was cotton, linen or wool. Working class people wore garments until they wore out and then would either cut them down to make children’s clothes or rags. The wealthy sometimes sold their dresses or re-cut them but some survived in a closet, attic or trunk after they had “gone out of fashion”. The above work dress is a printed cotton or calico from France. Dated some time between 1835 and 1860 as work fashions rarely changed. It has a narrow skirt and plain sleeves. Would have been worn with an apron and an undershirt, chemise or wrap to cover neckline. Perhaps belonging to a servant, shop girl, farmer or a newly middle-class lady who did her own cleaning, cooking or gardening.