Late Victorian Ladies’ Clothing
The silhouette of women’s styles in the post Civil War era was entirely different from that of the preceding decades, the large hoopskirts of the 1850s and 1860s having been replaced by the bustle of the 1870s and 1880s. One contemporary source lamented that the fashions of the day made the fairest half of humanity look as if they all had tails! In reality the bustle served the same purpose as the hoop, to make the waist look small in contrast to the vast size of the skirt below it. Heavy fabrics were the order of the day for most ladies’ clothing. When the fashion journals spoke of draperies, they meant exactly that, and usually in almost upholstery weight fabrics like silk damasks, brocades, failles, and heavy wools trimmed with pleats, ruffles, fringes, tassels, beads, and passementeries. Yet summer and “wash” dresses were often made of lightweight cottons, like ginghams and batiste. With the arrival of the 1890s, the shape of the dress changed again. This time, the small waist was emphasized by the size of the huge sleeves and the stiffened hems of the bell, umbrella, or fan shaped skirts.
Stockings: Made of silk, cotton lisle, or wool, these were still long, coming well above the knee and held there by garters of knitting, crochet work, ribbon or elastic during the 70s and 80s, or by elastic suspenders attached to the corset hem in the 90s.
Drawers: Made of cotton, linen, or silk for summer, or wool flannel for winter, drawers were usually made in the open style, being worn beneath the corset. They extended to just below the knee and were trimmed with rows of tucks, insertions, and lace, or could be made like knickers with a fitted band to which the leg opening was gathered. During this time period, too, the “combination” garment was developed. It was a one-piece item intended to replace the drawers and the chemise. Combinations could be made of cotton with lacy trim, or of knitted wool stockinette, much like a man’s “union suit.”
Chemise: Made of cotton or linen, this nightgown-like garment extending to mid calf, was worn next to the skin to keep the corset clean and the fair wearer un-chafed! Ladies’ magazines showed numerous patterns for ornamental embroidery and lacework intended for use on the yokes and hems of chemises and drawers. Monogramming became popular on underwear, as well as household linens.
Corset: During the early 1870s, the corset retained much of its 1860s shape, rather short- waisted and broad in the hips, but toward the end of the decade, the long, slender look became popular, necessitating a corresponding long, slender corset. During the 1880s and 1890s, waistlines grew even longer and slimmer. Tight lacing became a topic of much discussion. Corsets laced in the back, but contained a front opening busk to enable the wearer relative ease in removal. They were usually made of cotton or silk, and were no longer made only in ”practical” colors of drab, white, or black, but also pale blue, pink, turquoise, peach and red and they were often trimmed with contrasting ribbons, lace and embroidery. This was a period when wearing fancy, colorful underwear became acceptable even among respectable women!
Bustle: During the ‘70s and ‘80s, the bustle reigned supreme, with the exception of a few years at the end of the 1870s when the “natural form” was in vogue although the skirts then were still draped up at the back. Bustles were made of many materials including hoop wire, springs, and horsehair. They could be incorporated into a petticoat, or be separate apparatuses worn over or under the petticoat. One simple item, called a “skirt improver”, resembled a small apron covered with crinoline ruffles. It was worn over the back of the petticoat and tied at the waist in the front. Most full bustles had tapes inside to regulate the size and position of the garment on the wearer. The bustle reached its apex about 1887, when it was said that these rear appendages were so large and angular that one could balance a tea tray there! By 1889, the bustle had all but disappeared.
Petticoat: These underskirts, made of cotton, wool or silk, were worn over the bustle during the ‘70s and ‘80s to soften the lines of that foundation garment. In cold weather they were often made of red flannel, and worn under the bustle for additional warmth. Hems could be trimmed with fancy white work, lace, tucks, or fabric folded into decorative shapes. During the 1890s, the petticoats became slimmer at the top and often had starched ruffles at the hem. Fancy colored petticoats made of silk taffeta and trimmed with lots of frills were popular for their elegant rustle They were sometimes worn under the corset to ensure that the smooth line over the hips was not interrupted by superfluous gathers.
Dress: At the beginning of the ‘70s, skirts still retained some of their former fullness, although it was concentrated toward the back of the skirt. Overskirts which consisted of a draped apron at the front and a large pouf at the back were popular. The bodices, which ended at the natural waist at the beginning of the decade, gradually descended by mid-decade into the popular basque bodice, a tightly fitted, hip-length garment . Polonaises, one-piece overdresses, were also worn over skirts, which had narrowed considerably by the mid-70s and were often highly ornamented in the front and trained in the back. Fitted long sleeves and shallow “v” or high necklines were worn for day, while evening bodices were cut with low rounded or square necklines and short or ¾ length sleeves.
The years from about 1878-1881 were known as the tie-back years, because, while the skirts were still festooned with layers of fabric and trim and draped at the back, they were also tied back with tapes inside the skirt to give a very straight columnar shape from the front. It was during this time that the bustle was abandoned, only to return in its most extreme form during the ‘80s. The 1880s were a very “angular” decade. The bodices featured a long, thin waist and a very upright posture. Skirts grew larger in the back to accommodate the bustle, and they grew plainer, without trains. Polonaises as well as overskirts, often with an asymmetrical front drapery, were still popular. The high band collar and long or ¾ sleeves were usual for daywear, with a low cut square neckline and short sleeves worn in the evening.
Sleeves were the defining feature of the 1890s. They grew from a few slight gathers at the sleeve head in 1890 to huge, padded “leg-o-mutton” sleeves by 1896. The fitted, waist length bodices featuring these were worn over rather unadorned gored skirts, gathered or pleated at the back and stiffened at the hems. The “shirt waist” worn with a skirt became the uniform for the increasing number of working women. In 1897, the sleeves collapsed to just a little puff or ruffle at the top of a long fitted sleeve. Necklines were high, with upright collars, and sleeves were long for daywear. For evening low, necklines and large puffed sleeves were worn.
Shoes: Little boots which buttoned or laced, as well as fancy pumps, some with Louise IV heels and bucked straps (for evening) were worn during this time. The toes were slightly squared in the 70s, but by the 1890’s the long, narrow toe on a high-laced boot was common for daywear. Flat slippers, trimmed to match the dress were often worn for dancing.
Accessories: During the entire thirty years, ladies’ watches, on long chains were popular. In the 70s, heavy chain necklaces for day and velvet ribbon chokers for evening were often worn. Bracelets, especially for evening were common. Brooches and bar pins were worn at the high necklines in the 80s and 90s, and fancy dog-collar necklaces for evening. Earrings utilizing earwires were worn; the screw-back was not invented until the 1890s. Small purses made of beads, knitting, crochet, fabric or leather were used extensively. Belts of leather or fabric were worn when waistlines permitted. No lady would have considered herself dressed without her gloves. These were of fabric or kid leather, matching the ensemble, or generally white or light colored for dancing, Fans were also found most useful for balls and other evening entertainments.
Hats and Bonnets: A large variety of chapeaus were worn during this period. Generally, hats were small, often with a scarf or ribbons dangling from the back during the 70s. Bonnets were “proper” for solemn occasions. The headwear of the 80s seemed to echo the angular aspects of the gowns. A tall, almost conical style almost like an inverted flower-pot was worn during the mid-80s. Even the bonnets of the 80s had peaked brims! The most ubiquitous hat of the 90s was the “boater” worn with dresses as well as suits.
Hair: During the 1870s, hairstyles included braids, curls and chignons of various sorts, all heaped high up on the head. For evening, a long sausage curl, or curls were often worn trailing over one shoulder. For those who were not endowed by nature with bountiful tresses, a wide variety of hairpieces were available to fool even the most discerning eye! In the 1880s curly bangs or “frizzettes” were worn with the rest of the hair pulled back into a sleek knot at the nape of the neck, or a French twist. Again, curls attached to a comb were available for those ladies who were unwilling to cut their hair for bangs, (or for those who had scorched their own with a curling iron over-heated in the chimney of a lamp)! Bangs were still worn by some women during the 1890s, but the knot had crept steadily up the back of the head until it formed the “door knocker” style which was the trademark of the decade. Sometimes a decorative comb worn in an upright position supplanted the upright knot of hair. Evening coiffeurs were ornamented with feathers and combs for mature women and flowers for the young ladies.
Late Victorian Men’s Clothing
While men’s fashion changes at a snail’s pace compared with the rapidity of ladies’ styles, there are some differences between the men’s clothing of the pre and post Civil War era. It has been said that the “War of the Rebellion” here and the death of Prince Albert in England had such a sobering effect on the world that men’s clothing became much less flamboyant than it had been in previous times. Colors used for suits were limited to black, gray, blue and brown. Bright colored waistcoats which had formerly been common and acceptable now became the province of dandies and gamblers. Heavy woolen fabrics were popular for suits. Stripes and plaids enjoyed much favor. Sometimes two different plaids would be worn together. Linen, often white, was also used for suiting in warm climates.
Coats: A wide variety of coat styles were available to the late Victorian gentleman. The frock coat, cut with slightly flaring, squared skirts and made either single or double-breasted remained the basic of a well dressed man’s wardrobe. It was suitable for business and all but the most formal occasions. Sack coats, loose, unfitted predecessors of today’s suit jackets, had increased in popularity after the Civil War, when they were the uniform jacket of the military. They were often made of plaid or checked fabric, and worn as casual, “leisure suits” at home during the first part of the period, but they had become acceptable business and street attire by the 1890s. Another style of popular coat was the black morning coat (aka “cutaway coat”), something like a frock coat with the skirt cut back in a rounded shape at the front. These were frequently worn with black and gray striped trousers, for business and informal social occasions. Balls and formal evening events required a black tailcoat, worn with a white waistcoat and tie.
Waistcoats: The waistcoat, (vest), was an indispensable part of a man’s dress. No self respecting man would venture outdoors or into the presence of ladies without one, since his shirt was part of his “linen” or underwear, and he would be undressed without his waistcoat. Waistcoats could be made of a fabric to match the trousers and coat, or of a contrasting solid, striped or plaid fabric. The models for day wear usually had five buttons and a relatively high neck with or without rounded or notched lapels. A low cut three-button version, made of white pique, with a scooped neckline and rounded lapels was worn with the tailcoat for formal events.
Shirt: This basic undergarment was usually made of cotton or linen, but sometimes of wool or silk. White dress shirts were now made from a pattern having naturally fitting shoulders, a plain or simple tucked front bib, and less fullness in the sleeves and body than was common earlier. Most shirts were of the pull-over variety, having a center front placket which opened only about half way to the hem. Some dress shirts buttoned in the back and had an ornamental placket in the front. Most shirts had a collar band and cuffs to which separate starched collar and cuffs could be attached. Collars came in several styles, folded down over the tie, or standing upright, sometimes with wings. Formal shirts did not have fold down collars. Work or leisure shirts could be made of colored fabric, in solids, stripes, plaids, or small prints on a light ground, and with or without attached collars.
Trousers: Men’s trousers during this period were made with a front button fly, waistband at the waist (higher than modern pant waists), and straight or slightly tapered legs, cut longer at the heel than the instep. They were held up by braces, (suspenders) attached to buttons on the waistband. Trousers waists could be adjusted by a little buckled strap at the center back waist. Trouser legs had no center crease or cuffs until the 1890s when Prince Edward of England, quite the model of masculine style, was the first to crease and cuff his pants, (or have someone do it for him)!
Underwear: Late Victorian men wore cotton or soft woolen drawers between themselves and the heavy wool fabric of their trousers. Drawers had a buttoned waistband and were between mid calf and ankle length. Woolen union suits were also worn for warmth during the winter.
Shoes: Leather boots of all lengths, lace-up and pull-on, were worn extensively. They were usually brown or black. During the 1890s, Spats worn over patent leather shoes were adopted by the “swells” (trendy young men) and others of less conservative taste. Low heeled, low cut slip on pumps were worn by some men for formal occasions.
Accessories: Almost every man of even moderate means wore a pocket watch with a chain draped across the front of his waistcoat. Stick pins were worn with ascots and “four in hand” ties. Walking sticks and canes were used by even those who did not need their support.
Neckwear: Neckties were the one place a man could display a splash of color. They came in many colors of silk, solid, striped and figured, and could be snappy bow ties, wide new “four-in-hands”, ascots, or kerchiefs.
Hats: The top hat was worn for most occasions during this period, although the derby gained favor for casual, sport, and even business by the turn of the century. Collapsible silk top hats were often worn for formal attire, and a straw “planter’s hat” was worn with those light colored linen suits mentioned earlier.
Hair: As the era progressed most men wore their hair short and most were clean-shaven, with the possible exception of a moustache which became quite popular late in the period.