Dressing the Victorian Woman

by Michelle Jean Hoppe


In a world where jeans and t-shirts are everyday fare, it is difficult to imagine the intricacies of dressing the Victorian woman.  Many factors figured into the voluminous layers, among them modesty, cleanliness and practicality.  

At the beginning of the Victorian era, all clothing was hand-made.  Because of this, dresses were expensive, and only the wealthy could afford a large wardrobe.  The less fortunate wore cast-offs, clothing from second-hand shops, or sewed their own.  After the invention of the sewing machine in 1851, the industry began to change.  Not only was clothing less expensive to produce, it was mass-produced, and by the end of the century, ready-made dresses were available to the general public at department stores.  The wealthy, however, continued to buy their dresses custom-made, the ultimate shopping spree a trip to Paris for a Charles Worth creation.  

A Victorian woman did not simply throw on a gown over her slip and panties, though.  There were many layers to achieve the picture of fashion perfection.  We'll start at the beginning.

These steps varied little over the nineteenth century after the invention of the crinoline in 1856.  The shape of the crinoline changed, eventually becoming a mere bustle at the back of the dress, and the corset transformed into varying shapes, but the basic undergarments remained similar over the decades.

The First Layer--The Basics:  Stockings reached just above the knee.  Stockings were usually black for daytime wear and white or colored for evening. They were held up by garters.  By the end of the century, the garters were attached to the corset.  Cotton drawers went over the stockings.  Drawers were constructed as two overlapping flaps (one for each leg), leaving a seamless crotch for a lady's toilette.  A sleeveless knee-length chemise completed the basic undergarments.

The Second Layer--Form and Function: A corset, strengthened with steel or whalebone, pulled in a woman's waist and supported her bustline.  It fastened at the front, but long ties in the back could adjust the tightness.  Woman pulled them as tight as possible to achieve a tiny waist, sometimes as much as four inches smaller than their natural shape.  By the end of the century, corsets had built-in bust enhancers and fell well below the waist to shape the hips also.  The Crinoline was a flexible cage of steel which supported the skirt.  It collapsed for ease of sitting and storing, but held the skirt into a perfect bell shape.  This lightweight contraption replaced the five or six petticoats a woman had to wear previously to achieve the same effect, and at its height, was 18 feet in circumference at the hem.

The Third Layer--Practicality: A Camisole went over the corset.  It served as a shield between the dress and the woman's skin, protecting her expensive garment from perspiration and oils.  A simple petticoat covered the crinoline to protect the skirt from the steel hoops, and to help the gown lay smooth over the form.  A fancier, embroidered petticoat was layered over the first one, the design more intricate when the skirt hem bunched up to reveal the petticoat.  

The Fourth Layer--The Dress: Finally came the gown.  A proper woman wore a high neck and long sleeves during the day.  By dinner time, the neckline dipped, and for elaborate balls, dresses were worn off the shoulder with a mere strap for a sleeve, and necklines plunged to reveal more than just a glimpse of skin.  To save on cost, skirts and bodices for day wear were often interchangeable.  A woman could create a new look without having to buy a new dress.  

The Fifth Layer--Accessories: A Victorian woman was never without gloves and bonnet.  Styles varied over the years, but she never left the house without either item.  Women often wore caps and gloves indoors as well.  Half-boots with thicker soles completed a day or walking outfit, while thin-soled kid slippers accompanied the ball gown.  Few examples of slippers are around today because the soles were paper-thin, and often danced through by the end of a busy evening.  When venturing outdoors, a woman would wear either a shawl or cape, and she carried a parasol to protect her skin from the sun.  Finally, a reticule, or small handbag, completed the outfit.  A lady would carry her perfume, handkerchief or fan in her reticule.

Because dresses were so expensive, a woman did what she could to protect them.  Decorative undersleeves could be slipped under the dress sleeve to just above the elbow to protect hems.  Fancier gowns which didn't allow for a camisole, had shields sewn into the bodice to protect the material from perspiration stains.  Ruffles were sewn into the hems of outdoor dresses.  Even with the hem of the dress in front, they fell about 1/8th of an inch below the hem in back.  The ruffle picked up the worst of the mud and dirt from the street, and could be replaced much easier than the expensive skirt.  

Gowns and dresses were well cared for, and because of the special preservation women used for their sentimental garments, many gowns from the Victorian era are around today in museums and antique shops, as well as private collections.


Sources: Costume and Eyewitness Book by L. Rowland-Warne, Alfred A. Knopf, 1992

The History of Underclothes by C. Willett and Phillis Cunnington, Dover Publications, 1992.

Also see the Researching the Romance page of Literary Liaisons for more suggestions.


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