Above painting: Louis Jean Francois - Mars and Venus an Allegory of Peace
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Monday, April 4, 2011

Guest Author, Mia Marlowe on Dressing a Victorian Heroine

Today I'd like to welcome guest author, Mia Marlowe to History Undressed!  She's covering one of my absolutely favorite topics--historical clothing!!! Thanks for visiting with us today, Mia!

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

26 comments:

Margay said...

Wow, did the children have it this bad?

Diva J. said...

I don't know about you, but I wouldn't mind wearing the clothes. Well, with some help putting everything on, of course. Thank you for a wonderful blog. I am also a very big lover of the Victorian Era. :)

Jena Lang said...

The clothes during the Victorian age were so pretty. Thanks for giving us a glimpse of what's underneath all that gorgeous fabric.

jenalang@live.com

Mia Marlowe said...

Margay--The concept of childhood was reborn in the Victorian era. Prior to that, children were viewed as small adults and expected to act like it. Children were cherish in the 19th century, all the more because child mortality rates were so high. But yes, children's clothing were similar to the adults, minus the corsets and exceptionally broad skirts that require a hoop. Dressing in layers was de rigeur for everyone.

Mia Marlowe said...

Thanks, Diva. Me too! Not sure how I'd enjoy housework in a hoop though. Oh, wait! I don't enjoy it now either.

Mia Marlowe said...

My pleasure, Jena. Thanks for dropping by!

lindalou said...

Thank you for your description of what our Victorian heroines had to go thru to get dressed! Oh my!
Great Give-a-way! Please enter me!
Linda T.
lindalou@cfl.rr.com

Chelsea B. said...

Not that the dresses are not beautiful, and I would leap at the chance to be able to wear one while not being looked at like I was a fool, but thank you GOD for the easy putting-on's of jeans! ;-)

BoxerIsis said...

Such pretty Clothing.
Melissa Daugherty

Anita Clenney said...

Fascinating! Very pretty but I'm so glad I live in modern times. I'll take my jeans and T-shirt any day. LOL.

Ameliad said...

Although the dresses were beautiful, I'm glad we don't dress that way now.

Mary Anne Landers said...

Thank you for your post, Mia. It's both informative and fun!

I once read in a book about the history of fashion---sorry I can't recall the title---a fascinating fact about the hoop skirt. Though it might look like a very decorous item of clothing when we see pictures of Victorian ladies wearing it, in practice it could be anything but.

When a woman wearing a hoop skirt walked, it swayed from side to side. It could sway a great deal, revealing more of what she was wearing underneath than she ever intended!

Good luck with your new release.

Janet Kay Gallagher said...

Mia,
Very interesting clothing article. Pictures are wonderful. Look where that corset is hitting you. OUCH!

Janet Kay Gallagher said...

This is a neat website. Have to stay and look around.

MiaMarlowe said...

Thanks for dropping by, Linda!

MiaMarlowe said...

Chelsea--It's all what you get used to, I suppose. For a woman accustomed to wearing a corset, it's not that bad, especially if she doesn't lace herself excessively. But I'm with you. Comfort is my watchword!

MiaMarlowe said...

Melissa,the styles were very feminine and really colorful.

MiaMarlowe said...

Anita-One of the things I love about writing full time is the ability to work in my "sluvvies." However if I was a Victorian, I wouldn't have imagined I could dress differently. People valued conformity, even to the point that calling someone a "pattern" sort was a high compliment.

MiaMarlowe said...

Ameliad--Me too!

MiaMarlowe said...

Mary Ann--Do you remember the wonderfully funny scene in The King and I when Anna makes the ladies of the King of Siam's household wear hooped skirts to meet the English visitors. They take fright at an Englishman's monocle, hoist their skirts over their faces and run away. Poor Anna laments that they were wearing practically no underclothes, but the Englishman didn't complain a bit!

MiaMarlowe said...

Janet Kay--That's why it was so essential that a woman wear a chemise under her corset. Not only did the washable chemise protect the expensive corset, it protected the wearer's skin from the heavy boning in the corset.

tlyons said...

fascinating information. I just love the victorian age! Although I find it hard to get american victorian information.

Mary Mary said...

I just found your blog and I think it's fascinating! As an historical writer, I love to see what others are writing about, where one gets his/her inspiration, and what little details go into the eras other writers choose to explore. Very nice!

Nancy Hardy said...

Very informative! I, too, love the Victorian Era, and while I would love to play dress-up every once in awhile, I much prefer the ease of modern clothing. :-)

She said...

Interesting post. The clothes from the Victorian Era are beautiful but I'm glad I don't have to put all that on everyday.

Eliza Knight said...

Thank you again so much Mia for stopping by! A fascinating post!!!


Winner of Mia's book is Jena Lang!