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Women's Dress in the Victorian Era

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History of clothing is an interesting subject to explore as each epoch’s dress can be considered as historical evidence that reflects cultural, social and religious peculiarities of a certain period of time. Besides, close consideration of changes that have taken place during centuries can shed the light on the coherence interconnections among different era’s costumes and philosophies. The Victorian epoch of approximately 1837 – 1900 is one of the most exciting periods if we talk about the history of dress. There was a number of trends that made women’s clothes of the epoch recognizable such as bustles, hoop skirts crinolines and corsets. The overall look of a typical woman reflected a paradoxical combination of decency and extravagance, which corresponded to the Victorian style of living and thinking.

Speaking about the Victorian fashion, it is worth mentioning the historical circumstances under which the image of women has been formed. Before emancipation started, women used to be largely dependent on men, financially and socially. First, they relied on their fathers, and after getting married on their husbands. So, most of them did not work. Unlike women of lower status that were working extensively, wealthier women worked limited hours in purely female occupations. Because there was no other occupation for women than social pastimes, fashion played a prominent role for them. Unlike later times, when women became more independent and had chosen comfortable clothes, Victorian fashion had nothing to do with comfort.  Clothing was a reflection of status, and especially it reflected the status of these women’s husbands who wanted to demonstrate their wealth to the neighborhood and thus prove themselves in the community. This was done not only through the design of clothes that had to be more exquisite but though the fabrics of superb quality and through the number of dresses.

The style of dress in the early years of the Victorian period

The early years are characterized by significant transformation of the Romantic dress to emphasize a woman’s figure: “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” (Monet, 2011). The pallet of dresses remained pastel with no gaudy colors because the styles of dresses were extravagant enough even in pale colors. Because each dress required large amount of fabric, not many women could boast with a huge number of dresses. For this reason, an interesting option was introduced such as changeable collars and cuffs, which gave a fresh touch to the costume.

Speaking about silhouettes, it is worth saying that it became popular to make an emphasis on a narrow waist, which was done in several ways. First of all, V-shaped corsets were worn. That made the waist even narrower and huge multilayered skirts with tons of flounces created a visual contrast between the waist and the hips. Shoulders were predominantly more open than they used to be in previous epochs. Sleeves could or could not ruffle, but mostly they were narrower than they used to be before, and had three quarter length.

Corset was an essential part of a costume, and was quite stiff. It was made of whale bone at first, and of metal later. The corsets were far from being comfortable but were obligatory for high-class women of all ages. Moreover, they served to shape a youthful silhouette for ladies whose figure was far from the perfect, e.g., for aging women or those who gave birth to children. However, there was one change to the costume that made women’s lives easier. If in the 1850s heavy crinolines were used to shape the skirt, later on they were replaced by cage-type crinolines which were much lighter to wear. Before that, “crinoline was a heavy, stiff fabric made of woven horse hair that was expensive, and impossible to clean” (Monet, 2011). So, the hoop skirts were popular in the 1960s celebrating hour glass silhouettes which were considered to be more feminine.

Fashion admires in mid nineteenth century

The invention of sewing machines and synthetic dyes meant that cheaper clothes would appear on the market and thus more people would be able to afford what used to be the privilege of higher classes only. This also brought change to how clothes were treated. The fetish attitude to it as to something highly desired, but accessible only to the selected people gradually disappeared. Simple silhouettes of dresses emerge, demonstrating that female beauty did not require much sacrifice and decoration. The dresses were tailored in a simple but elegant way, had light pastel colors and small colors. There were no excess flounces, the silhouette became slim and natural as never before. Such unbelievable piece of clothing as trousers appeared in the female toilette. However, of course, they were worn under the skirt for more comfortable movement.

Speaking about Victorian dresses, it is worth mentioning bustles, as they were definitely one of the characteristic features of the period’s fashion. There is an opinion that the emergence of bustles is associated with an aim to emphasize feminine posture, and dates back to Rococo era. It is known that in the so-called gallant epoch, dresses with voluptuous drapery on the back of the skirt were very popular. The name of these dresses was polonaise, and they were considered to anticipate the Victorian style dresses. In a similar way, a special stiff construction or a pad was used to form bustles. “The ideal female form featured narrow, slope shoulders, wide hips, and a tiny waist.

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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” (Monet, 2011). For the next few decades skirts transformed becoming slimmer and longer and sometimes having a train behind. However, bustles remained a key peculiarity of the dress in the Victorian epoch. In the beginning bustles were combined with relatively narrow crinolines. Bustles were actually attached to the waist of the crinoline. For travelling ladies lighter bustles were used to avoid uncomfortable sitting. In fact, it was hard to sit with a bustle in a traditional way anyway, so women had to half lie. This might be the reason why this posture was so often depicted in that period’s paintings.

The most obvious characteristics of corsets 

Speaking about Victorian dress, it should be noted that corsets were one of the most obvious characteristics that the female clothes had. Although doctors considered them extremely unhealthy (and they were, in fact) and causing numerous diseases, starting with cancer and ending with miscarriages, women still desperately put them on to create an exquisite figure  with tiny waist and wide hips that evoked men’s admiration. “Women from working and middle classes wore corsetry, both classes were implicated in its production and both groups resisted and manipulated the societal compulsion to corset. Corsetry was essential, not just in constructing femininity, but in constructing a class-based identity and subjectivity. Corsetry was prized by fashion-conscious, middle-class women because it crafted the flesh into class-appropriate contours”. (Summers, 2001, p. 9) Although as it has been mentioned before, both middle class and lower class women wore corset, they did so for different reasons. While it was an obligation for middle class women to do so as it emphasized their class belonging, better origin, education and exquisite manners, it was not compulsory for lower class women. However, lower class women did so as well because they copied higher class women. It was a chance for them to distance from their origin and make a step towards better life that opened new horizons in front of them. Of course, these dreams were illusionary in most cases but this was a social ritual anyway for many women. It is well known that clothes were very expensive in Victorian times, especially till sewing machines were invented. For this reason working class women could not afford professionally tailored corsets. However, they found a way out. They usually created their own corsets that naturally were of poorer quality and design but served their role anyway. Later on, when industrial revolution took place, more women could afford buying corsets rather than constructing them on their own. When Victorian epoch was coming to an end with the beginning of Edward’s reign, healthier alternative to Victorian-style corsets was introduced. They were more anatomically friendly and were not so stiff, and thus did not make women vulnerable to a wide range of diseases. To sum up, it is necessary to state that the manifold uses and meanings of corsetry made it an essential item of clothing for the majority of Victorian women, for whom it was often a lifetime companion. In an era when the lives of middle-class women were closely circumscribed, and when female sexuality was generally positioned as either non-existent or voracious, the corset operated to construct, maintain and police a femininity that was both sexually alluring and controlled. The corset was then, the garment par excellence in the construction and articulation of Victorian femininity (Summers, 2001, p. 213)

Historical and social reasons which determined the Victorian fashion

The elite of the Victorian epoch comprised educated young people with good manners; they knew the fashion of previous eras very well. They were somewhat bored by the limitations of the social life that they had. However, these limitations did not reflect on fashion. Fashion was the field where they could play safely unlike the issues of religion and public morals. So, they did play this game, which is clear from the clothing which they created. They lacked self-expression and they found it in fashion. For that reason, their fashion was bizarre and gaudy sometimes. They also indulged themselves in using the heritage of the previous epochs by including numerous peculiarities from different eras of past fashion.

It is known that the Victorian epoch demonstrated close interest in the Middle Ages, which was among all visible in Pre-Raphaelite movement. The rushing industrial revolution evoked mixed feelings in Queen Victoria’s contemporaries. They had growing fear that with introduction of machinery human individuality is going to be lost forever. So, fashion as a type of art was under threat too. There is no wonder that the Victorians attempted to escape into previous epochs which had nothing to do with practicality that new epoch offered them. So, taking a look at the Victorian dress from this perspective is worthless to demand comfort of wearing from those who created this fashion. On the contrary, they viewed fashion as work of art that had nothing to do with everyday life. Speaking in modern language, we can call early and middle Victorian fashion as “haute couture”, while closer to Edwardian epoch their role has diminished. Researchers speak of the so-called nineteenth century medievalism in relation to those times fashion, thus they refer Victorian fashions to historical reasons.

The fashion in nineteenth-century medievalsm

Nineteenth-century medievalism had two key defining aspects: naturalism, which located simpler modes of feeling and heroic codes of action in both nature and the past, and feudalism, which was seen to offer a harmonious, stable social structure. …The bridge between the two aspects was chivalry… In terms of fashion, the figure of the knight in shining armor was a culturally resonant ideal. In Victorian Britain the knight was reproduced in popular fiction, educational material, paintings, tapestries, stained glass, trophies, ceramics, and in relation to chain mail, swords, armor, and heraldry. (Bryden, 2011)

Thus, this reference to Middle Ages was present in all forms of arts, including clothes. Moreover, clothes developed into a separate art like painting, sculpture, and theatre. This means that fashion was not separated from the rest of culture, which influenced artistic representation of the dresses.

It is worth saying that not all Victorian women were pleased by the customs that they had to follow when dressing themselves. The feminist movement was not as strong yet but the first protests against men’s control over female clothing appeared in mid 1950s. An article called "Female Attire" appeared in press that an end should be put to male dictatorship in this sphere. Introduction of a female costume was a bold step in that direction and caused numerous debates.

Men will lose their manliness when women lose their womanliness. Since articles of clothing had been designated as masculine or feminine, to disregard these distinctions and to disregard the relationship between the sexes, as it was ordained by God. Dress reformers challenged this belief arguing for a new dress that expressed the "sameness of humanity". Elizabeth Cady Stanton believed men and women had a "common nature" which should guide the wearing of a common dress. (Nelson, 2000)

The costume that is so wildly debated is called the Bloomer, honoring Amalie Bloomer, editor of the fashion magazine Lily’s. She was the first to introduce it. It included a short skirt and trousers underneath it that ensured comfortable movement of the costume’s owner. Although lose trousers later called bloomers were a revolutionary step, it can be seen from the pictures of those times that bustles were still used for the skirts in the costume.

Overall, Victorian fashion is an interesting page in the history of costume that reflects several major trends of the epoch. First of all, interest in Middle Ages and Rococo eras were reflected in the use of respective clothes silhouettes and details. Because of strict public morals of the epoch, fashion was one of few domains where people could freely express themselves and indulge in a colorful play. Another aspect of the Victorian period is that fashion was treated as a form of art and had little to do with practicality. Few people could afford expensive clothes, so it was a matter of status to demonstrate the best look. Such trends as hoop dresses, crinolines, corsets and bustles characterize the dress of the Victorian epoch and reflect historical and social aspects mentioned above.

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