The Victorian period in Britain saw huge changes in society, but something that often sticks in our minds is the fashion of the period. With the development of photography, it is the first period where we have a real burst in evidence in what people wore. Its relatively close proximity to us in time, the popularity of Queen Victoria today, and the proliferation of novels which are popular topics of period dramas all mean that the average person probably knows a lot more about this period than many other parts of British history. But how exactly did fashion develop over this period for women?

Fashion plate from Peterson’s Magazine, 1888.

Just prior to Queen Victoria’s accession in 1837, the waistlines of women’s dresses had been changing. In the Regency period at the start of the century, waistlines of dresses were very high – just below a woman’s bosom – but during the 1820s and 1830s it slowly lowered until it was back to its natural position on a woman’s body. With the lowering of the waistline, tighter bodices started to appear to show the shape of a woman’s body, and this was soon contrasted with wider skirts to create an interesting silhouette. The point of the shoulders on the dress also lowered, giving the appearance of low, sloping shoulders, whilst in formal evening-wear, off-the-shoulder dresses became fashionable.

As Queen Victoria came to the throne in the 1830s, off-the-shoulder evening wear and soft, sloping shoulders were popular. Left, portrait of Alexina Nesbit Sandford (née Lindsay) and Catherine Hepburne Lindsay, 1838, right Portrait of a Lady, 1835.

By the 1850s, women’s skirts had grown to a large bell shape and their greater size required crinoline petticoats to support them. To further show off the shape and size of the skirts, they were often made with tiers in the material. Bonnets also gained in popularity and they started to grow in size to compliment the growing skirts. The bell shape of dresses continued to be popular into the mid-1860s, where they were paired with increasingly tight, boned bodices with high necks which provided the shape of the woman’s body and emphasised a woman’s tiny waist. The skirts were so large that they had to be supported by a cage crinoline of steel hoops to give enough strength and structure to hold the fabric away from the legs.

A hooped dress with tiers and a tighter waist, although the sleeves and bodice are still quite loose. V&A Museum.
American Afternoon dress, 1852, Met Museum.

The middle of the century also saw the arrival of brightly coloured synthetic dyes, a revolution to the textile industry. Combined with developments in mass-produced sewing machines, clothing was quicker and cheaper to produce. The fascination with the incredibly bright colours made possible with these synthetic dyes were reflected in fashion. Contrary to the idea of black-wearing demure Victorians, colour was everywhere: the brighter, the better.

Victorians became interested in brightly coloured clothes with the advent of synthetic dyes. Left, a dress made 1869-70, right, Princesse de Broglie c1852.

As the 1860s and 1870s arrived, big, wide dresses lost popularity and instead emphasis was placed on the back of the skirt. Long trains or bustles started to appear with multitudes of fabric used to create the effect. Large bonnets lost popularity, and smaller, more elegant hats were placed on top of the head instead of fully encasing it. Over time, these hats gained decoration in the form of birds, feathers, artificial flowers and other additions. The emphasis had shifted to revealing the natural silhouette of a woman and the waistline of dresses once again lowered or even vanished altogether under the princess line style.

Bustles that gathered at the back of the dress took over in popularity from big hooped dresses. Fashion plate, 1877.
Some bustles were quite extreme, sticking out horizontally from the waist. Dinner dress c1885.

Portrait of a Lady in Blue, Carl Huns, 1873.

In the 1880s, women’s bodices were very tightly fitted with rigid boning to keep its shape, and the skirts also came a lot closer to the body. Tight sleeves and high necklines complimented this look, but the bustle quickly went out of fashion and disappeared by the end of the decade. Some women started to reject this style and opted for a style known as artistic dresses which were a lot simpler and cut much looser, thus not requiring tight corsets and allowing for freedom of movement. Going into the 1890s, some of this looseness made its way into mainstream fashion. Sleeves were still tight at the lower arm, but puffed out at the upper arm and wide shoulders became popular. Skirts were a simple A-line cut, and it even started to become fashionable to dress in a masculine style with shirt collars and ties making an appearance amongst some women.

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A steel cage crinoline c1865 used to achieve a big hoop silhouette, contrasted with crinolettes from the 1870s which gave a bustle silhouette.

As the Victorian period drew to an end in the early 1900s, fashion leaned into softer styles. The early Edwardian period brought a new S shaped silhouette where women’s chests were emphasised with puffed, frilly blouses, and it became more fashionable to have clearly separate skirts and blouses. Gone were the huge hoops and puffy bustles with tight corsets that had so characterised the Victorian period.

A princess-line dress from c1879 which does not have a defined waistline. V&A.

Left, Portrait of a Victorian Woman in White, 1891, right showing the cusp of Edwardian fashion, 1900.

At first glance, the Victorian period saw less change in style over its many decades than other periods of fashion. Generally, big wide skirts were the most fashionable item a woman could wear, and tighter-fitting tops that showed off women’s arms, shoulders, chest and waist were most popular. There were, however, subtle changes that occurred throughout the period as the whims of fashion changed. The popularity has long out-lived the Victorians, and continues to be reimagined in period dramas and new innovations like Steam Punk today.

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