Dressing a Victorian Heroine
by Mia Marlowe
Unlike the Regency, which technically only lasted for 9 years, the Victorian age spanned decades. Queen Victoria reigned from 1837 to her death in 1901. Huge changes in women's fashions occurred during that period. When discussing Victorian women's fashions, you really have to narrow the focus to a decade at most.
Touch of a Thief is set in 1859, when women's skirts were well on their way to the maximum width of 60 inches across. Bodices were fitted and waists cinched tightly. Victorians loved bright colors and new aniline (coal tar-based) dyes allowed them to experiment with color combinations and patterns that might seem garish to our eyes. And in order to create the silhouette we associate with the Victorian era, women began wearing structured foundation garments not just to support their figures, but to remold them into the desired shape.
Dressing a Victorian lady began with her chemise, a slip-like garment and beneath that a pair of drawers. By mid-century, drawers reached only to the knees and the crotch was an open slit. (Before you express your shock, consider how difficult a trip to the chamber pot would be in full Victorian regalia if you actually had to remove part of your clothing.)
On top of the chemise came the corset. Women didn't necessarily lace themselves silly every day. They were more likely to reserve the most severe lacing for special occasions like balls. And yes, there was a reason they called them "fainting couches." If a woman severely restricts how far her rib cage can expand and then engages in a vigorous reel, she'll very likely to become involuntarily horizontal.
Something had to keep those yards and yards of skirts from pooling around a lady's legs. The next step in dressing a Victorian lady is the crinoline. In earlier decades, women made do with layers of stiffly starched petticoats, but in 1846 the hoop skirt was invented. It was a system of steel rings suspended from a ladie's waist by tabs of fabric. Believe it or not, women embraced this new development whole-heartedly. It was much lighter weight than the reams of petticoats and, amazingly enough, was considered far more comfortable.
Lastly, the lady's skirt was slipped over her head and fastened at her waist. If her bodice is a separate jacket-like garment, it may be fastened with gold frogs or decorative buttons. Detachable under-sleeves might be added at the wrists and a dickey-like chemisette would insure that the neckline was modest. Cotton stockings gartered at the knee and kid boots complete the ensemble.
Now our Victorian lady is ready to face her day. Lest you think women had it rough, you might want to check out my blog on Undressing a Victorian Man! I want to thank Eliza for inviting me here today. And I'd like to thank all who leave a comment or question. One lucky commenter will receive a signed copy of Touch of a Thief! To learn more about my Victorian world, please visit MiaMarlowe.com