History 104: Western Civilization since 1648
Lecture: 19th Century Society

Fashion click here for audio

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.