What Did Victorian Ladies Wear?

All Victorian ladies, by which we mean women of sufficient means to be able to follow fashion, wore roughly the same types of garments during the course of the nineteenth century. What changed was the cut, construction, materials and the overall silhouette created.

The basic underwear consisted of a chemise and drawers next to the skin (later substituted sometimes by combinations) and a corset to shape the figure. Over these was worn an under-petticoat, sometimes with a corset cover, or alternatively, an all-in-one petticoat with bodice attached. Then came a skirt support of some kind - such as a stiffened petticoat, crinoline, or bustle, to create the right silhouette for the skirt. The skirt support was covered by a decorative petticoat, which sometimes showed at the bottom of the dress. This was the minimum number of petticoats that could be worn, but at times it was fashionable to wear more. Underwear was relatively plain and utilitarian during the first half of the nineteenth century and became progressively more decorated with lace and embroidery during the second, culminating in a glorious explosion of frilly froth by the end of the era.

Over the underwear came the dress itself. Sometimes this was made as a separate matching bodice and skirt, sometimes as a single garment joined at the waist in a seam and occasionally it was a one-piece princess dress with no waist seam. Some dresses were also made in more than two pieces, with bodice, skirt and a variety of other matching draperies and overskirts. The cut and construction of the dress varied with fashion and is a subject worthy of close study.

The look of the dress itself was completed by fashionable matching accessories that were considered essential - such as collars, cuffs, under-sleeves and chemisettes (neck fill-ins). Some dresses even required a decorative shirt or blouse to be worn with them, to provide all these accessories in one. Eventually the blouse became an acceptable fashion item in its own right.

Outer wear such as jackets, capes, cloaks, shawls and mantles were worn over the dress. Some dresses were made with matching capes and jackets to be worn indoors. It was also sometimes fashionable for the dress bodice to be cut like a jacket.

On their legs (an anatomical region never referred to by a lady) were worn stockings (tights were not popularly worn until the twentieth century). These were held up initially with garters tied round the leg, then with slip-on, elastic ones. Eventually stocking suspenders were sewn to the bottom of the corset by the end of the century. Shoes and boots varied during the century. Flat slippers were fashionable in the first half of the nineteenth century, though flat-heeled, short boots or half-boots were also worn outdoors. Boots and shoes eventually developed heels during the second half of the century and boots also increased in height up the leg.

Caps were worn indoors by all married and older ladies of the early Victorian period. Decorative hair-nets also enjoyed brief popularity. Outdoors, caps were covered by bonnets, or hats were worn, usually without a cap underneath. Eventually the demure cap and bonnet disappeared by the 1890s and only the stylish hat remained.

Other important Victorian accessories include gloves, purses, parasols, fans and of course, jewellery.

Copyright Ladies Treasury 2002

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