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Beauty through the ages - the Victorians

A period of corsets and petticoats galore!

Author: Charlotte Kuchinsky September 22 2007

four Victorian women

The Victorian period was, in many ways, an exercise in opposites. While to many it represented a puritanical time in history, to others it served to open the door to ultimate liberalism.

At the start, the Victorian era was about modesty and natural beauty. Women of higher class practiced restraint with their makeup. Although many still used powder to tone down shine and give the skin a lustrous glow, it was used sparingly. Even eye shadows and lipsticks were very pale in tone and carefully applied. Bold colors and heavy makeup application was initially considered taboo and was used only by prostitutes. The use of cosmetics actually became controversial with many religions banning them as immoral or labelling them as “the tools of the devil”. Eventually this stance backfired, making women once again want that which was considered “naughty”.

Hair in the Victorian era was quite demure. It was often pulled back off of the face and placed in a chignon, bun, plaits, or even curls. Long, gentle curls were used to accent the face at the sides or even in the back. Smaller baby curls sometimes accented the forehead as well. It wasn’t uncommon for women to slick back or oil their hair to assure a smooth style. Even men took on a more modest stance, wearing their hair far shorter than any period prior. Curls were acceptable even in men’s hairstyles as was the use of oil to smooth out a difficult coif. In contrast, however, Victorian men often sported a mustache or beard and sometimes allowed their sideburns to grow.

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Femininity was at its height during this era, particularly with regard to women’s under-garments. Lace, frills, and flounces the order of the day, every day. Clothing was done and then overdone just for good measure. Women wore layers of clothing, beginning with muslin pantaloons and ending with multiple petticoats, which often added as much as much as 15 additional pounds of weight.

Depending upon the time of year, petticoats could be made of muslin, calico, or flannel. Some might be quilted while others would be reinforced with stiff wire, horsehair, or whalebone. Many would be heavily starched to ensure that the outer garment hung properly. The last - or outer - petticoat generally included pleats or tucks and would sometimes be embellished with embroidery or ribbon flowers. Pleats were often used to draw up the outer skirt to show the delicate outer petticoat underneath. However, care was taken to cover the entirety of a woman’s body. Even an exposed ankle could be considered scandalous.

Eventually, the petticoats gave way to the slightly easier to wear crinoline and finally the awkward hoop or “cage.” Like it sounds, the cage was often made of a steel frame over which the outer skirt could easily flow. It could measure as much as eight to ten yards around. That, of course, made it and its overskirts somewhat difficult to maneuver. It was also dangerous if a woman wasn’t fully aware of her surroundings at all times. Many an embarrassed lass stood too close to candles and found herself suddenly encased in flames. It was impossible to move quickly when encased in the cage. In fact, movement of any kind was extremely difficult. Sitting in the cage was an exercise in futility as the skirt blew up to show everything it shouldn’t underneath.

As the Victorian era came to its end so did the cage and its predecessors, making way for the bustle; a different, but just as ingenious, form of torture. Like the crinoline, the bustle was typically made with whalebone although it was used in a totally different way. But the bustle proved almost as difficult to maneuver as its predecessor, the cage. Additionally, it had the unfortunately effect of magnifying what was often the largest part of a woman’s body – her backside. And sitting in a bustle was virtually impossible. In rebellion many women slowly returned to their petticoats which they began to wear in much fewer layers, just for comfort.

You can’t talk about the Victorian era without addressing the corset. Victorian women were very aware of their bodies and wanted them to look the best they could possibly be. That, of course, included a desire to whittle away the waistline. Corsets accomplished that in spades. However, they were often difficult to wear, not allowing women to breathe correctly or even sit down with any degree of comfort. And many a woman broke a few ribs trying to corset her sixteen-inch waist down to twelve.

Garment sleeves of this era became narrower along the arm but sometimes featured a puff top. Sometimes, layers of buttons or hooks and loops were used to severely tailor sleeves tight across the arm. This style left little room for ease of movement. Oddly enough, this added to the demure, shy, coquettish look that was so commonly associated with the era.

Evening gowns often featured exposed decolletes, which were sometimes partially masked by sheer fabrics or laces, and other times left wide open and off the shoulder. This style, however, was only practiced by the upper class. Women of middle and lower classes wouldn’t be caught dead showing off that much skin.

Victorian clothing, for the upper class, could be quite elaborate. It was often made with rich, luxurious fabrics like heavy taffetas, thick silks, and plush velvets. Colors were mostly soft and pale with delicate patterns that added to an overall ladylike appearance. Mid and lower class women went for garments that were more utilitarian in nature. These were made from muslins, linens, calicos, and ginghams but still featured slight embellishments typical of the era.

The Victorian lady was totally dressed from the top of her head to the tip of toes. Seamstresses were employed to make certain that every garment fit her body perfectly. Those who couldn’t afford to hire someone from the outside, learned how to alter her own clothing. Corsetiers provided garments that suited each woman’s individual needs. Cobblers made certain that boots and shoes were both sturdy and beautiful. Modesty was often expressed with delicate white collars and lace accents at the bust line and on the sleeves. Soft, cashmere shawls were much-needed accessories for those women who dressed with exposed decolletes. Finishing pieces like hats, gloves, and umbrellas made certain that women were ready for every event and any type of weather.

Men’s clothing changed less drastically than their counterparts. It was, for the most part, formal and stiff. Shirts were usually done in neutral colors and were most often made of linen. Neckties or scarves were always part of a man’s dress, even when done casually. Everyday coats were utilitarian in nature while coats for special events were sometimes made specifically for the event. Cummerbunds offered a much-needed pop of color in everyday wear. However, older men would indulge in more luxurious fabrics like brocades, heavy satins, rich taffetas, crisp silks, and soft velvets.

As the Victorian era came to a close, it became obvious that rebellion was in the air. Both men and women were ready for a change and what a change it would turn out to be!

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Posted on 19/09/09 16:22 by: Margot

Very informative, thanks. Just one point: it wasn't an unfortunate effect of the bustle that it augmented the backside - that was very much the desired silhouette!
Posted on 23/09/09 19:14 by: Charlie Kuchinsky

I mean "unfortunate" by today's standards; not theirs. Sorry I wasn't clear on the point.

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