Remember the first time I saw a movie with Victorian era fashion: it was “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.” At that time, I was amazed by the magic of the wizarding world, but I also secretly thought, “Their clothes are so beautiful!”
As I grew older, during my adolescence, I was attracted by an old VCD with an old-fashioned cover, on which was written the name – “Frankenstein”. The costumes worn by the characters once again amazed me. The Duke’s clothes were well-tailored and very elegant, while the Duchess’s clothes were grand and delicate. After watching the movie, my fear of the scientific monster was quietly replaced by my curiosity about European dress.
Victorian era fashion is beautiful and notable. Studying its clothing is to make the cultural foundation for better designs and matches. So today, let’s open the book of Victorian era fashion together!
Five Periods of Victorian Era Fashion
Researchers generally divided Victorian era fashion into five periods: the Romanticism period, the new Rococo period, the Bustle period, the “S” period, and the Hobble Skirt period. In this article, we will first introduce the “Romanticism” period of the Victorian era.
Romanticism Period of Victorian Era Fashion
The “Romanticism” period (1800-1850) began with the art, literature, and cultural movements of Western Europe in the 18th century. Designers in this period focused on emotion, individualism, and the natural world. Regarding fashion, there was a return in the Romanticism period to the more natural and flowing shapes of the 18th century. Women dressed in “hourglass” (we have explained the hourglass silhouette in this article before) outfits to realize men’s expectations of their body shapes.
The standard attire for women during Romanticism was composed of undergarments, a dress, and a small cape. We will introduce the composition of women’s clothing from the inside out.
In the Romanticism period, women wore tight-fitting bodices (corsets) inside to cinch their waists. The corset usually consisted of whalebones arranged in a radiating pattern and embedded in the fabric. Also, it had cross-shaped lacing at the back for tightness.
The Victorian era fashion during this period was: the smaller a woman’s waist was, the more beautiful she was. This emphasis on a small waist started from a very young age.
Sadly, due to the excessive binding, many young women suffered from unhealthy development and even internal organ displacement. Additionally, it was common for women to faint in the streets due to breathing difficulty. Hence lots of girls would carry smelling salts with them, both to aid breathing and also to show off their fragility. Looking back now, those women were tragic, but in the eyes of the people of that time, these “tragic” women were considered the epitome of beauty.
Below is a comparison of the women’s skirts from the previous period (the new classicism period) and the Romanticism period.
As seen in the image, the changes in appearance between the two periods were quite distinct. The most notable differences in the skirts of the Romanticism period were the extremely puffed shoulders, the narrowed waist, and the increased fullness of the skirt, which gave the overall silhouette an “X” shape.
These changes were gradual. Here is a rough overview:
- 1825: Skirts were fuller and gradually developed into a bell shape.
- After 1830: Skirts became increasingly voluminous, with multiple petticoats reaching up to five or six layers.
- 1836-1837: Skirts became more heavily decorated and reached the ground.
- The early 1840s: A bell-shaped skirt support made of horsehair began to prevail.
It’s worth mentioning that, due to the increased fullness of skirts, the use of panniers, which were popular in the Renaissance, came back with an opening in an A-shape at the front, revealing contrasting petticoats underneath.
Here are other specific details:
Collars could be high-necked and low-necked.
High-necked collars included ruff collars and shawl collars. Ruff collars originated in the 16th century. On the other hand, shawl collars with overlapping layers of lace came from the Dutch fashion era.
Low-necked collars were more straightforward. They had large turnovers or multiple layers of lace trim to show their sophistication.
Sleeves during the Romanticism period generally had two types: puff sleeves and leg-of-mutton sleeves. Ladies commonly paired puff sleeves with low-necked collars, while leg-of-mutton sleeves were often with high-necked collars.
Puff sleeves built a full and puffed appearance. They continued the trend from the New classicism period but were more exaggerated.
On the contrary, leg-of-mutton sleeves were tight-fitting on the lower arm and only puffed on the upper arm. They were for a more natural and less structured look.
The waistline began to descend from its high position around 1822 gradually. By 1830, the waistline had dropped to its natural place and was further cinched by the corset, resulting in an exaggerated X-shape silhouette.
This fashion trend significantly departed from the high-waisted Empire style of the early 19th century. It allowed for more freedom of movement and comfort.
Outerwear / Cape
During the Romanticism period, it was ordinary for women to wear a mantelet, a kind of small cape, over their dresses. The mantelet was made of sheer fabrics and had lace trim. The front of the mantelet had a long train that hung in the front.
The mantelet was a popular accessory because It not only covered the shoulders but also added elegance and sophistication to the whole outfit.
In addition to their clothing, beautiful ladies also paid attention to their accessories for Victorian era fashion.
Popular accessories during that time included hats, shawls, and shoes.
Hats were mainly divided into turbans, caps, and bonnets.
Turbans were headwraps mainly for evening dresses, while caps were brimless hats worn during the daytime. Bonnets were coal-scuttle-shaped hats tightly tied under the jaw and closely attached to the head.
They were all trendy for different occasions.
The capote and the Paisley shawl were two of the most popular shawls.
The capote was a short, silk-or-lace shawl often worn over formal attire. On the other hand, the Paisley shawl was a long shawl made of fine wool and featured a distinct Paisley pattern. Besides fashion items, they were also a status symbol because their materials were always costly. Paisley shawls were imported from India, and fibers of capotes were usually silk or cashmere.
Additionally, women often wore slippers and cloth boots to cater to Victorian era fashion.
Slippers mainly consisted of silk or crepe and matched the wearer’s dress color. Ladies always wore them at home and considered them a comfortable and elegant shoe option.
At the same time, the materials of cloth boots were mainly sturdy clothes. Their characteristics were adjustable side panels for a snug or loose outfit. Ladies wore them for outdoor activities.
During the Romanticism period, wigs were almost everywhere in Victorian era women’s fashion. An interesting wig style that prevailed among women was the “Apollo Knot”.
Ladies would fix their artificial hair to the top of the head and then decorate the hair with flowers, feathers, combs, jewel-encrusted tortoise shells, and Swiss bodkins.
This elaborate hairstyle was particularly prevalent among upper-class women because the decorations on their heads were obvious signs of wealth.
Well then, the Romanticism period of Victorian era fashion was truly a feast for the eyes and a celebration of the female form. We have covered women’s clothing, including undergarments, dresses, outerwear, accessories, and hairstyles. Finally, we hope you can grab the gist of Romanticism – Ladies were not afraid to embrace their femininity and show their natural beauty!
The next time you feel too subdued, please remember the ladies during the Romanticism period of Victorian era fashion. They were proud to go out and make a statement with their fashion. So, go ahead to make your style and show your fantastic body!
In the following posts, we will introduce the other periods of Victorian fashion (the new Rococo period, the Bustle period, the “S” period, and the Hobble Skirt period). You can also take a taste of the American Gilded Age fashion inheriting the trend from the Victorian era in this article. Feel free to leave a comment if you like ~ We are always here to exchange brilliant thoughts!