The Victorian Era, which lasted throughout the reign of Queen Victoria from 1837 to 1901, was a period of rapid economic and social change led by the Industrial Revolution. This has had a profound impact on every industry – including fashion. As clothing became cheaper and faster to manufacture, it became available to the masses.
“Everything from spinning to weaving to steam forming corsets became industrialized, which meant that fashion became readily available across the class spectrum,” says Valerie Steele, director and chief curator of the museum at 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 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 times.
One of the most notable shifts, according to Steele, 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 clothing that set them apart from the rest of society,” explains Steele. “But in the 19th century, women’s fashion spread to all walks of life and was completely different from the clothes worn by men. Men began to dress in dark wool while women wore colored silk.
Below are some of the notable fashion trends of the Victorian era.
New, extravagant shades
Many of the greatest inventions in history came about by accident, such as penicillin, matches, chocolate chip cookies. The same is true of a synthetic dye that was developed by British chemist William Henry Perkin in 1853 when he was trying to formulate a treatment for malaria.
A compound called “mauveine” produced vivid purple hues when used as a dye for silk, cotton, and other fabrics. The new hue quickly caught on, 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 philosophy on dressing, “A good color always pleases.”
Prior to Perkin’s discovery, dyes were carefully sourced from natural sources such as insects and plants, making them prohibitively expensive for all but the wealthiest members of society.
“Dyes was one of the main indicators,” 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 servant girls could wear.” purple dress.
Gloves for every occasion
The Victorians were preoccupied with class, and fashion was one way to reveal – or hide – one’s position 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 sophistication. They meant your hands weren’t exposed to the sun or physical labor that could leave the skin 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 manual 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 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 Gentleman’s Book of Etiquette and Courtesy Manual, published in 1860, an upper-class gentleman might 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 in and out of fashion since their invention over 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 era’s strict social conventions.
By opening, closing or fluttering the fan, the lady could send coded messages without a single word. Parisian fan maker Jean-Pierre Duvelleroy, who produced fans for Queen Victoria herself, issued a leaflet entitled The language of the fan explaining what each gesture means. For example, putting the fan handle to the lips meant Kiss Me. Oscar Wilde even wrote a popular play, Fan of Lady Windemere, 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 noble materials such as ivory and silk and decorated with dyed ostrich features, according to Victorian fashion accessories by Ariel Beaujot. Lower-class women bought mass-produced fans, and some unmarried women even found work in the growing fan-making industry in the second half of the 19th century.
“The fashion industry has provided employment to a large number of women, with the role of women in the workforce growing,” says Steele. One notable shift in the Victorian era is that women moved from primarily running their own tailoring businesses to working in male-owned factories and studios as industrialization transformed the industry.
Long before Kim Kardashian, women in the Victorian era made the exaggerated posterior the height of fashion. This was achieved with the invention of the stirrup in 1857 by an American inventor named Alexander Douglas. The undergarment, which stretched around the waist and had a metal cage or padded cushion, was designed to create a full, rounded shape at the back of the dress and provide support for heavy, elaborate skirts.
The movement was not immediately popular, as ladies were still enamored with the bell-shaped skirts created by crinolines. Made from very stiff woven horsehair or steel cages, crinolines were popular among women of all walks of life, despite being uncomfortable and impractical: climbing stairs or sitting down in a crinoline was almost impossible.
Moreover, they were dangerous. In 1858, March 16 issue New York Times reported that a young Boston woman had died after her crinoline caught fire; the same article found that 19 similar crinoline deaths had been reported in London in the previous two months. The Times he wrote that this danger should make young ladies “extraordinarily cautious in their movements and conduct, unless they are deterred from adopting a fashion so fraught with danger.”
In the 1860s, women began to favor a movement that created a slim 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. Robes hung heavily from the waist, causing back pain and requiring women to twist their bodies to sit down. In 1888 The Boston Medical and Surgical Journal published a letter from a doctor decrying the ill effects of hustle. “Why people should so adjust their clothes as to pretend a deformity they do not have is incomprehensible,” he wrote, “and of all these incomprehensible deformities the worst is the bustle.
In 1881, a group of British women founded the Rational Dress Society, which opposed any fashion that “deforms the figure, hinders the movements of the body, or is in any way injurious to health”. Their targets included tight corsets, high heels, heavy skirts and of course ruffles.
While impractical fashions persisted until the end of the Victorian era, the Rational Dress Society signaled the political and cultural shifts of the early 20th century that brought greater freedom and civil liberties to women.