Women in Literature
Ms. Sirsky
The restrictive nature of
fashion in the last decade
of the 19 century reflected
the position of women in
the era.
Women concentrated their efforts on
their families. Very few women worked
outside the home. Female attire reflected
a husband’s wealth and position in
society. Improper behavior often affected
the husband’s business as well as social
Strict rules of etiquette
corresponded with the restrictive fashion
of the age.
Dressing for Day
Victorian women changed clothes
numerous times in one day with morning
dresses, tea gowns, day dresses and skirts,
and evening dresses. Considering the
amount of time needed to fasten the
numerous buttons and hooks and eyes, it
truly is amazing they had time for
anything else.
Table of Contents
Day Ensembles
Bodices and Skirts
Day Wear
Reference List
Ladies wore bloomers or drawers and a chemise
before donning a corset and corset cover.
*Click on the images to view the undergarments of the age.
*Click on the hyperlinked words to view information.
Petticoats followed the corset and corset cover.
Examples of Day Ensembles
Gibson Girl
* Click on center image for
* Click on right image for information.
* Click on image for information.
* Click on center image for information.
Bloomers or Drawers
The first layer of clothing for the
1890’s woman consisted of drawers or
bloomers. Mainly made of embroidered or
plain cotton, silk, or linen, they tied at the
waist or had button closures on the sides
and gathered at the knees with ruffles, lace,
or crochet edging and a split crotch.
Drawers came into fashion in the 1830’s
and have existed in one form or another ever
The chemise was a long loose cotton
garment, sometimes embroidered and
adorned with ribbons and lace, and usually
with extra trimming over the bust line to
add fullness. They definitely were loose and
worn as protection from the following layer,
the corset. A shorter version of the chemise
called the camisole is often worn today as an
outer garment.
Corsets have a long history in fashion. A corset
consisted of whalebone stays with a laced back that molded
the figure. The corset cinched the waist to the optimal fifteen
or so inches while shoving the bosom upward creating an
hourglass effect when worn with the bustle for the S bend
look of the era. By 1860, the corset no longer consisted of
steel, but the stays still consisted of whalebone.
Women wore corsets at all times and different corsets
were available for different activities: rustproof corsets for
swimming, shorter corsets for horseback riding, and elastic
inserts for housekeeping chores.
The injurious nature of the corset proved to
create many health problems. Corsets interfered with
breathing, digesting, sitting, moving, and childbirth.
Breathing became the most common problem
connected to the corset and the “vapors” or fainting
spells were a direct result of being unable to breathe.
Some women requested surgical removal of the lowest
rib bone to accommodate wearing the corset and
achieving a smaller waist. Corset wearing began in
the teenage years at the insistence of mothers feeling
it their duty. The length of time wearing a corset
created problems or death in childbirth.
Petticoats were worn underneath skirts and
dresses to add fullness. They were made of cotton,
silk, or flannel. The weather determined the number of
petticoats worn. In summer, only one petticoat was
worn, but in the winter up to five or six helped keep a
lady warm. Most Victorian undergarments were very
pretty and had elaborate embellishments of lace,
ruffles, and embroidery. Petticoats especially, had
trim extensively at the hem with ruffles and frills
where they might possibly be seen.
In the 1890’s, fashionable clothing consisted
of two pieces, the bodice and the skirt. This decade
returned a focus to the sleeve. The puffy sleeve,
known as the leg of mutton or gigot sleeve of the
1830’s returned. Rather than swelling from the low
dropped armhole of the 1830s, the 1890’s leg of
mutton or gigot sleeve was now set into a high or
normal armhole with the width at shoulder level
becoming narrow at the elbow to the wrist. Fullness
added to the skirt balanced the enormous sleeves
while keeping the slim waist accentuated.
As in the earlier period, evening dresses
often had a lace flounce added above the sleeve
to increase the impression of width. As skirts
became plainer, the tight, high-necked, highbusted, and long waisted bodice became more
ornate with lace jabots or frills, crossovers, or
epaulettes. The matching, but separate bodice,
often buttoned up the back or wrapped around
the torso in a maze of hooks and eyes.
Added width at the hemline balanced the width
at the shoulder. Gored skirts gave a close-fitting
effect over the hips, widening in a straight line to the
hem. Some pleating from the waistband was retained
at the back and a certain amount of padding was
added when necessary to round out the hips. A
preference for the tailor-made suit, and in particular
the image of the American Gibson girl, elevated the
combination of blouse or shirtwaist and skirt into the
realm of fashion.
Ready-made blouses were available in great
variety, high-necked and masculine or dressy enough
to wear with a plain skirt on informal evening
occasions. The tailor-made suit of the 1890s had a
three-quarter-length jacket, wide reverse and
enormous sleeves, a plain skirt to instep or ground
level, and might sport a waistcoat. Most Victorian
skirts were quite heavy and always fully lined with
muslin or silk and stiffened at the hem to help hold
the skirt away from the body. Because they were so
heavy, it was necessary to have hooks at the
waistband, which attached to the bodice to keep the
skirt in its place.
Fashion etiquette mandated that women
wear gloves when they went out in public.
Typically, they were white tight-fitting kidskin
gloves that fastened with up to one hundred
tiny buttons. First, women talcum powdered
their hands, then a glove stretcher was placed in
each finger of the glove to stretch the
leather. With lots of pushing and pulling, the
hand would finally somehow fit into the
glove. Finally, a special hook fastened all the
Further etiquette demanded completing
the Victorian outfit with a hat. During the
1890s, bonnets lost favor with the
fashionable although still worn by some
elderly ladies after 1900. Hats became widerbrimmed, worn high on the head over the
fuller hairstyle. Toques were often quite large
with drapes or ruches in velvet, silk, or tulle.
Trimmings, ribbons, flowers, and feathers still
emphasized a vertical line.
The fashion of the day dictated fair
and smooth skin. To achieve this, parasols,
a lighter version of an umbrella, protected
the skin from the sun. The parasol often
used the material of an ensemble with
adornments of lace They had more than a
functional purpose. Parasols were also a
form of communication as were fans.
Victorians were sticklers for detail, and that
included the detail on their shoes, as well. High-button
shoes were extremely difficult to wear, All those tiny
buttons had to be fastened with a hook called a "shoe
button hook". It was similar to the "glove hook", except it
was slightly longer because the buttons on shoes were a bit
larger than the buttons on gloves. They were typically
about six to ten inches in length, and the price for them
ranged between one and eighty cents, depending on the
construction material. Bone-handled button hooks sold for
about five cents while the rosewood hooks sold for six to
eight cents. Since the Bloomingdale's 1886 Illustrated
Catalog offered them for purchase singly or by-the-dozen, it
would have been necessary to have a variety.
Fashion Plates
Cathy’s Wee Victorian Page
Marquise de - Fashion Plates
Bissonnette on Costume
Timeline of Costumer History
*Click on the roses to view examples of 1890 ensembles
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