The Jubilee

Victorian Women's Fashion

Prim, Proper, and Outrageous

Victorian Fashion Plate

Victorian Clothing - Prim and Proper Yet Outrageous Styles

Despite the prim and proper feminine ideal of the day, fashions of the Victorian period created an often exaggerated, ostentatious look. Tight corsets, gigantic hoop-skirts, and outrageous bustles make today's fashion trends look sedate by comparison. Clothing styles were dictated by propriety, and stylish garments were a sign of respectability. The copious amounts of fabric used in the creation of Victorian skirts usually meant that most women owned few outfits. Detachable collars and cuffs enabled a woman to change the look of a garment for a bit of variety. Of course, wealthier women owned more garments made of finer fabrics using more material and embellishments.

Early Victorian Fashion

1836 ushered in a new change from the Romantic style of dress. Large Gignot sleeves suddenly slimmed and a seam line dropped the shoulder of dresses. A tight fitting bodice was boned and slanted to emphasize the waist. Cartridge pleats at the waist created volume in the skirt without adding bulk to the waist.

Women of a higher social class were expected to be demure and indolent as reflected by the restrictive dropped shoulder lines and corsets.

Dresses in soft colors could be refreshed with detachable white collars and cuffs.

In the 1840s, extra flounces were added to skirts and women wore a short over-skirt in day dressing. Skirts widened as the hourglass silhouette became the popular look, and women took to wearing layers of petticoats. Bodices took on a V shape and the shoulder dropped more.

Evening wear exposed the shoulders and neckline and corsets lost their shoulder straps. Sleeves of ball gowns were usually short.

Although women wore what we call dresses, many of these costumes were actually a separate bodice and skirt.

Three quarter length sleeves lasted through most of the Victorian period and some sleeves began to sprout bell shaped ruffles.

For most of the 19th century, bonnets were the headgear of choice, in styles that varied from plain to heavily ornamented.

Victorian Hair and Make Up

Women's hair was generally worn long, caught up in a chignon or bun. In the 1840s, ringlets of curls hung on either side of the head. In the 1870s, women drew up the side hair but let it hang in long, loose curls in back.

Crimping became popular in the early 1870s.

Throughout the Victorian period, women wore false hair pieces and extensions as well as artificial flowers such as velvet pansies and roses, false leaves, and beaded butterflies often combined into intricate and beautiful headpieces.

Make up was mostly worn by theater people. The look for women in Victorian days was very pale skin occasionally highlighted with a smidge of rouge on the cheeks.

The Victorian Corset

A corset is an undergarment set with strips of whalebone (actually whale baleen), later replaced by steel. Though criticized as unhealthy, and certainly uncomfortable, corsets were a fashion staple throughout the 19th century granting women social status, respectability, and the idealized figure of youth. Often called 'stays,' from the French 'estayer,' meaning support, corsets were thought to provide support to women, the weaker sex.

Critics, including some health professionals, believed that corsets caused cancer, anemia, birth defects, miscarriages, and damage to internal organs. The tight restriction of the body did deplete lung capacity and caused fainting.

The Sewing Machine and Victorian Technology

The mass production of sewing machines in the 1850s as well as the advent of synthetic dyes introduced major changes in fashion. Previously, clothing was hand sewn using natural dyes. Other new developments included the introduction of the sized paper pattern as well as machines that could slice several pattern pieces at once. Clothing could now be produced quickly and cheaply.

In 1860, Charles Worth, a clothing designer in Paris, France, created costumes worn by the French Empress Eugenie, Empress Elizabeth of Austria, and Queen Victoria. Worth became so influential that he is known as the Father of Haute Couture (high fashion). In 1864, Worth introduced an over-skirt that was lifted and held back by buttons and tabs. By 1868, the over-skirt was drawn back and looped, creating fullness and drapery at the rear.

Meanwhile, certain fashion mavens felt that the over ornamentation had gone too far. The New Princess Line was a simple form of dress, cut in one piece of joined panels, fitted from shoulder to hem. The Gabriel Princess dress produced a slim silhouette in plain or muted colors with a small white collar and a full, though greatly diminished skirt. The Bloomer Costume, named after feminist Amelia Bloomer, featured a full, short skirt worn over wide trousers for ease of movement. The style did not go over and was often ridiculed in the press.

Followers of the Aesthetic movement despised the Industrial Revolution, exaggerated fashions, and the use of the new synthetic dyes that produced sometimes lurid colors, and weird color combinations. These intellectuals, artists, and literary folk longed for a simpler life and the costumes that reflected the life-style.Garments were loose and unstructured, used soft colors created with natural dyes, embellished by hand embroidery featuring motifs drawn from nature.

Late Victorian - The Bustle

A bustle is a pad that emphasized the posterior. Used in the late 1700s when swagged up skirts emphasized the rear of a costume, they eventually became the prime focus of fashion. By the later 1800s, rear pads were called bustles. 1868 saw a fullness appear at the back of the skirt. The ideal female form featured narrow, slope shoulders, wide hips, and a tiny waist. Held on with a buckled waistband, the bustle was a rectangular or crescent shaped pad made of horse hair or down filled woven wire mesh. By 1867, Worth's over-skirt caught on and combined with a bustle created an entirely new look.

In 1870, ball gowns featured trains and by 1873, trains showed up in day dresses. Trains were a short lived style, however, as they quickly became soiled dragging along city streets.

1875 saw skirts slimmed down with the skirt low and close to the body, often, but not always, with a bustle.

The bustle came back in a big way in the 1880s creating a huge, shelf like protrusion at the rear. But the ludicrous style fell out of favor and by 1887, was greatly reduced in size. The 1890s saw some fullness at the rear, but the bustle was on its way out.

Women's fashions took on a more tailored look with the introduction of the cuirass bodice in 1878. The stiff, corset like garment dipped down in front and back and eventually reached the upper thighs.


Monet, Dolores. “Women’s Fashions of the Victorian Era: From Hoop Skirts to Bustles - 1837 - 1901”, HubPages Inc. and respective owners, 11 July 2018,