History 104: Western Civilization since 1648

Lecture: 19th Century Society

Women in Victorian Dress

Johann Strauss II, Voices of Spring Waltz (1883)

Lecture contents:

Influences on Scientific Thinking
Natural Selection
Science Gone Mad: Frankenstein
Victorian Values
Women's Role

"We remarked with pain that the indecent foreign dance called the Waltz was introduced (we believe for the first time) at the English court on Friday last ... it is quite sufficient to cast one's eyes on the voluptuous intertwining of the limbs and close compressure on the bodies in their dance, to see that it is indeed far removed from the modest reserve which has hitherto been considered distinctive of English females. So long as this obscene display was confined to prostitutes and adulteresses, we did not think it deserving of notice; but now that it is attempted to be forced on the respectable classes of society by the civil examples of their superiors, we feel it a duty to warn every parent against exposing his daughter to so fatal a contagion."

--July 1816 editorial in The Times of London


Influences on scientific thinking

Boyle's air pump

Scientific Method

The Newtonian synthesis instituted the scientific method: the combination of data (gathered through empiricism/experimentation) and hypothesis (tested through application). The discovery and application of universal principles became the norm in "natural philosophy" during the 18th century. Scientific laboratories became the usual place for testing hypotheses by the 19th century.


During the Enlightenment, the scientific method was applied in several areas. One of the most important expressions of the new faith in the manipulation of nature was the science of classification, pioneered by Carl Linnaeus. You may be familiar with his system: kingdom -> classes -> orders -> genus -> species. The kingdom Animalia contained the class Vertebrata, which contained the order Primates, which contained the genus Homo with the species sapiens (that's us). Controversial at the time (partly because Linnaeus organized everything by sex), this kind of organization exhibits the confidence of the Enlightenment in cataloging all that could be known.

In addition, the 18th century Enlightenment saw the application of science to society. This approach was taken as a norm by the 19th century: the idea that science could be applied to social problems in order to alleviate them.

Positivism: Comte

Comte's positivism is the last step in forming the 19th century scientific consciousness. His approach, which presented his own time as entering the positive stage, emphasized the reliance on scientific proof to create social progress. See the lecture section in Industrialization: Philosophical Reaction for a review of positivism.

Natural Selection

Charles Darwin (1809-82)

Darwin did not invent the theory of evolution. Even Linneaus had changed his mind from the idea of immutable life forms to the notion that life evolves over time. fish fossilThe difficulty was that the amount of time required for evolution meant that the earth must be very old. Ancient and Biblical beliefs about the age of the earth dated its creation at only a few thousand years previous, but geological and fossil discoveries in Darwin's day provided solid scientific evidence of an older earth.

Darwin was influenced strongly by Thomas Malthus' work on population, in which Malthus claimed that population would always increase past the food supply. Malthus, a classical economist in the tradition of Smith and Ricardo, noted that humans struggle for existence, increasing their numbers beyond the ability of the environment to sustain them. The"Malthusian nightmare" is that the population of the earth will outrun the planet's ability to provide food. Plagues, epidemics, starvation provide checks on this population. Darwin wrote:

"In October 1838, that is, fifteen months after I had begun my systematic inquiry, I happened to read for amusement Malthus on Population, and being well prepared to appreciate the struggle for existence which everywhere goes on from long- continued observation of the habits of animals and plants, it at once struck me that under these circumstances favourable variations would tend to be preserved, and unfavourable ones to be destroyed. The results of this would be the formation of a new species. Here, then I had at last got a theory by which to work".

DarwinWhat Darwin invented was Natural Selection. This is the idea that there are more plants and animals than food, so they must compete to survive. Those able to adapt to the environment survive because they have characteristics favorable to food collection, and they reproduce ("favorable variations would tend to be preserved"). Those that can't adapt don't survive and thus don't reproduce. This meant that all species, including humans, had evolved from simpler life forms. It was this that caused a public outrage, since Biblical fundamentalists believed that God had created the world and everything in it (including humans) in perfect, final form. A war began between Darwinian naturalists and theological fundamentalists which continues to this day. (Comte would have said that this was was the expected result of positivism, as the abstract and the positive argue over what replaces supernatural causation.)

Many scientists making significant geological discoveries disputed Darwin because they believed in Divine Design: the idea that God had deliberately designed a set pattern to evolution. Although this position might be seen to be the "middle ground" between creationists and Darwinians, it actually supported the non-scientific view. As Darwin himself wrote in his autobiography in 1887:

The old argument of design in nature, as given by Paley, which formerly seemed to me so conclusive, fails, now that the law of natural selection had been discovered. We can no longer argue that, for instance, the beautiful hinge of a bivalve shell must have been made by an intelligent being, like the hinge of a door by man. There seems to be no more design in the variability of organic beings and in the action of natural selection, than in the course which the wind blows. Everything in nature is the result of fixed laws.

Although true scientists did not condone it, the Divine Design perspective became the foundation for popular textbooks, which adopted the premise that all of nature had been created for human benefit (one textbook claimed that nature was ""a beautiful world, which was made for the enjoyment and benefit of the whole human family"). By positing non-natural causes for natural phenomenon, divine design theorists sought to undermine the very foundations of science.


cartoon lampooning evolution of man from ape to computer-using man

Social Darwinism: Herbert Spencer

An unexpected extension of Natural Selection proved to be far more dangerous. In an attempt to apply science to society, Darwinian naturalism became an excuse for racism, imperialism, and other rotten deeds of mankind.

"Social Darwinists" like Herbert Spencer of England considered society to be a set of organisms in competition. He coined the term "survival of the fittest". In intra-human competition, the victors are those who "adapt" to the changing "environment". Progress was the result of the "fittest" winning the political and economic competition.

Web document: Herbert Spencer on Social Darwinism (1857)

According to Social Darwinists, the "unfit" should be allowed to die off, in order to make a better world. In fact, they claimed it is morally right, and natural, that this should happen.Nazi prisoners This argument could be easily extended to races, ethnicities, nationalities, sexes, or any other definable group of human beings. It can be used to argue that white is naturally superior to black, and can support racism. It can be argued that Europeans are inherently superior to Asians, and can support imperialism. It can be argued that Germans are superior to Jews, and lead to a Holocaust. Might makes right.

This theory did not go unopposed. Evolutionary biology, applied to human sociopolitical life, can support other views. Peter Kropotkin (remember him? the anarchist?) wrote a book called Mutual Aid in 1902 (take a look). It argued that cooperation was required for survival, and thus implied that cooperation was at a higher form of evolution than competition.



The 19th century experienced a revolution in medicine.

18th century battlefieldsAmputation Case

The foundation of this revolution was the gentlemanly wars of the 18th century. Surgeons reigned supreme on the battlefield. They were not physicians: physicians did house calls, gave potions, and demonstrated a proper bedside manner. They tended to be aristocrats. But surgeons were craftsmen, and the battlefield was an excellent workshop. Necessity was the mother of invention. Surgeons learned that irrigated wounds healed faster when they ran out of the usual ointments. They discovered that liberal use of alcohol and tobacco made setting fractures easier, and that operations should wait until shock was treated (though amputations had to be done within 24 hours). When no needle or thread was available, they developed skin grafting, which also helped with burns. All these techniques, and more, were used routinely in hospitals doctor examining boy with tube-type stethoscope

Examination techniques

Prior to the 19th century, examinations of the patient were based to a large extent on the patient's own view of his/her illness. If a patient refused treatment, the doctor's reputation would be in jeopardy, so trust was very important.

But by the 19th century, exams were based on new ideas, developed due to new technologies. Philippe Pinel developed the idea of separate tissue types, popularizing the notion that disease could be traced to certain organs. He used observation and statistics, and his ideas led to improvements in post-mortem analysis of diseases. But the stethoscope was clearly the most important device. Developed by Dr. Laennec, it was at first just a cylinder of cardboard for hearing internal sounds of the body. A doctor with training and experience could identify emphysema, pneumonia, or tuberculosis just by listening.

Examinations of women were hampered by Victorian modesty: image of doctor putting hands under skirt of fully-dressed patient

What this meant was that the doctor knew more than the patient about the patient's condition. As further devices were developed, the patient's interpretation became less important. Thus the doctor's relationship with the patient became less critical, and the doctor's relationship with other doctors (the "medical community") became more important.

Anesthesia: nitrous -> ether -> chloroform

The development of anesthesia was the result of investigation into air and gasses. Nitrous oxide was isolated by a medical assistant in Bristol who breathed some in 1798. This "laughing gas" was good for light anesthesia (as it is used today at dentists' offices), but it was most popular as a party drug.

For extensive surgeries, the first major development was ether, the gas of which was breathed to create the first deep anesthesia. It was first used in the removal of a neck tumor in the 1840s. For the first time, surgeons had time to work on deep cases inside cavities of the body, without relying on pain-induced unconsciousness or unreliable methods like drunkenness. Inhaler apparatusEther drops could be administered on a mask over the patient's nose and mouth until the patient was deeply asleep, and the dosage was somewhat forgiving. The problem with ether was that it smelled horrible, sometimes causing the patient to vomit and choke. It was also highly explosive.

Chloroform was the answer to these difficulties. It was not as flammable, and more pleasant to breathe than ether. It was, however, more dangerous in that exact dosage was required (thus leading to the specialty of anesthesiology). Queen Victoria, with her physician John Snow (who also had helped clean up the water system in London), popularized the use of chloroform for childbirth. The delivery of her seventh child convinced her to try light anesthesia for her eighth, ninth and tenth deliveries. She was so happy with it that anesthesia became the norm among the elite, and eventually acceptable to all.


Various theories of the spread of infection were popular in the 19th century. Among them was the idea that putrid gas (miasma) spread disease from filth. In 1831, the first cholera epidemic in Lister's Carbolic Spray deviceLondon provided an opportunity for study. Cholera causes diarrheah, vomiting, loss of fluid, limb and abdominal pain, greying skin, and ultimately death. Data was kept about where the most deaths occurred, enabling John Snow and others to trace a connection to the water and sewage systems in 1853. Sand filters installed on the drinking water lines stopped the epidemic. Cholera poster warning not to drink water that hasn't been boiledBy 1850, Pasteur's germ theory was dominating thought, and disinfectants (such as alcohol and vinegar) were in use. One of the most persistent killers was post-operative infection or sepsis (also the major cause of death in childbirth). In 1865, Joseph Lister (Listerine?) developed the use of carbolic acid (phenol) as an antiseptic. Carbolic was sprayed over the open cavity of a person being operated on, which helped kill germs on instruments within the body cavity. At the time, surgeons wore street clothes to operate, usually with an apron. In 1878, Robert Koch used hot steam to sterilize instruments and other tools in the operating room, creating the "aseptic surgery" that is standard today. Perhaps it's a good time to point out that as early as the first cholera outbreak (1831), Samuel Hahnemann (below) was already using sterilization.

Homeopathy Statue of Hahnemann

The physician's highest calling, his only calling, is to make sick people healthy --- to heal --- as it is termed. The highest ideal of therapy is to restore health rapidly, gently, permanently; to remove and destroy the whole disease in the shortest, surest, least harmful way, according to clearly comprehensible principles.
Samuel Hahnemann,
Organon of Medicine, 1810

Homeopathy is a system of medicine with which most Americans are not familiar. It is based on the principles of Samuel Hahnemann, a German doctor.

Hahnemann, discouraged with the failure of early 19th century medicine to cure as much as it harmed, became a medical translator. In translating a work on cinchona bark, he read that it was a treatment for malaria due to its particular action on the organs. Knowing that other substances had similar actions but did not work against malaria, he began dosing himself with cinchona (the active ingredient is quinine) and found it created malaria symptoms. He went on to experiment with other substances, and disovered curative properties in small amounts of substances which in larger quantities caused harmful symptoms. He discovered that extreme (sub-molecular) dilution and impaction (shaking the dilution) could lead to cures that began with a toxic base, such as arsenic or mercury. Homeopathy is based on the principle of "like cures like".

Hahnemann had much success when he resumed his practice using these remedies, and they are still widely used today to cure illnesses. Homeopathy was introduced around the world, as it Oscillococcinum, a popular flu remedyproved itself curing illnesses safely and cheaply (for example, treating eye diseases in the Russian army in the 1820s). Homeopathy today is the preferred medicine of both Britain's royal family and the poor in India, where over 100 homeopathic medical schools exist, and is used as normal medicine throughout Europe. It is unpopular in the U.S. as a result of the American Medical Association, a group of allopathic ("opposite" cures disease) doctors formed in 1847 to counter the popularity of homeopathy. At the turn of the 20th century, the U.S. had 15,000 physicians practicing homeopathy and 22 homeopathic medical schools. By 1938, the AMA had pushed for the closing of all the schools and succeeded in having the subject excluded from standard medical texts.


Science Gone Mad: Frankenstein (1818)

Mary Shelley In 1816, on a dark and stormy night, the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft visited poet Lord Byron with her lover (later husband), poet Percy Shelley. She was 19. Accepting a challenge to write a ghost story, Mary Shelley created one of the scariest stories of all time, and a fictional representation of the fear of science.

In the story, Dr. Victor Frankenstein creates a monster from dead body parts, reanimating them using electricity. The monster comes to control his creator. Treated badly by society, it becomes a killer. Ultimately, Frankenstein must destroy his own creation.

Many elements of the 19th century are infused in her story. In line with both Locke's theory that people are born tabula rasa (blank slates) and Rousseau's ideas on education, the monster is not born evil. He becomes bad due to his cruel treatment by society. The book also contains references that were the result of Shelley's exposure to literature, poetry, philosophy, and more.

Medical experiments at the time were going on which focused on rescuscitating the dead (some had been used on Percy Shelley's first wife, who had died by drowning). Galvinism Frankenstein's monster, as played in the movie (electrical animation) was being tried.

There have also been more personal interpretations of the book. Shelley herself gave birth to a daughter who died. Dr. Frankenstein is trying to create life without the body of a woman, without a womb. He is mother and father to the creature, and has to kill his own child. There are studies of Victor Frankenstein, who comes to think himself god-like after being raised by a family who treats their only son like a god. It goes on and on.

For the sake of this class, the story can be seen as a cautionary tale. Even before the many advances of 19th century science, Shelley is noting the horrors that can happen when technology goes beyond the ability of humans to control it. There are few issues of more concern today, in a world of atomic weapons, life-prolonging procedures, and interglobal communications.


Victorian Values

well-dressed gentleman in top hat

Public respectability

The values of the Victorian era were those of the middle class, and indeed they show the rise of the middle class as the group dictating morality to everyone else. As the moneyed class, these folks still had little claim to social respectability, which relied on the possession and inheritance of land. In order to lay claim to social respectability, middle-class Victorians devised a new moral code that could be exhibited publicly. It was partly based on romantic notions of the Gothic era, which was seen as a time of noble knights and untouchable ladies. But it also included the values inherent in the faith that science could solve problems.

Scientific management

Policy development went hand-in-hand with medical achievements, as statistics provided a postivist way to examine problems, such as the cholera epidemics.

book Workbook document: Chadwick's Report on Sanitation(1842)

Note that in this document, Chadwick relates the scientific management of sanitation to the betterment of society. That's very Victorian. Industrialization and trade had created the wealth and luxury of the middle class. The lower class was a constant reminder to them that poverty and ugliness were part of the life created by industrialization.

Gothic revivalHouses of Parliament

You can see it in the architecture, the art, the literature and the manners: a romantic view of the Middle Ages. While in reality medieval times were gritty, Victorians saw it as a time when men were great and women were ladies.

One example is the Pre-Raphaelite movement. The standard of art was based on rules deriving from the Renaissance artist Raphael and his followers, and included restrictions on light, shadow, poses of figures, and idealized beauty. Reacting to paintings they considered frivolous, these young English artists were drawn to the 15th century for their inspiration.The pre-Raphaelites are known for their use of alternative subjects and natural light, but they tended to use medieval settings.

woman kneeling before man, both in medieval dress
Dante Gabriel Rossetti
St. George and the Princess Sabra (1862)
couple in flowing garments
Edward Burne-Jones
The Beguiling of Merlin (1874)
woman with long red hair
John Millais
The Bridesmaid (1851)

Women's Roles

woman embroidering in veil

"Angel of the Home"

The foundation of public morality was private security, protected by the middle-class wife. The home was supposed to be a haven from the industrial workplace, where the husband spent his days. Depending on their financial status, women were expected to have specific knowledge of managing a household.

book Workbook document: Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management (1861)

A home was a complex place to manage. In a lower middle-class home, the woman needed to be able to cook and do all but the heaviest cleaning. At a higher income, she was expected to manage servants. And this was not your minimalist artist's loft decor. Victorian homes were a crowded combination of the latest technological knick-knacks and older heirlooms. Overstuffed chairs, fireplaces, gaslights, furnaces, private bedrooms, a kitchen far from the dining room (to avoid icky cooking smells) were all expected. In larger homes, a conservatory of glass and steel provided a place to grow hothouse plants in cooler climes. And the whole thing was cluttered with personal items: silver-backed hairbrushes, pictures in ornate frames, a gramophone, a piano, and many, many books. The wife's job was to keep it quiet and happy, with the kids ready for a good-night kiss from daddy before going to bed. After tending house all day, and making the round of social calls necessary to her station, her job in the evening was as confidante and supporter of her man.

In return, middle-class men were supposed to worship their wives, and many did. One historian said that they gave women indulgence instead of justice. She should always be a visible representation of her husband's love and regard. Some women, and some men, didn't fit the mold.
bookWorkbook document: Kate Chopin's The Awakening (1899)

Interestingly enough, Kate Chopin wrote this book in her parlor, surrounded by her children.

Domestic help

Real men could afford domestic help; ones wife should not have to soil her own hands. In wealthier families, a parlormaid (whose only job was to answer the door) was a necessity, and she had to be pretty. A cook, groom for the horses, gardener, chambermaid (for bedrooms), downstairs maid, tweeny (between-floors maid) all demonstrated to society the wealth and status of the occupants. In 1851 in Britain, 25% of all females over the age of 9 were domestic servants.

Protection and ignorance

As in the medieval image, women were subject to protection by men. They were to be shielded from the harsh realities of life so they remain pure and modest. This went to extremes (you may recall the image of a gynecological exam where the doctor can't see anything). In fact, women were expected to endure pain rather than submit to the "indelicacy" of an examination by a man. This was even an argument used by some against health exams for prostitutes!

Menstruation was considered a "disability", and motherhood was honored above all. But little sexual information was given to women, even by their own mothers, leading to extraordinary ignorance of ones own body.



Girls in Underwear

We must not here lose sight of the fact that the desire for sexual intercourse is strongly felt by the male on attaining puberty, and continues through his life an ever-present, sensible want; it is most necessary to keep this in view, for, true though it be, it is constantly lost sight of, and erroneous theories, producing on the one hand coercive legislation, on the other neglect of obvious evils, are the result. This desire of the male is the want that produces the demand, of which prostitution is a result, and which is, in fact, the artificial supply of a natural demand, taking the place of the natural supply through the failure of the latter, or the vitiated character of the demand. It is impossible to exaggerate the force of sexual desire.
-- William Acton, Prostitution, considered in its Moral, Social, and Sanitary Aspects 2nd edition 1870

The general idea was that the male had base instincts beyond his control. But

Married life

The ignorance women had of their own bodies must have made marriage difficult. Subject to a repressive upbringing, women were taught to be embarrassed by their bodily functions, from menstruation to orgasm. Even if not utterly revolted by sexual contact, most virgins were terrified on their wedding night. Men were expected to be exceedingly gentle, a task made easier by previous experience. It was expected that men would not "impose" on their wives more than necessary to beget children.


Under such circumstances, prostitution, as you can see in the quote above, was a necessity as a way for men to vent the "baser" instincts. Even doctors agreed that sex with a prostitute could be needed to maintain male health. Combined with Victorian respectability, this sinful necessity created a hot underground throughout Europe and America, leading to a thriving community of prostitutes (male and female) in cities like Vienna, New Orleans, and London.

Fallen women

The Outcast: woman with baby being shut out by father as sister pleads on her knees
Richard Redgrave, The Outcast (1851)

Female prostitutes were often "fallen" women, who had turned to prostitution out of desperation. The "fallen" idea was that a woman who had a sexual lapse (such as being seduced/raped by her employer) was "ruined" and no longer marriageable. Poor girls, industrial workers far from the control of their village, domestic servants often became fallen women. Sometimes no one would know until they got pregnant. See this picture, where the father is shutting out his daughter and her child.

Many female prostitutes were professionals, raised in brothels. In 1820s Vienna, there were 20,000 registered prostitutes for a population of 400,000, one girl for every 7 men! Similar statistics exist for New York, London, Atlantic CIty. Some were high-level courtesans, others street-walkers who rented rooms by the hour. Brothels advertised in the "Gentlemen's Guides" in major cities, a book no gentleman would ever leave in his coat pocket.

Venereal disease and a craze for virgins

Need I say that in this environment VD was a problem? There was no cure for syphilis until 1909, and even then it was derived from arsenic. Syphilis, as you know from the lecture on the 18th century, was blood-borne and caused sterility and insanity. The result was a high demand for first-time prostitutes. Only a virgin could be guaranteed to be free of disease. Brothels marketed girls as young as 12 to the highest bidder, and many helped their prostitutes become born-again virgins by using techniques such as vinegar (for its astringent properties), a sponge soaked in pig blood (to similate the bleeding hymen) or sewing up the vaginal opening to make it tighter.

Homosexuality (male)

In some ways, gay men were tolerated in Victorian times, so long as they maintained public respectability. Two men with their arms around each other were assumed to be out on the town looking for women. If a person were liked, respected, and fit in with society, his private life was considered his business. But should he be disliked, sodomy laws were still on the books, and a sodomy charge could ruin a career or a life.

Male prostitution was a thriving business, and many young men who needed money sold their bodies in the cities. There have been many studies of this underworld, including some that claim a "sexual imperialism" of upper-class men taking lower-class prostitutes as an assertion of status.

The Case of Oscar Wilde

Oscar WildeA good way to get to the heart of the issues surrounding Victorian sex and society is to look at the case of playwright Oscar Wilde, whose domestic comedies took London by storm in the 1890s. He married Constance Lloyd and they had two sons together shortly before his fame began. Wilde was a maverick, disliked by some because of his biting wit. Some examples:

"Women's styles may change but their designs remain the same."
"Charity creates a multitude of sins."
“Vulgarity is the conduct of others.”
“The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it.”
"Either that wallpaper goes, or I do." (his last words as he lay dying)

During his most productive period, he had an affair with an aristocratic young man, Lord Alfred Douglas (reverse sexual imperialism?). Lord Douglas' father, the Marquess of Queensbury, publicly accused Wilde of sodomy. Wilde's friends (?) persuaded him to sue the Marquess for libel. Though he withdrew the case, Wilde was arrested and his whole sex life came out at the trial. The result was the loss of his lover, the departure of his wife and children, and two years hard labor in prison, which almost killed him.

At his trial, Wilde referred to one of Douglas' own poems, which had called homosexuality "the Lord Alfred Douglas love that dare not speak its name":

“The Love that dare not speak its name” in this century is such a great affection of an elder for a younger man as there was between David and Jonathan, such as Plato made the very basis of his philosophy, and such as you find in the sonnets of Michelangelo and Shakespeare. It is that deep, spiritual affection that is as pure as it is perfect.... It is in this century misunderstood ... and on account of it I am placed where I am now.

The "Scientific Humanitarian Committee"

Formed in Germany in 1897, this was the first political organization of gay men and women. It was led by Magnus Hirschfeld, M.D., a physician who founded the Institute for Sexual Science in 1918. They focused on legal revisions to the penal code of the German empire, trying to get prohibitions against "coitus-like acts" between men removed, first in 1898 and again during the 1920s. Their argument was that homosexuality was a natural disposition, and thus involuntary and not a crime.

Sexual "deviancy" and crime

Diverse forms of sexuality, including sado-masochism and fetishes of all kinds, flourished in the publicly repressive sexual environment of Victorian Europe. Pornographic photos, art, and books were very popular. Even today, Victorian images and items of sexuality are popular; just visit a Victoria's Secret store.

It was also an age of "sex crimes". In 1888 London, Jack the Ripper murdered and mutilated six prostitutes in a period of 4 months, and was never caught. He didn't just kill them. He excised their nipples and reproductive organs and arranged them in designs on their bodies, like happy faces. (This detail was kept out of the newspapers to prevent copycat murders.) It has long been thought that the precision of his technique was the mark of a medical doctor.

While I may hesitate to put crimes of violence on a page about sex, the Victorians wouldn't have. In particular, the crimes of killers like Jack the Ripper seemed to mark the extremes to which sexual immorality could go.



Before 1825, Victorian dress was marked by Napoleonic neo-classicism and Orientalism. The women were dressed in very little, but adorned with feathers and a shawl. The gloves were a sign of sophistication, and the Empire waist did allow freedom of movement to an extent.

Male fashion continued with stockings and breeches, high collar and tailed coat, but shorter hair.

Napoleonic dress 1815
German and French dress 1826

By 1826, we see a return to a more conservative style that covers the woman's body more. The waist becomes more pinched, a signal that fertility is becoming more important than freedom of movement. The hats have gotten larger and more ornate, and more fabric throughout means more expense. The shawl is large and actually adds warmth.

Victorian hair is really interesting. Women were supposed to never cut their hair. Unmarried girls wore their hair down to indicate their available status. Married women were to always pin it up in public. In private, only with their husband, could they let their hair down.

At the height of the era, women are covered to the neck and floor, gloved, and sedate. Movement is restricted by a corset under the dress, and stiff petticoats. The bonnet kept the sun off the face so that the skin remained pale. Make-up was not permitted unless one were a prostitute, so the skin must be naturally fair.

Notice that the little boy's clothes are an imitation of a man's clothes, as Victorian kids were seen as little adults. He does have a boy's straw hat, but not much freedom to move or be a kid.

Woman and Boy dress 1846
Ladies in crinolines 1855

Crinolines were frameworks made from bone and cloth, and made possible the huge skirts of mid-century (ever see Gone With the Wind?). Big skirts use lots of cloth and are a sign of middle-class prosperity (as were houses with wide doorways to let them through!). The fertility symbol is at its finest here: large hips and breasts, teeny-tiny waist held in by boned hour-glass corset.

It was hard to waltz in these things, but they did prevent unwanted caresses and literally kept folks at a distance. Since everything was covered, the favorite sexual peek was seeing a woman's ankle.

Men (yeah, there's a guy there) have outrageously high hats that I'm sure Freud would have something to say about. The tight trousers and somber colors create an upward style to counter the women's width.

By the 1870s and 1880s, conditions had changed. The Franco-Prussian War brought on an era of harder times, and fabric was at a premium. Pinched-waist corsets were seen as unhealthy (some women had removed ribs surgically to be able to wear them, and they'd restricted air supply and caused fainting). The sewing machine and artificial dyes made possible greater designs and colors even with the slimmer line. The longer corset made movement difficult, as did the narrow cut of the skirt's bottom. Women in this style obviously did not perform manual labor, which was the social point.

Men's necks came down and coat went up, creating a slimmer, cleaner line. From this we get the modern tuxedo, but it would also be influenced by the freer movement of sporting costumes.

Evening Dress 1880
Walking-Out Dress 1894

The 1890s saw the advent of the "mutton-chop" and "balloon" sleeves for women, and the origin of children's clothing. The sailor suit is not as easy to get around in as shorts and a tee-shirt, but it was better than before.

Men's hats became more conservative, facial hair (especially the handle-bar moustache) were popular, and mixing patterns was trendy. Notice how, in response to the popularity of golf and other sporting oufits, the trousers have become more relaxed.




All text, lecture voice audio, and course design copyright Lisa M. Lane 1998-2018. Other materials used in this class may be subject to copyright protection, and are intended for educational and scholarly fair use under the Copyright Act of 1976 and the TEACH Act of 2002.