Victorian Fashion: What Made It So Unique?


A common misconception about Victorian fashion (specifically women’s fashion) is that there is only one “look,” but in fact, since the Victorian era spanned several decades, fashion during this era was quite variable. This is especially true when comparing early to late Victorian fashion. Even in the middle of the era there were items of clothing that quickly came and went out of fashion, like the bustle. But of course, we must start at the beginning when Queen Victoria of Britain was coronated in 1838, marking the start of the long Victorian era.

A unique point about this era was that it coincided with the Industrial Revolution which modernized just about every form of commodity and labor at the time, from clothing and factory machinery to food processing and industrialized (rather than handmade) products. This also came with the growth of the previously non-existent middle-class who often tried to keep up with the rich by following the latest and most expensive fashions.

Early Victorian Fashion

victorian fashion

Early Victorian fashion saw a great departure to what was previously desired in the Georgian era (or Regency era). This look was characterized by loose dresses gathered just beneath the bust rather than at the waist. Although corsets (or stays) were worn at the time, they were not very popular as the loose, relatively thin dresses were meant to highlight a woman’s natural form. Instead, pantaloons, a kind of warm, long underwear, was worn under dresses.

Victorian fashion made several drastic changes to Georgian fashion, such as dropping the waistline of dresses and making dresses much more form-fitting. Also, the corset was reintroduced and popularized in a way it never was before: dramatic curves were suddenly all the rage and corsets shaped for individual women sought to make the trend a reality. A unique innovation at the time, since off-the-shoulder dresses were popular for evening wear at the time, corsets lost their shoulder straps for the first time.

Layers of petticoats also fluffed up skirts and further emphasized the hourglass figure look. The most common hats for women were bonnets and could range from simple to highly elaborate. Makeup was not highly desired by women at the time as it was associated with performers of theaters and circuses. Instead, a pale, natural look, perhaps with a bit of added blush, was the ideal.

Mid-Victorian Era

Perhaps the most notable characteristic of the mid-Victorian era was the hoop skirt, giving a huge, bulbous look to skirts that petticoats could never hope to achieve. These hoop skirts were also known as cage crinolines, firstly because they looked like cages and secondly because they were made of crinoline, a firm and expensive fabric made from horsehair.

The Crinolinemania Craze |

Later on, however, hoop skirts were made more flexible and affordable once they were made of thin and bendable steel rings. It was also during this time that the Industrial Revolution birthed synthetic dyes which gave clothing new looks compared to what natural dyes were capable of.

Late Victorian Era

By the late Victorian era, hoop skirts were fading out and the bustle was fading in. The bustle was popular in the 1700s and was a pad what would be strapped to a woman’s back to emphasize her derrière in an irregular way. Trains for dresses also briefly became popular in evening and day wear, but they quickly went out of fashion because of the dirt they would collect when dragging along the floor.

Still moving away from the bell-like hoop skirts, skirts slimmed down drastically and fell closer to the legs. The bustle would often be included with these skirts, but by the 1890s, the drastic, protruding, and somewhat ridiculous-looking bustle would go out of fashion. By the 1890s, skirts had little fullness and instead were very slim and sleek. Also, women’s clothes would become more form-fitting and corsets were more popular than ever, many of them extending down to the thighs to give women a streamlined hourglass look.

The Real Edwardian Gibson Girls of the USA - Glamour Daze

Victorian fashion would continue until Queen Victoria’s death in 1901, after which her son, Prince Edward, would come to power, beginning the Edwardian Era. The Edwardian era carried over some fashions from the Victorian era, though many changes did come into being that departed from old looks. That, however, is a discussion for another time.

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