Queen Victoria in her mourning attire (c.1870s)
Royal Photographic Society
The Oregon and California Railroad Company used a great deal of Asian immigrant labor (c. 1870s)
(Image courtesy The Oregon Nikkei Legacy Center)
New York City- late 19th century
(image courtesy History Central)
Queen Victoria ruled England and Ireland until her death in 1901- making the Victorian Era one of the longest in history. For the purpose of these pages, the Victorian Era will be broken into a series of periods- The Crinoline (1850-1869), First and Second Bustle (1870-1890), and Turn of the Century (1890-1900).
In 1861, Prince Albert died of typhoid fever leaving England with a Queen in mourning. For the next ten years, Queen Victoria lived in seclusion- leaving the country and her empire to the leadership of her Prime Minister. Her solemn nature coupled with her ideals of marriage, family, and social conformity formed the values we now associate with the Victorian Era.
An example of these societal expectations was exhibited in women's dress. An 1872 Ladies' Book of Etiquette describes appropriate dress for the following activities or events: receiving visitors, visiting others, travel, walking, going to market, shopping, visiting new brides, mourning, and going out in stormy weather. Each type of dress was distinguished by type of fabric, presence or absence of trim, and suitability for the named activity. Not comprehending and adhering to these rules was the epitome of bad taste (FIDM Museum & Galleries, Nov. 19, 2010).
The 1870s saw a great boom in the textile industry. In Europe, the labor intensive hand looms were replaced by more efficient steam driven power looms. The result was a larger supply of textiles at a greatly reduced price. Other new innovations included a cloth cutting machine which could cut 18-24 thicknesses of fabric at a time. New finishing techniques such as mercerizing (a chemical process which increases cotton fiber luster, strength, and ability to accept dye) resulted in longer lasting textiles. The use of synthetic dyes (first introduced in 1856) resulted in bold, vibrant colors- some of the first being mauve, magenta, violet, brown, black, and green.
Worth gown in synthetic violet- c. 1870s
These new innovations, coupled with the introduction of the sewing machine in the 1840s, paved the way for both the mass consumption of textiles and the American mail order (or "ready to wear") industry of the 1880s-90s.
Hand Loom- c.1808 First Power Looms- c. 1820s
During this period, The United States was trying desperately to recover from a bloody four year civil war. Unsuccessful attempts by the Federal government to reconstruct the South left a legacy of extreme poverty, political corruption, exploitation, and terrorism.
In the Eastern cities, issues with industrialization and immigration resulted in pollution and unsanitary living conditions. In 1870, the first apartment houses were built in New York City to relieve the overpopulation of tenant housing. By the mid 1870s, the Eastern cities were bursting at the seams with the massive influx of new immigrants.
In an effort to rebuild the country and recover both the progress of earlier years and the economic losses of the American Civil War, The United States embarked upon reuniting the nation via the railroad.
Rapid railway expansion westward connected secluded geographical outcroppings to the larger cities back East. Railroad construction also provided work for the masses of new immigrant labor flooding the Eastern cities and brought emigrant families to unsettled areas of the American West.
(Image courtesy Vintage Textile)
3 gowns showing the varied silhouettes
of the Bustle period
(Museum of Costume- Bath)
Fashionable 1870s Lady in Evening attire
Fashion Plate- Peterson's Magazine
English visiting dress c. 1880
As more and more women began traveling, the oversized hoops of the Crinoline period became impractical. By the 1870s, the elliptical crinoline had all but disappeared- or rather "evolved" into a bustle (or a long narrow cage that rested at the back of the waist). In England, the bustle was referred to as a "dress improver" and in France, a tournure. However, from 1870-1889, the bustle would continue to evolve into a variety of different shapes and forms.
1870s crinoline with bustle
(The Victoria and Albert Museum)
Other undergarments for women during this period included the chemise, drawers, corset and petticoat. In 1875, the corset changed from the earlier Crinoline silhouette to a longer, sleeker shape. This "new" corset helped to flatten the stomach and smooth the hips. Also as the bustled silhouette narrowed, the use of combinations (a garment that combined both the chemise and drawers into one) replaced the separate chemise and drawers. (It is interesting to note that earlier mention of combinations came in Godey' Ladies Book in 1858. However, they were not widely adopted at that time.)
*Note how the petticoat has been opened to show the bustle underneath.
(The University of New Hampshire Museum)
Gowns of this period typically consisted of two pieces- a bodice and matching skirt. From 1870-1875, bodices were fitted at the torso and ended at either the natural waist or had basque waists- waists that ended below the natural waistline in either the front or back (or both). Gowns that ended at the natural waistline often had a small peplum at the back (see image below). Sleeves were fitted and either ended at the wrist or the elbow, and were finished with cuffs, flounces, pleats, or trim. Square, rounded, and V-shaped necklines were popular.
1870s era day gown with peplum over bustle (The Bowes Museum)
Skirts of this period had additional fabric at the back that was draped over the bustle. Some skirts were looped up or gathered over the bustle- known as the polonaise style. Other skirts extended a swag of fabric over the front of the skirt giving the illusion of an apron.
The princess gown was also popular. This style of gown was cut from one piece of fabric (from shoulder to hem without a waist seam) and used darts to achieve a smooth fit. This style of gown was also worn "a la polonaise" and included a matching underskirt. (It is interesting to note that a the princess gown appeared as early as the 1860s and is credited to the designer Charles Worth.)
Other two piece garments consisted of the skirt and blouse combination. Blouses were typically loosely fitted and belted at the waistline. They were often worn with a contrasting skirt.
For a brief period, a very slender and fitted silhouette emerged and gowns with a cuirass bodice came into vogue (see image at left). This period is commonly referred to as Natural Form.
However, the title "natural form" is a bit misleading. During this period, the circumference of the skirt narrowed and the bustle all but disappeared. Skirt fullness dropped to below the hips and sometimes employed internal ties to hold the drapery close to the legs. Heavily trimmed skirts hobbled the wearer.
The cuirass corset, (a long, tightly fitted corset) was was worn to create the smooth, controlled line from the upper torso to the hip. Natural form was not a long lasting fashion trend and by the end of 1883, the bustle had again regained its popularity. However, many elements from this period- including the longer, tightly fitted corset would remain prominent well into the 20th century.
Thanks to the home sewing machine and advancements in the textile industry, clothing could now be made quickly and less expensively than in prior periods. Mass produced trims, which had once been too costly for the average lady to afford, were now available en masse. Thus, dresses of this period were often lavishly trimmed.
Evening gowns from this period were of the same silhouette as gowns worn for daytime. Oftentimes, women had two bodices for the same skirt- one for day wear and one for evening wear. Necklines for evening wear were less conservative, highly trimmed, and had shorter sleeve styles. Sleeveless bodices were popular. Throughout this period, skirts with trains were worn for both day and evening wear.
Photograph of Lady in her Evening Attire
For reproduction Bustle Era women's clothing, please click here
1870s era suit for a boy under age 5
(Image courtesy Vintage Textile)
1870s era boy's dress
(Image courtesy Augusta Auctions)
Girl's dress c. 1876
(Kyoto Costume Institute)
1870s era Princess cut girl's dress
The Henry Ford Collection
The 1870s saw much travel for children as well as adults. In fact, train travel was considered so safe, children often traveled alone. Queen Victoria's love for all things Scottish brought kilts, tartans, and Glengarry caps into mainstream children's attire.
After the age of five, boys no longer wore the genderless dresses, smocks, and skirts of toddler hood. The Eton suit, tunic suit, and sailor suits of earlier periods continued to be popular. Short trousers and knickers with shirts and smocks were popular as well.
1870s era boy's smock
The Henry Ford Collection
Boys over the age 8 wore sporting suits- a four piece ensemble consisting of a four-button jacket, trousers (full length for adolescents), a shirt, and a contrasting vest.
Boy's sporting jacket and vest
(Image courtesy FIDM)
Girls' fashions (after the age of 5) followed the same silhouette as women's fashions- only they were shorter in length. The use of combinations replaced girl's pantalettes and mass produced stockings became readily available.
Blouses were worn under dresses and a variety of aprons were worn over them. In many cases, aprons served as both a decorative accessory as well as a way to protect the dresses underneath. Popular materials for aprons included gingham, muslin, and linen. Popular apron trims included hand- made lace, bands of contrasting fabric or tucking and embroidery.
(left) 1870s era apron (source unknown)