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The Development of Victorian Costumes


Victorian costumes changed subtlely during the sixty-three years that Queen Victoria was on the throne. Early Victorian fashion for ladies of means was defined by full crinoline skirts. By mid-Victorian times these had developed into bustles and finally in the late Victorian era, Victorian costumes were typified by slim fitting suits, dresses and S-bend corsets. Despite the defined fashion changes, Victorian costumes still covered the arms and legs of ladies, right down to their ankles.

Early Victorian Costumes

This period of early Victorian costume was from 1837 to 1856. Dresses had lavish trimmings in comparison to the plainer Regency era fashions. Boned bodices were worn to emphasize the narrow waist and bustline of Victorian ladies. False undersleeves called engageantes were fashionable and gave dresses a layered look with fancy cuffs showing beneath the full sleeves.

By the 1840s and 50s full hooped skirts known as crinolines were popular and they carried on into mid-Victorian times. For evening wear, middle and upper class lades were beginning to wear bold bertha necklines which exposed their shoulders in a most daring fashion statement!

Mid Victorian Costumes

From 1860 to 1880 full crinoline skirts gradually changed and all the fullness was bunched at the back of the dress in a full bustle. These were initially soft bustles which emphasized the hips and the back of the skirt. Crinolines and rigid cages gradually disappeared. Contrasting underskirts were worn and were revealed by the top overskirt being divided or being caught up around the lower hemline. Shorter top skirts were called aprons and created a full layered look to the dress.

As fashions continued to change, hard bustles came into fashion in 1883, often with flowing trains which trailed behind from the jutting out shelf created by a spring pivoted metal band. Dresses were straight down at the front with severely tailored bodices and all the fabric was gathered behind. It gave women the look of the rear end of a horse.

Late Victorian Costumes

The late Victorian era ran from 1878 to 1901. Trains remained a fashionable feature but dresses became slimmer and bustles faded out. Leg of mutton sleeves with full gathers at the top and slimmer from the elbow to the wrist, accented the slim fitting full length skirts. By the 1890s tailored suits were slim, plain and figure-hugging. This early power dressing was embraced by Victorian women as an air of confidence reflected the growing emancipation of women.

Dresses at this time were almost always made of two contrasting colours. Bold purple, royal blue, deep red, peacock blue and bright apple green were popular for daywear with softer hues in the evening. For formal social events dresses were extravagantly trimmed in contrasting fabrics. By the end of the Victorian era S-bend corsets were fashionable. Slightly healthier and easier to breathe in than the earlier designs, they were laced up and pushed the bust forward, pulled in a tiny waist and threw back the hips, creating the feminine S-shape which persisted in Victorian costumes until 1907.

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