The Victorian Era, which spanned the length of Queen Victoria’s reign from 1837 to 1901, was a period of rapid economic and social change, driven by the Industrial Revolution. This had profound impacts on every industry—including fashion. As clothing became cheaper and faster to make, it became accessible to the masses.
“Everything from spinning to weaving to steam-molding corsets became industrialized, which meant fashions became readily available across the class spectrum,” says Valerie Steele, Director and Chief Curator of The Museum at FIT.
Working-class men and women could wear the same styles as the aristocracy, though they were buying mass-produced versions made from cheaper materials. New modes of retail, including department stores, magazines and mail-order catalogs, meant everyone could keep up with the latest fashions. As a result, silhouettes and trends changed rapidly compared to earlier eras.
According to Steele, one of the most notable shifts was that fashion began to be differentiated by gender, rather than class. This reflected the democratization of fashion, as well as the changing roles of women in society.
“In the 18th century, men and women both wore highly decorative silk clothes that set them apart from the rest of society,” explains Steele. “But in the 19th century, women’s fashions spread all along the social classes, and became quite different from the clothes that men wore. Men began to dress in dark wool, while women wore colorful silks.”
Below are some of the notable fashion trends of the Victorian Era.
New, Extravagant Hues
Many of the greatest inventions in history were created by accident, such as penicillin, matches, chocolate chip cookies. The same is true of synthetic dye, developed by British chemist William Henry Perkin in 1853 while he was trying to formulate a malaria treatment.
Called “mauveine,” the compound produced vivid purple hues when used as a dye for silk, cotton and other fabric. The new shade quickly caught on, and even Queen Victoria wore a vibrant purple gown to the International Exhibition of 1862 in London. As the novelist Oscar Wilde wrote in his famous 1885 essay on fashion, A Philosophy on Dress, “A good color always gives one pleasure.”
Prior to Perkin’s discovery, dyes were painstakingly derived from natural sources like insects and plants, which made them prohibitively expensive for all but the wealthiest members of society.
“Dyes had been one of the big class markers,” explains Valerie Steele, Director and Chief Curator of The Museum at FIT. “They were very expensive, and therefore very elite. Suddenly, these were available to everyone. Pink, which had required very expensive dyes from Brazil and Sumatra, was suddenly a popular color that even serving girls could wear.” As a result, wealthy women in the late 19th century began wearing pale pinks to distinguish themselves from the lower classes and their vibrant magenta dresses.
Gloves for Every Occasion
The Victorians were preoccupied by class, and fashion was one way of revealing—or concealing—one’s status in society. Hands could tell you a lot about someone’s position in the social hierarchy, and having soft, slender and white hands was considered a sign of refinement. They meant that your hands were not exposed to the sun or physical labor, which could leave one’s skin tanned, callused and rough. As a result, both men and women wore gloves not only to protect their skin from the elements, but to hide the effects of working-class labor on their hands.
In public, women always wore gloves, and it was considered improper to show one’s bare hands outside the company of family or friends. Men were expected to be gloved as well, though it was more acceptable for men to remove their gloves in public, for instance when shaking the hand of an acquaintance. Different gloves were expected for different occasions.
According to The Gentlemen’s Book of Etiquette and Manual of Politeness, published in 1860, an upper-class gentleman might go through six different pairs of gloves in a single day, depending on his social calendar.
Fans as Tools for Flirtation
Like low-rise jeans in the modern era, fans have gone in and out of fashion since their invention more than 4,000 years ago in Egypt. During the Victorian Era, they once again became enormously popular, in part because they permitted unmarried women to engage in playful, flirtatious behavior while still upholding the strict social conventions of the era.
By opening, closing or fluttering her fan, a lady could send coded messages without speaking a word. Parisian fan maker Jean-Pierre Duvelleroy, who crafted fans for Queen Victoria herself, published a leaflet called The Language of the Fan explaining what each gesture meant. For instance, bringing the handle of the fan to one’s lips meant kiss me. Oscar Wilde even wrote a popular play, Lady Windemere’s Fan, about the power of these subtle overtures.
Fans were popular among all social classes. Upper-class women carried large, ornate fans that were crafted from fine materials like ivory and silk, and ornamented with dyed ostrich features, according to Victorian Fashion Accessories by Ariel Beaujot. Lower-class women purchased mass-produced fans, and some unmarried women even found work making them in the latter half of the 19th century in the growing fan-making industry.
“The fashion industry provided employment for a large number of women, with increasing roles for women in the workforce,” says Steele. One notable shift in the Victorian Era is that women went from primarily running their own dressmaking business to working in factories and ateliers owned by men, as industrialization transformed the industry.
Long before Kim Kardashian, women in the Victorian Era made an exaggerated posterior the height of fashion. This was achieved through the invention of the bustle in 1857, by an American inventor named Alexander Douglas. An undergarment that hitched around the waist and featured a metal cage or padded cushion, bustles were designed to create a full, rounded shape at the back of one’s dress and provide support for heavy, elaborate skirts.
Bustles weren’t immediately popular, as ladies were still partial to the bell-shaped skirts created by crinolines. Made from very stiff woven horsehair or steel cages, crinolines were popular among women of all social classes despite the fact that they were uncomfortable and impractical: climbing the stairs or sitting down was nearly impossible in a crinoline.
Moreover, they were dangerous. In 1858, the March 16 edition of the New York Times reported that a young woman from Boston died after her crinoline caught fire; the same article found that 19 similar deaths-by-crinoline had been reported in London in the previous two months. The Times wrote that this hazard ought to make young ladies “extraordinarily careful in their movements and behavior, if it fails to deter them from adopting a fashion so fraught with peril.”
In the 1860s, women began to favor the bustle, which created a slim silhouette from the front and at the sides. This was slightly more practical, but still required women to sacrifice movement and comfort in order to achieve a fashionable shape. Bustles hung heavily from the waist, causing back pain, and required women to twist their bodies in order to sit down. In 1888, The Boston Medical and Surgical Journal published a letter from a physician decrying the ill effects of the bustle. “Why people should so fashion their dress as to feign a deformity which they have not is incomprehensible,” he wrote, “And of all these incomprehensible deformities the bustle is the worst.
In 1881, a group of British women founded the Rational Dress Society, opposing any fashion that “deforms the figure, impedes the movements of the body, or in any way tends to injure the health.” Their targets included tight corsets, high-heeled boots, heavy skirts, and of course, bustles.
While impractical fashions persisted through the end of the Victorian Era, the Rational Dress Society hinted at the political and cultural shifts of the early 20th century that would bring women increased freedom and civil liberties.