Why Did We Do That? (Or Evolution of Fashion Part 4)

Why Did We Do That? (Or Evolution of Fashion Part 4)

Last month’s post of the 1820s through the mid-1830s was largely about big sleeves and small waists. But now it’s time for the Victorian era, and that means big skirts and even smaller waists. We ended last month’s post with a dress of Queen Victoria’s, and I’m going to begin this month with another, this one from 1843:

Silk satin dress worn by Queen Victoria, 1843, Kensington Palace, London

You can see several of the trends of the time here. The waist is pointed, emphasising its narrowness, but the sleeves have started to come down in size. In her dress from the last post we were starting to see more shoulders, and we can see even more, now. The skirts have been flaring out more and more now, and in the 1840s this was achieved with many layers of petticoats. They have transitioned fully from layers to preserve modesty under transparent fabrics to layers that help provide shape to the outer garment.

Additional skirt volume could also be achieved with flounces as shown in this cotton muslin wedding dress from 1851, Victoria and Albert Museum, London

In 1856, though, a new development from Paris allowed for maximum volume of skirts: the crinoline. Made of steel (or alternate materials like whalebone or cane), the crinoline was in essence a cage that encircled the woman, allowing skirts to be voluminous without a bazillion layers of petticoat.

Crinoline shown with dresses from (left to right) 1842, 1857, and 1867, Fashion Museum Bath
Crinoline, Totnes Fashion Museum

Crinolines do not seem as though they would have been comfortable to wear. I mean, you’re basically walking around in a giant cage, with a giant skirt! However, Lydia Edwards quotes Charles Darwin’s granddaughter, Gwen Raverat, in her excellent How to Read a Dress (highly recommended for anyone who wants more reading on this subject): ‘Once I asked Aunt Etty what it had been like to wear a crinoline. “Oh, it was delightful,” she said. “I’ve never been so comfortable since they went out. It kept your petticoats away from your legs, and made walking light and easy.’

1860s dress, Bath Fashion Museum
1869-70 dress, with a crinoline in the background, Victoria and Albert Museum, London

I guess they were preferable to being weighted down with a bunch of petticoats, but my how far we’ve come from those nice light dresses of the Regency! They were dangerous, as well. Skirts were so large that it was not uncommon for women to bend over and accidentally have the end of their skirt wind up in the fire, so crinolines actually ended up killing a fair number of women as they caught on fire and burned to death. For these and mere reasons of space (buildings built during this era have super-wide hallways to accommodate the width of women’s skirts), men put up quite a complaint about them. They were unable to walk beside their wives because they were separated by their skirts!

A Splendid Spread, a satire by George Cruikshank on an early version of the crinoline

Whether they liked the fashion, or truly did find the crinoline more comfortable, women held to them. What certainly was not more comfortable was the trend in corsets. It was all still about accentuating the slimness of the waist (those big skirts formed maximum contrast to the waist above), and this was the era of tight-lacing corsets.

Victorian-era corset, Totnes Fashion Museum
Corset with a built-in partial crinoline, Wikipedia

Corsets at this time were boned with steel, rather than whale baleen, and the boning was so substantial that they no longer required arm straps. As you can see by the one above, they also ceased to be about separating the breasts.

Tight lacing of corsets held through the end of the Victorian era and into the Edwardian one, but apparently the Edwardians decided that just lacing them up tight wasn’t enough, and created the s-bend corset, which quite literally endeavoured to bend women’s bodies into an S.

Advertisement for Edwardian s-bend corset, Wikipedia

As you can see from her dress, we’ve evolved from the crinoline as well. in the 1870s and 1880s, dress shape altered to put all of the volume in the back, which necessitated a bustle rather than a full cage:

Bustle and a dress it would have been worn with, Totnes Fashion Museum
1870s dresses that would have been worn with bustles, Fashion Museum Bath
More late Victorian era dresses, Victoria and Albert Museum, London

In the 1790s the bustle went away, bringing dresses back into a more normal skirt shape. Since obviously something had to be exaggerated, they brought back the old leg of mutton sleeves of the 1830s.

Court dress, 1893, Seattle Art Museum
Side view of the court dress

Finally in the 1900s, dresses started to assume more normal proportions, often with a slightly higher waist. It’s important to remember, though, that these dresses were ones worn with s-bend corsets, so while they look perfectly normal on these mannequins, you have to imagine them on a woman whose midsection is being warped out of all proportion.

1900s dresses, with the dress on the right showing the slightly elevated Edwardian waist, Victoria and Albert Museum, London
1903 gown, Fashion Museum Bath

The most dramatic change that occurred in fashion since the Regency came after this, with the flapper styles of the 1920s, when women finally (mostly) threw off the tight corsets and various contraptions they’d been using for so many decades for light, short styles.

1920s dresses, Fashion Museum Bath

These things weren’t entirely gone, though, for some 1920s evening dresses were worn with a sort of light pannier to enhance the hips. For those of you who are Downton Abbey fans, you may recall this from Lady Rose’s court dress:

Lady Rose’s court presentation dress, Downton Abbey Exhibition, New York

But still on the whole, fashion was much freer than it had been since the Regency. Which brings me back around to the title of this series: “Why Did We Do That?” As you might have surmised by now, I don’t actually have an answer. Some of these fashion trends were established by male designers and inventors, who did not have to wear them. But women still went for them, and even in the case of crinolines were willing to risk their lives for the sake of fashion. Over the years, as a society we’ve decided on ideal shapes, some more natural than others, and contrived ways to make female bodies fit them.

Even today, as the article that sparked this whole series proves, women are still seeking to alter our bodies. Not everyone is back to wearing corsets, of course, but the popularity of Spanx and other shapewear certainly shows that we’re still altering the bits that we’re not so happy with. The only thing that’s changed is the broader range of silhouettes we’re trying to achieve, because fashion has given us far more choices than women of the past were allowed.

What do you all think? Why have women followed fashion at the expense of their comfort?


11 Responses to Why Did We Do That? (Or Evolution of Fashion Part 4)

  1. Great post! Reminded me of Gone with the Wind too!lol The dresses are so pretty but I don’t think I could function in such a big skirt!

    • Same here, Cindie…I think I would be constantly knocking things over! Thank you for your comment!

  2. I always think of that scene in Gone With the Wind where Scarlett has her corset tightened. No wonder women swooned. I think people follow so-called “fashion” to fit in or it is expected of them due to their position at work or in society. Lucky for me, I can dress for comfort.

    • Thank you for your comment, Linda! Yes I think it was pretty brutal with the tight-lacing of corsets…and then add on top of that the double whammy of gas lighting aka “the vapours” and it’s no wonder women were swooning. Agree I’m very glad I get to dress for comfort except when I truly want to dress up.

  3. My favourites here are the Queen Victoria dress and the 1860s dress. Thank goodness the bustle went out of fashion (and the corsets!)
    I definitely preferred the Regency styles for comfort!
    Thank you for this lovely series!

    • Queen Victoria had some very pretty dresses, didn’t she!?! I agree I prefer the Regency styles…I think that’s part of why the era appeals is they’re much more relatable. Thanks for your comment, Glynis!

  4. I admit to not having followed this series from the beginning, so perhaps someone has already commented. I have often wondered if severe corseting was the reason for the high rate of mortality in childbirth for both mother and baby. Many authors have written about the risks of pregnancy and childbirth pre-20th century, most notably Henry James’ Washington Square, altho’ many story lines are driven by a child or children being motherless. I have not yet been able to locate any documentation to prove or disprove this theory. Very interesting article, Sophie, and I greatly appreciate the illustrations. Once women started wearing full drawers, I imagine it might have been very comfortable to walk about in a crinoline — altho’ riding in a carriage was clearly not an easy matter!

    • Thanks for your comment, Janis! I’ve done a bit of reading on the mortality rates and from what I’ve read it had more to do with the lack of advanced medicine, in particular the inability to do a c section that wouldn’t kill the mother…I believe I recall hemorrhaging was a common issue that often led to a fatality in the mother, which they had no way of stopping. Not to say that tight corseting couldn’t have contributed though — I haven’t done as much reading on whether Victorian women continued to lace tightly or not once they were pregnant. Even the Victorian dresses were so much less suited for pregnant women! And yes, I have no idea how they got themselves into carriages like that…it seems crazy just to think about it!

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