“but what did POOR Victorian women wear?”
unless they were crushingly poor, the same basic arrangement of garments as rich women, and the closest approximation of fashionable fabrics, colors, trims, etc. they could manage
let’s put it this way: don’t you generally wear the same articles of clothing celebrities wear? just from less expensive brands and sometimes- but not always, anymore -made in less luxurious fabrics? just because Kim Kardashian wears jeans by some big-name designer and your aunt wears jeans from Target doesn’t mean they aren’t both wearing jeans.
and I think this is really important to remember and tell people about, re: history, because it acts as a reminder that the human drive for beauty and self-expression through body adornment isn’t limited to the upper classes. and never has been
An Introductory Timeline of Western Women's Fashion
I think a good place to start to get into dress history is general overview of the whole timeline. Understanding especially how the silhouettes change is really important ground knowledge to build the rest of the information on.
I'll start the timeline from Middle Ages and go till the first world war. I'll focus on upper class England/French sector, so keep in mind that before 17th century there were huge regional differences in fashion inside Europe and class differences too. There is a lot variance, changes and nuance inside any century and decade I'm about to discuss, but I'll try to keep this short and introductory and very simplified. I used a very scientific method of basically what makes most sense to me to divide the periods. I've made sketches what I would consider to be the basic silhouette of the period stripped mostly out of the detail and then I give couple of primary source examples.
12th century (Middle Ages)
Dress was simple one or more tunics over a chemise. They were overly long for upper classes, made out of straight lines. There were loose tunics often worn over another tunic, and tunics with laced bodice called biaut. In France bliaut sleeves often widened from the elbow, in England they often widened in frists.
13th century (Middle Ages)
Clothing was mostly very similar as in the previous century, though bliaut was mostly gone and new popular style was a loose sleeves surcoat.
14th century (Middle Ages)
Tailoring basically revolutionized clothing production, since clothes weren't made out of rectangles anymore and could be better made to fit form. Also functional buttons and lacing was popularized resulting in very fitted styles. The underlayer tunic, kirtle, became a fitted supporting layer.
15th century (Middle Ages)
Improvements in weaving technology and trade and growing prosperity in Europe showed in clothing as excess of fabric and variety of trends. Houppelande, a loose A-lined overdress lined with fur and fastened with a wide belt under chest, became a very popular clothing item, and in later decades developed into the iconic Burgundian dress (the red dress). Fitted overdress continued to be popular alongside the warmer houppelandes.
1500s-1550s (Tudor period)
In the renaissance era clothing became increasingly structured and elaborate. The bodice was heavily boned and the skirt was also structured.
1560s-1610s (Elizabethan Era)
Both structuring and elaborate decoration reach it's peak during Queen Elizabeth's reign. She became the defining fashion icon of the late renaissance.
In baroque era the bodice was still heavily structured, but more curved than the conical Elizabethan bodice. Otherwise though structuring was replaces with dramatic excess of fabric.
In the late 17th century there was a huge shift in the clothing industry as mantua, a loose open robe inspired by Japanese kimono, came to dominate fashion. Rigid bodice was replaces by structured under layer, stays. Stays brought back the conical silhouette of Elizabethan era.
Mantua developed into the iconic Rococo dress in France, robe à la francaise (first example picture), and in England robe à la anglaise with closed bodice. Rococo fashion was characterized by the wide silhouette of the skirt.
Since Tumblr won't accept more than 10 pictures per a post I'll have to continue in a reblog. So to be continued!
'La M. de la Corsets': c. 1832 lithograph showing a dressmaker or tailoress and client. The undergarments depicted include sleeve-plumpers.
1830s Thursday: Big sleeves, and even bigger dreams for women’s rights.
The growing vulnerability of working women in industrial society provoked a forceful response. In 1825 hundreds of them went out on strike against New York City clothing houses. In 1831 these same women organized themselves into a mass-membership United Tailoresses’ Society. At a time when journeymen were still devoting their political efforts to a defense of artisanal prerogatives in the master’s shop, these “tailoresses” (the appellation itself testified to an advanced degree of industrial consciousness, excluding as it did the more traditional dressmaking of the “sempstress”) already understood that in a capitalist economy no aspect of the work relationship remained non-negotiable. [...]
No one can help us but ourselves, Sarah Monroe, a leader of the United Tailoresses’ Society, declared. Tailoresses should consequently organize a trade union with a constitution, a plan of action, and a strike fund. Only then could we “come before the public in defense of our rights.” The Wollstonecraftian rhetoric was conscious. Lavinia Wright, the society’s secretary, argued that the tailoresses’ low wages and hard-pressed circumstances were a direct result of the way power was organized throughout society to ensure women’s subordination in all social relations.
— Michael Zakim, Ready-Made Democracy: A History of Men's Dress in the American Republic, 1760-1860
I was disappointed in my search for pictures of Sarah Munroe, Lavinia Wright, or really anything to do with the United Tailoresses’ Society. One online article outright stated, “We know very little about this speaker, Sarah Monroe, other than that she was a garment worker and president of the newly formed United Tailoress Society -- the first women-only union in the United States.”
I am in awe of this working-class woman, Sarah Monroe, who is quoted by Michael Zakim as saying in 1831:
It needs no small share of courage for us, who have been used to impositions and oppression from our youth up to the present day, to come before the public in defense of our rights; but, my friends, if it is unfashionable for the men to bear oppression in silence, why should it not also become unfashionable with the women?
'The Tailor's Shop': 1838 lithograph by Carl Kunz and Johann Geiger
"Victorian dress" costumes are so fucking funny. Victoria was queen for six decades. In two hundred years party city is going to sell "second elizabethan era" costumes with 2000s low-rise jeans and 80s hair and a 50s blouse call it "historical costume 20th century Y2K Elizabethan hippie cold war vintage girl sexy" and I am ready
Dior Evening Gown (1957)
Designed by Christian Dior for the Baroness Alain de Rothschild and is currently part of the Victoria and Albert Museum’s collection
I’ve been rambling a bit about feminism lately, not sorry, and specifically about feminism and the practicality of corsetry. Well, here’s a video dissecting some other “stupid” fashions that women used to wear, that might not have been as ridiculous as “performed femininity” alone.
- Ridiculous puffy sleeves made it difficult for men to touch women’s arms without permission.
- Gigantic hoop skirks made a personal bubble where men simply could not approach women without permission, and made it possible for women to flash the forbidden LEG at men they did want in their bubbles, so to speak, without too much censure.
- Oversized bonnets made it very, very difficult for men to “steal a kiss,” which men thought was saucy flirting rather than, you know, sexual assault.
- Bustles made it almost impossible to grab a woman’s butt without permission.
- Those insane hats made it so that “respectable” ladies simply could not go out in public without a pointy metal object large and strong enough to be used as a weapon for self-defence.
Just remember that if most of the articles complaining about “frivolous” women’s fashion are written by men, there’s probably a real reason why men, specifically, were annoyed by them. Peformed femininity is a thing, yeah, but women in history dealt with the same shit we do now and they had to come up with their own solutions to it.
I was talking to my mom about how exciting it is that the field of fashion history is now a recognized academic field, but I mentioned how, like most academic fields in the beginning stages, it's very eurocentric. At most you'll get dress historians who focus on Chinese and Korean fashion but I'm really interested in indigenous or African or South American fashion but that's very understudied because it's hard to parse those areas from the colonial influence they were conquered by
But then I realized that I could be that person who expands the field to those new areas and I just got SO excited
From the depths of the museum collection... emerges what looks like Madame Giry’s Masquerade cape. This one is made of fine black netting with intervowen black beads, and it’s lined with black cotton. It’s dated to c. 1890. I especially like the outline of big faceted black beads. Such a statement.
(from The National Museum in Norway)
GUYS ITS HAPPENING WE FUCKING DID IT WE THE CHEMISE A LA REINE IS COMING BACK
I found myself surprisingly emotional when I discovered this extant 1840s shooting jacket and vest, dated to England circa 1843, in the collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. It is made of wool/silk velvet (plush), according to the description.
In one of the earliest biographical pieces about Captain Marryat, published anonymously in The Cornhill Magazine in August 1867, an old friend of the Captain reminisced about a trip to his estate in Langham, Norfolk, to visit the then-reclusive writer in the 1840s, finding him dressed in a shooting jacket:
At the time I now speak of him he was fifty-two years of age; but looking considerably younger. His face was clean shaved; and his hair so long that it reached almost to his shoulders, curling in light loose locks like those of a woman. It was slightly grey. He was dressed in anything but evening costume on the present occasion, having on a short velveteen shooting-jacket and coloured trousers. I could not help smiling as I glanced at his dress—recalling to my mind what a dandy he had been as a young man.
The date would be approximately 1844, and Marryat's biographer Tom Pocock plausibly suggested Frederick Chamier as the identity of the anonymous writer.
In her father's Life and Letters, Florence Marryat also described Captain Marryat in a shooting jacket: "mounted on 'Dumpling' [his shooting pony] and attired in a velveteen shooting coat, mud-bespattered highlows, and a 'shocking bad hat,' he used to ride about his farm in all weathers."
To have a visual for this garment is amazing—it looks so soft and inviting.
The Skinny and the Wide of the 1950s, Simplicity 9449
Although this pattern from Simplicity is marked 1960s, it has many of the hallmarks of a 1950s pattern. Of course, fashion trends have never fallen exactly into decades anyway. Christian Dior’s New Look came out in 1947, two years after World War II which had required women all over the world to conserve fabric. The New Look’s soft shoulders, trim waist, and long and full skirts became the new fashion for years, but there was also a skinny skirt version which we tend to forget.
By the end of the 1950s, skirt length had crept up from lower calf to a bit below the knee as you see here. A back kick pleat is needed to make it possible to walk since most women’s natural stride is wider than the skirt. That fitted look at bust, waist and hips gave us the mid-50s obsession with the sheath dress. The 1950s sheath for daytime usually had sleeves and far more details than our current sheaths.
This pattern comes in modern sizes and gives you both the full and the skinny look in a dress, a skirt or a jumper. It allows for both a daytime look in a narrow jumper and a evening look in a wide skirted dress. To achieve the enormous width of the pattern illustration, you will need a stiff petticoat underneath or a very stiff fabric.
You can make it in any kind of fabric according to the pattern envelope, from plain cottons for a summer dress, to wool or corduroy for a fall jumper, or velveteen for a dressier look. I could also see it in dressier stiff silks, without the pockets, and with a little jacket to stay warm this winter. So many possibilities in a single pattern.
Find it at your local fabric store, or online here: https://www.simplicity.com/simplicity-storefront-catalog/patterns/brands/simplicity-sewing-pattern-s9449-misses-dress-jumper-and-skirts/
thinking about the museum guests who get surprised by our photo of an Irish-Canadian immigrant maid on her wedding day, because she’s dressed indistinguishably from a wealthy woman of the same era (to modern eyes, at least)
and the thirtysomething Black femme sapphic couple I talked to at another museum who had never seen extant images of Black women in fashionable Victorian clothing until that week, and were absolutely delighted by them
thinking about how empowering it can be for historically oppressed people to learn that, no, beauty and elegance and artistic expression within this specific cultural framework were not the exclusive purview of wealthy whites until like 1920
(thinking about who it serves to erase those images and that knowledge from the public consciousness)
Sewing Medieval Bathhouse Dress
I'm a big boob person and for me bras have always been very uncomfortable. They never support enough even with the metallic wire support as the elastic strap is not secure enough and that wire curve is also just uncomfortable. My shoulders are also always aching because of the pressure put on shoulders. But no bras is even more uncomfortable especially if I have to do anything else than sitting. Which is why I have been considering testing out historical options ever since I got into historical sewing.
When it comes to historical sewing (and to some extent sewing in general) I'm still a noob and so I have been quite intimidated by stays and corsets and I've figured I'll start with medieval supportive garments, like kirtle, as they are much simpler. Then I saw the video where Morgan Donner made a bathhouse dress and I immediately wanted to test it out too.
Bathhouse dress is a garment that appears around 14th to 16th century in central Europe, mostly around Bohemia, Austria and German states and their vicinity. Perhaps the most famous finding of this garment is the Lengberg Castle Bra found in Austria.
It's often called medieval bra because it has cups like bra. I think that's somewhat misleading as it was a full dress and this is just fragments of the dress. There's theory that there's only this left because the larger continuous pieces of linen were cut off and used for some other garment. The dress was quite different from shift, the usual loose undergarment that would be used under supportive kirtle around most of Europe at the time. It was sleeveless and tailored with lacing, usually on the side. The reason it's often called bathhouse dress is that there's a lot of depictions of it in bathhouse use, especially in Bohemia, and these depictions are sometimes referred as Bohemian bathhouse babes.
All of these types of garments didn't have cups like this example from 1389 Bohemia, and there were a lot of different designs. There's different shaped bodices, some had waist seem, some didn't. In German the garment with cups was called breastbag at the time. In the literary mentions there was often degrading tone when talking about it, and it seemed that the writers at least thought women who used breastbag were "showing off". When have men not complained about women's fashion in a patriarchal society? Perhaps with the other designs there wasn't similar derision. The writings and some other depictions of the garment suggest that it was used more generally as an undergarment and not just for bathhouse. Which would make sense as it would seen uncharacteristic for Middle Ages to tailor a supporting garment (not cheep) just to use in bathhouses.
Here's a potter wearing similar garment with different design from late 15th century Austria.
Another one from mid 15th century Austria of a woman putting clothes on and obviously wearing the dress as undergarment.
Here's a German example from late 15th century of a woman wearing it as a nightgown, which shift was also used for.
The sewing part
If you want a tutorial, go and watch that Morgan Donner video linked in the beginning, I'm not a good source on sewing, especially historical.
I wanted to make my version of the dress fairly historical, but I wasn't too concerned with making in exactly right as it's purpose is for daily use and not historical costuming. I hand-sewed it with historical techniques though, but the patterning part was quite chaotic and I basically came up with it as I went so there ended up being some weirdness in finishings as I didn't plan far enough.
So here's how it turned out. I very intentionally made it much shorter than it should be. Most depictions have it reach half calf. I was making it for daily use and not historical costuming and I have a lot of knee length skirts, so I wanted it short enough for that. I actually made the bodice and skirt into separate pieces that are just loosely whipstitched together so I can use them both alone too, especially the bodice with trousers.
The shape of the bodice isn't historical. The cleavage goes fairly high and is fairly straight in most of the historical examples (especially with the cups). Even the Lengberg bra originally had crochet covering the chest area. But again that wouldn't have fitted so well with a lot of my modern clothing, and my purpose wasn't historical recreation.
As I was talking about the pretty weird finishings, here you can see them. The result isn't very neat, but it's fine.
I have been wearing this now a couple of months and I'm in love with it. It's much more supportive while being also so much more comfortable. The lacing on the side distributes the force around the waist, so it doesn't put nearly as much pressure on my shoulders. It's made entirely out of linen and is very nice against skin and as it doesn't have any metallic wires it also doesn't press anywhere. It also is just much more flattering than bras at least for me. It doesn't work that well without the skirt, the waist starts wrinkling and moving up, but the skirt keeps it pretty straight. The bodice is also slightly too long and it doesn't sit exactly on my waist, so it adds to the problem. It's not a huge problem though, it's just a bit annoying.
I'm planning to test out a version where I'll reinforce the eyelets with synthetic baleen instead of cord and put baleen in the other side too and maybe in the center front so I could use it as a separate undergarment without the annoying wrinkling. I'm also planning on doing 16th century kirtle bodice or the full kirtle (or both maybe as separate but attachable pieces, like with the bathhouse dress) with either stiff interlining or boning and Regency short stays. I want to test out different types of supportive undergarments in my quest for better bra options. Maybe after I've done them I'm ready to try Victorian corset too.
Satin silk waistcoat, embroidered with silk and chenille thread. Dated to the 1830s, the waistcoat is lined in glazed twill, and is backed in black silk with a pair of black tape ties for adjustment. (The John Bright Collection)
Floral Cotton Day Dress (c. 1872)
This light summer dress is from France and is currently part of The Met’s collection
I just know that if I met a vampire irl I’d end up trying to put their clothes in a museum. They’re like “ah yes I have had this shirt for the last several hundred years” and it’s like ok I’m gonna faint now. Can you imagine a piece that old still in good enough condition to be worn? Sure it’s probably been patched to high hell, but it’s intact. And you have the entire provenance in the form of its immortal owner. Like that’s crazy do vampires know how crazy that would be
Thinking about how so much corset mythology is rooted in dismissing women as vain and silly and too stupid to fight for their own liberation
Wow there are like no sources for this. If anyone has like a… idk a comprehensive and archeological backed source for Sumerian fashion please send
I am in pain.
Hey y'all dress history nerds!
Want a copy of Costume in Detail or Patterns of Fashion but they're (temporarily) out of print and also expensive as hell?
Here is a google drive full of all these references and links to other portals!
Go nuts, y'all
Update: due to unwanted activity, I need to keep track of people in and out of the drive. Shoot me a dm with your gmail and I'll add you!