Wednesday, March 26, 2014

What did women wear in the l9th Century?

Hello, guest blogger Veronica Heley here.

I began to write my stories and to get them published when I was working on an old manual typewriter. I had seven historical novels published, and the fanciful view that illustrators had of fashion drove me to join the Costume Society, from whom I learned what people really had worn in the past. Nowadays I work on a computer and deliver my work by email, but I can’t say – sigh – that the women in my covers are more appropriately dressed.

What has struck me is how much society changed in the l9th Century. We take the Industrial Revolution for granted, bringing enormous changes in the workplace and driving men and women off the land to seek work in towns and cities. But what about the domestic scene? In the early l800s, typhoid and cholera rampaged through insanitary housing. Transport was by horse, coach or carriage and the road surfaces were not well maintained – no tarmac for a start. Letters were franked by local bigwigs until the Penny Post was introduced. At night lighting was by candle or the moon. 
With the introduction of the steam engine, everything began to change. Within a comparatively short space of time the domestic scene was altered for the better. Pipes were laid to bring fresh water into housing areas and to dispose of waste. Hurray for indoor toilets! Almost overnight cholera and typhoid disappeared. The wonders of gas lighting and electricity transformed the urban landscape and the houses of the well-to-do, shortly to be followed by the inventions of the telephone and the car.
And don’t let’s forget the bicycle. At the start of this era, an unmarried girl might take exercise on horseback, but she’d be accompanied by a groom. At the end, she’d be out and about on her bicycle, on her own, without a chaperon.

Women’s fashion made some momentous changes during this period. The young Queen Victoria, neck and shoulders bare, wore a crinoline under a voluminous skirt, and a tiny bonnet on her head. The boned top would be separate from the skirt. Little boys wore sailor suits. Little girls dressed similarly to their mothers’ but with tucks which could be let down as they grew. Queen Victoria dressed in much the same fashion till the end of her days – well, she did loose the cage of the crinoline and covered up her neck and shoulders – but everyone else moved onto other styles.
The crinoline went out. Skirts became slimmer, with a back interest which eventually led to the bustle. Trains were introduced for high society functions. I have examined some of these by the famous couturier Worth, and found to my astonishment that the reason these trains could seem to ‘float’ across the floor was because they were sewn onto a base stitched with rows and rows of stiff gauzy ruching, so that however heavy the fabric of the train might be, it did not actually touch the floor.

As the emphasis shifted from breast to behind, bonnets went out, and tiny hats came in. Shoulders were only bared at night, but however many courses were placed on the dinner table, women were still confined in corsets or stays. In time women started to exercise by playing tennis – still wearing hats! Waists got smaller; there were instances of a woman’s liver being almost cut into two by the compression of corsets. 

As skirts became slimmer, hats became larger and the emphasis moved to the famous leg of mutton sleeves. And then, just as you’d think there was nothing new, we had a different silhouette; slim of skirt but with a dropped waist and more emphasis on the bust, as in the Gibson Girl look. It took the first World War for women to discard their corsets, and when they started to work in offices, they took to the manual typewriter with gusto.

An early book of mine, Fear for Frances, first published in l977, showed a lowly governess in a tight-waisted crinoline . . . with a train . . . and leg of mutton sleeves. 

Do you wonder I joined the Costume Society? 


Veronica Heley Bio:
Veronica Heley celebrates the publication of her 72nd book in May 2014, having been  in the business for forty years. She lives in Gt Britain and is currently writing two gentle crime series with a Christian background, set in different areas of London. She also writes three short stories a year for the Methodist Recorder. She’s involved with her local church and community affairs, likes to break for coffee with friends and does the garden when she has time.  

FALSE DIAMOND, Severn House, March 2014.  (starred review from PW)

Bea Abbot runs a domestic agency whose watchword is discretion and whose clients do not  wear fake diamonds. The wealthy Holland matriarch, Sybil, is worried that her niece Dilys, is living in fear of her abusive husband. Benton believes he can get his way by violence, and has enticed Bea’s Member of Parliament son to his plans. How can she refuse to help her son out? Then Dilys tries to commit suicide . . . or does she? And what of the black sheep of the family, who may or may not be on the side of the angels?


  1. Glad I'm not wearing those corsets! sharon wileygreen1(at)yahoo(dot)com

  2. Women's fashion has certainly seen significant changes! Thank you so much for sharing this informative post!

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