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Victorian fashion comprises the various fashions and trends in British culture that emerged and grew in province throughout the Victorian era and the reign of Victoria, a period which would last from June 1837 to January 1901. Covering nearly two thirds of the 19th century, the 63 year reign would see numerous changes in fashion. These changes would include, but not be limited to, changes in clothing, architecture, literature, and the decorative and visual arts.

Contents

Historical overview

Overview of women's fashions, 1794-1887

The Great Exhibition of 1851 had a marked impact on fashion, especially home décor, and even social reform movements influenced fashion, through dress reform and rational dress.

Clothing in the Victorian times

Methods of clothing production and distribution varied greatly over the course of Victoria's long reign.

In 1837, cloth was manufactured in the mill towns of northern England, Scotland, and Ireland. But clothing was generally custom-made by seamstresses, milliners, tailors, hatters, glovers, corsetiers, and many other specialized tradespeople, who served a local clientele in small shops. Families who could not afford to patronize specialists, made their own clothing, or bought and modified used clothing.

By 1907, clothing was increasingly factory-made and sold in large, fixed price department stores. Custom sewing and home sewing were still significant, but on the decline.

New machinery and materials changed clothing in many ways.

The introduction of the lock-stitch sewing machine in mid-century simplified both home and boutique dressmaking, and enabled a fashion for lavish application of trim that would have been prohibitively time-consuming if done by hand. Lace machinery made lace at a fraction of the cost of the old, laborious methods.

New materials from far-flung British colonies gave rise to new types of clothing (such as rubber making gumboots and mackintoshes possible). Chemists developed new, cheap, bright dyes that displaced the old animal or vegetable dyes.

Home décor

Home decor started spare, veered into the elaborately draped and decorated style we today regard as Victorian, then embraced the retro-chic of William Morris as well as pseudo-Japonaiserie.

Charles Eastlake's Hints on Household Tastes in Furniture, Upholstery and other Details (1868) attempted to educate the middle class on the proper artistic decoration of homes, which required "taste" rather than lavish expenditure.

Contemporary stereotypes

Victorian prudery

"The proper length for little girls' skirts at various ages", from Harper's Bazaar, showing an 1868 idea of how the hemline should descend towards the ankle as a girl got older

For most, the Victorian period is still a by-word for sexual repression. Men's clothing is seen as formal and stiff, women's as fussy and over-done. Clothing covered the entire body, we are told, and even the glimpse of an ankle was scandalous. Critics contend that corsets constricted women's bodies and women's lives. Homes are described as gloomy, dark, cluttered with massive and over-ornate furniture and proliferating bric-a-brac. Myth has it that even piano legs were scandalous, and covered with tiny pantalettes.

Of course, much of this is untrue, or a gross exaggeration. Men's formal clothing may have been less colorful than it was in the previous century, but brilliant waistcoats and cummerbunds provided a touch of color, and smoking jackets and dressing gowns were often of rich Oriental brocades. Corsets stressed a woman's sexuality, exaggerating hips and bust by contrast with a tiny waist. Women's ball gowns bared the shoulders and the tops of the breasts. The tight-fitting jersey dresses of the 1880s may have covered the body, but they left little to the imagination.

Home furnishing was not necessarily ornate or overstuffed. However, those who could afford lavish draperies and expensive ornaments, and wanted to display their wealth, would often do so. Since the Victorian era was one of extreme social mobility, there were ever more nouveaux riches making a rich show.

The items used in decoration may also have been darker and heavier than those used today, simply as a matter of practicality. London was noisy and its air was full of soot from countless coal fires. Hence those who could afford it draped their windows in heavy, sound-muffling curtains, and chose colors that didn't show soot quickly. When all washing was done by hand, curtains were not washed as frequently as they might be today.

There is no actual evidence that piano legs were considered scandalous. Pianos and tables were often draped with shawls or cloths—but if the shawls hid anything, it was the cheapness of the furniture. There are references to lower-middle-class families covering up their pine tables rather than show that they couldn't afford mahogany. The piano leg story seems to have originated in Captain Frederick Marryat's 1839 book, Diary in America, as a satirical comment on American prissiness.

Victorian manners, however, may have been as strict as imagined—on the surface. One simply did not speak publicly about sex, childbirth, and such matters, at least in the respectable middle and upper classes. However, as is well known, discretion covered a multitude of sins. Prostitution flourished. Upper-class men and women indulged in adulterous liaisons.

Victorian chic

Also see: Neo-Victorian

Some people now look back on the Victorian era with wistful nostalgia. Historians would say that this is as much a distortion of the real history as the stereotypes emphasizing Victorian repression and prudery.

Also notable is a contemporary counter-cultural trend called steampunk. Those who dress steampunk often wear Victorian-style clothing that has been "tweaked" in edgy ways: tattered, distorted, melded with Goth fashion, Punk, and Rivethead styles. Another example of Victorian fashion being incorporated into a contemporary style is the Goth Lolita culture.

Gallery

See also

Time Periods

Clothing

Contemporary Interpretations

Further reading

  • Sweet, Matthew -- Inventing the Victorians, St. Martin's Press, 2001 ISBN 0-312-28326-1

External links








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