Monday, December 26, 2011

picks from picard: victorian clothing

Although I promised the first installment of posts on Liza Picard's Victorian London: The Tale of a City 1840-1870, the post never came.  A cold had me pretty run down for the past week, and this was too long of a post for me to focus on.

So here it is.

Clothing has always had a role in society for showing off the wealth and status of those who own it.  The Victorian era was no exception- people even in the worst conditions clung to any aspect of respectability they could through their clothing.  While a strange sight, it certainly was not an unusual one to see a man in a workhouse laboring in a rock pile next to convicts in his tailcoat and top hat.  They wore these clothes literally until they fell apart.  

image source:

The second-hand clothing trade thrived in London, where old and worn clothes were purchased from the middle class to be sold to the lower classes.  These clothes were then sold in the second-hand clothing exchanges- in Petticoat Lane or Seven Dials in London.  

Used underwear- called "inner wear"- sold well, as the patches and mending did not show (ew.)

One thing absolutely required to be worn of all respectable men was suitable headgear.  Hats were reblocked, repurposed, refitted and used until they fell apart. Sellers of hats would pile their goods on top of their heads- one after the other- creating a tower so they could maneuver through a crowd and keep them safe from thieves.

The type of hat worn could differentiate classes and occupations.  Costermongers and artisans wore cloth caps while middle class and upper class men wore tall hats a la Abraham Lincoln or bowler hats. 

Hats were such a respectable necessity that collapsible opera hats were created so the Victorian men could put the cumbersome thing under their arms and out of the way during an opera (weren't hat rooms and cloak rooms invented yet?)

The only men who were bare-headed were laborers. 

image source: Mister Crew
Men's clothes were usually subdued in color- although Picard does not say which colors were preferred.  Apparently until the 1860s the dark three-piece suit in one cloth became the staple for businessmen, and have remained that way to this day, with suits changing very little since then. Neckties could be colorful, however- a band of cloth tied in a bow or a cravat held in place with a pin.  Wellington boots- which could be pulled on rather than laced of buttoned- were the fashion of the day.  Shirts were frilled for the evening.  

Ready-made clothing was coming into the market around this time.  Stores such as E. Moses and Son (for working men's clothes), Swan and Edgar's (for dresses) and the Family Mourning Warehouse (for a sudden death) provided pre-made clothes for those who needed them.
For women, shawls were the requirement for women of all classes between the 1840s and 1870s.  Shawls were even worn in the summer.

A parasol almost always accompanied the upper and middle class women out of doors. Useless in rain, they were meant to protect the fair complexions the Victorians so desired.

For the middle and upper classes dresses were made with narrow shoulders and sleeve tops cut so that Victorian ladies could not lift their arms.  The necklines were high during the day but almost scandalously low for evening wear (think lower than Queen V's own racy secret portrait).  Dresses could be made for both day and evening- with removable sleeves and two types of bodices with the appropriate necklines for day and evening.

Just as our fashion borrows from other eras, Victorian fashion did too.  Brocade materials and 18th century fashion influences were prominent in the fashion of the day.

One of the greatest inventions was aniline dye in 1856.  Unlike the vegetable dyes of the past, these new dyes allowed for vibrant dress colors- making purple a much more affordable color.

While costerwomen wore dresses short enough to show off the boots underneath, middle and upper class preferred dresses long enough to sweep the floor- literally.  these dresses were lined and edged with stiff braid to pick up the surplus of the dirt.  The braid was brushed when the dress was taken off, and could be removed entirely when it was so filthy that it could not be repaired.  There is mention of a cord-pulley system inside some skirts so the dresses could be lifted a few inches from the ground, however.

Despite the existence of  trouser-like riding "skirts" for women, bloomers were a short fad that never really caught on.  A type of Turkish "harem pant" was introduced by a Mrs. Amelia Jenks Bloomer of New York, but London was just scandalized.  One brewery tried to dress all of their barmaids in these loose-fitting pants to utter failure (my question is, who wore them in New York?)

An illustration for Godey's Lady's Book, 1874 edition
image source:
Until the sewing machine came into more common use in the 1850s and 1860s, dresses were hand-stitched.  This sort of work allowed for some dressmaker shops to exploit their workers when they advertised 24-hour services for a dress.  The customer came to the shop to choose the pattern and material of her dress,  be measured and then left, assured that she would have her custom-fitted dress the very next day.  Then the measurements and pattern were given to several women working at the shop, who were expected to slave away all night creating the promised dress.  During the summer season of fashionable parties and balls these women had to get five or six dresses done a night.

The downside to the sewing machine was that it put many dressmakers and seamstresses out of work.

A family making a pair of trousers.
image source: Victorian Durham
Women wore shoes and ankle-length boots of satin or kid while indoors.  Outdoors they wore boots.

As for underwear, the fashions changed over the years, but seem to have been the following at various times:

  • petticoat- a skirt underneath a skirt- not necessarily underwear, but sometimes worn for warmth or to give one's skirts a desired shape
  • crinoline- originally the name for a stiff fabric made of horsehair and wool used with petticoats, by the 1850s the word stood for a stiff petticoat or a wire or whalebone frame-structure used to spread a woman's skirts about her. 
  • corset- tight-lacing had been popular until the advent of the crinoline, which provided a bell-shaped bottom that made a woman's torso look more like the desired hourglass figure created by tight-lacing.  Corsets came back in the late 1860s when crinolines declined.  
  • bustle- a frame or pad placed on the buttocks to support or enhance the fullness of cloth on the back of a dress.  These first came into popularity in the 1870s.
  • drawers- the closest to our idea of panties that the Victorians ever got to- a loose pant-like garment joined at the waist.  

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