Dressing to Impress in the 19th Century

Eileen Baker’s talk and demonstration -20 February 2019

Members of the History Society arrived to find the front of the hall crowded with tables and mannequins festooned with all types of feminine garments in many colours and shapes. At the back of the hall was a display of books open at coloured plates.  Members were also given a very detailed handout.

Eileen spoke without notes and with the help of her husband, Tom she showed us many of the individual garments providing details of their purpose and provenance.

Eileen explained that she wanted to talk primarily about how, during the 19th Century, middle class women chose clothes that would impress others in their society and display the woman’s ideas of herself as an individual.

She told us that, until the 1850s, women learned all the skills necessary to make and repair clothes at home but later prosperous women could take advantage of innovations and developments such as shops, mail order catalogues, sewing machines, and then manufacturers developing from couture houses in Paris. Machine knitted stockings were also introduced.

Victorian women were seriously constrained by their clothing and accessories. A Victorian costume could weigh 14 lbs, and if they were to stay away from home for a night, they had to take a heavy dressing case. They needed numerous accessories, long kid gloves, silk stockings, reticules, fans, shoes as well as shawls to keep themselves warm.

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Dress accessories

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The illustration above charts the changes of shape from 1789 to 1914.

During the period following the French Revolution (c1789) and then the Napoleonic Wars, British women dressed in high waisted, soft, simple, modest, ankle length dresses. Many French women showed more flesh including their cleavage.

Then the economy recovered and as the British middle classes grew prosperous women began to display considerable luxury and embellishment in order to ‘impress’ and display their family’s wealth.

Around 1835 the profile was that of wider shoulders that often sloped downwards. The waistlines were lower as were the hems.  These trends continued and the crinoline was introduced to support wide skirts.

Eileen and Tom showed us a crinoline, a petticoat stitched onto several wide hoops. By 1865 the crinoline enabled women to display very wide skirts using masses of material. The overskirt would have a profile that was flat in the front and gathered into a bustle at the back. Eileen and Tom demonstrated how the bustle, a pillow like contraption, was tied to one of the hoops of the crinoline.

Eileen showed us a tiered dress in printed cotton voile, to be worn over a crinoline. She explained that the dye used in the printing was so primitive that she doubted it could be washed at all.

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Eileen showed us a fabulous wide deep blue silk organza skirt from 1860 to be worn over a crinoline.

By this time the skirt would reach almost to the ground. Eileen pointed out that the shape and length of the skirt seriously hindered movement. The crinoline was so impracticable that it was a relatively short-lived fashion.

She showed us several other garments, especially little jackets that were so lavishly embellished with fringes, buttons, tassels and beads that there was hardly any material showing. Equally however, many garments had been patched over and over again. These jackets could be very short, ending at the waist, and thus not likely to keep the wearer warm.

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Detail from a Spencer Jacket

Eileen showed us that, by 1885, the bustle had disappeared and there was a trend to straighter outfits with a peplum. By the end of the century, the skirts were plainer and narrower but the sleeves were very elaborate. They were often puffed up and very wide at the top, narrow and plain from elbow to wrist. Some women might have detachable sleeves.

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After the turn of the century the shape became narrower with a tight waist. Many Edwardian women adopted the uniform of narrow skirt, (including the hobble skirt which made walking very difficult), and blouse. The hourglass shapes often demanded a corset. Eileen pointed out that corsets had to be the province of the wealthy woman. Not only was their construction very labour intensive with their long lines of hooks and eyes, but the wearer would need help to get laced into it.

The ‘long’ 19th Century ended in 1914 as many women then had to begin to adapt their clothing to more active lives. (Eileen mentioned the Amelia Bloomer’s mid-19th century ideas to help women become more active.)

Eileen spent some time discussing the mysteries of the practicalities of life for these well to do women who chose to wear garments that displayed their wealth but limited their ability to move about. She demonstrated some evening dresses which were so heavily embellished that the wearer would have trouble sitting down as well as a straight cut white silk and lace dress so fine it could not be washed.

Eileen had brought her collection of underwear. Going to the toilet, sanitary protection and dressing while heavily pregnant were never discussed in public and we have very little information about these matters. Mending was evident, but how these delicate fabrics were cleaned and pressed was not.

Eileen answered a number of questions.

In answer to a query as to what was meant by the ‘long’ 19th Century she said the period covered the period from the French Revolution to the First World War, 1789 to 1914. Before the French Revolution the upper classes dressed ‘ridiculously’ and Eileen referred us to the exhibition of 18th Century waistcoats recently seen at Berrington Hall.

A number of questions from the membership focused on practical matters for Victorian women especially hygiene and laundry, and how women dealt with the changes in seasons. They tended to wear the same clothes all year round, covering themselves up against the cold but again Eileen said that she did not know the answers to many questions about these practicalities.

In answer to another question, Eileen talked about how she had assembled her wonderful collection of clothes from many sources from jumble sales to auctions. She told us she had always been fascinated by fabric rather than aesthetics, and by how different cultures had approached making garments from fabric, which is of course always flat and generally rectangular.

She was asked about a bonnet which is she told us incredibly fragile.

It was agreed that she has material for more sessions based on her collections of accessories, hats, shoes, bags, stoles.

The applause for Eileen and Tom was long and heartfelt and many stayed on to handle the clothes and look at the pictures in the books as well as speak individually to Eileen.

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