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:
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.
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.
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.’
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!
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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:
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?