Beyond Bustles: Women’s Victorian Fashion

Editorial Note: All of the gorgeous dresses you’ll see here are on display or are in the collections of some of the great museums in the United States and Europe.  WordPress went nuts when I tried to include the URLs to their pages on the museum websites, so if you want to learn more about these beautiful garments, click the hyperlinks.

When I say “the 1980s”, what women’s fashions come to mind?  How about the 90s?  Or the 50s?  I’d ask what your answer are, but for one, I can’t hear you through the computer and two, you’ve probably answered “shoulder pads” for the 80s and I think we can all agree we don’t need to talk about shoulder pads.

Admit it.  You wore them, too.

photo credit here

But I think I’ve achieved my point — mention a decade and people will readily answer with clothes that defined it.  And, thanks to Hollywood’s love affair with the period drama, the average person can usually point out that Jane Austen’s time period involved empire-waist dresses, the Civil War had hoop skirts, and the late Victorian Era was the home of the bustle.

The truth of the matter is that fashion is so much more interesting and oh, so much more complex than that.  Sleeve length.  Neckline.  Hemline.  Silhouette.  I could go on and on.  The lingo may be only partly familiar, or not at all.  I’m a historical reenactor; it’s my business to know these things.  But I started out like any one of you reading this right now – with absolutely no clue.  So I learned.  And so can you.

I’m going to focus today on one particular period of history — The Victoria Era.  Using myself as your example today, I’m going to show you how to get from A to B in just half a century.

me 1838me 1882
With the year difference between these two photographs, I could be my own grandmother.

(photo on the left courtesy of LaraCorsets.)

On the left, I’m modeling my 1838 look; on the right, my 1882 daywear.  How can I tell you exactly the year of each of these pieces?  Let’s find out.

One disclaimer I feel I must make clear is that while this article will discuss overarching trends, they are not absolutes.  I have seen many engravings, many photographs, and many extant garments over the years of anomalous styles.  Just like today, fashion trends carried over and bled into each other, so there is every chance you may come across a dress whose style markers say one thing but the date says another.  That’s the beautiful thing about it, really — fashion was always in motion, always in flux, and just because the latest catalogues said necklines dropped an inch, that didn’t’ mean women immediately took scissors to their dresses.

THE 1830s

Queen Victoria may very well soon be edged out by current queen Elizabeth II, but for now she remains the longest-reigning monarch of Britain and the longest-reigning female monarch in all of history.  When she inherited the throne in 1837, pouf was all the rage.

I wouldn’t lie to you.

Photo credit here.

As in any of the time periods in this article, much of the intent of women’s clothing was to achieve a certain silhouette — or body shape — via clothing and corsetry.  The ideal of the ’30s was to make the waist appear smaller by making the shoulders and hips wider; hence, big skirts and gigot (leg o’ mutton) sleeves.  In fact, an easy key to telling early- and late-30s dresses apart is where the sleeve is the widest.  Sleeves from the first half of the 1830s pouf at the shoulder and become more narrow at the elbow…a look which then swaps for the second half of the decade, with the sleeve fitted at the top and flourishing from the elbow to the wrist.


If you ever doubted that fashion was never meant to be practical, look no further.

Photo credits here and here.

Notice, also, the fullness of the skirts.  This is a look whose echo will continue all the way up through the 1860s’ full-fledged hoop skirts, but for now the look is achieved through layers upon layers of petticoats (underskirts) which were starched or “corded” (reinforced with rows upon rows of fabric cording to stiffen and shape the skirt), as in this example:


Photo credit here.

I only wear a few layers under my own 1838 dress, and even then the added weight is substantial.  I can only imagine what it was like for the women who wore them on a day-to-day basis.

THE 1840s

The beginning of the 40s was a bit of a carryover from the end of the 30s as far as general style, though the 40s showed more reserve than its predecessor.  The neckline helped accentuate (or create) a shoulder that sloped gracefully from the neck down to the arms.  A preference developed, beginning at the end of the 30s, for a bodice that ended in a point.  The desire for full skirts remained, though the 40s look was more of a “bell” shape that puffed out at the waist, whereas the 30s had been more of a “cone” that descended straight out from the bottom of the bodice.


Photo credit here.

Consider the 40s to be the sensible older sister of the 30s — similar schools of thought in regards to dress and body shape, but more subdued and practical than the Little Bo Peep days of the 1830s.


The advent of the 50s saw an increase in skirt volume, continuing the trend from the previous 20 years.


Photo credit here.

However, even with cording and starching within an inch of their lives, petticoats were quickly becoming impractical for achieving the desired skirt effect.  Not to mention they were bulky, heavy, and presented the wearer with innumerable ways to trip over the hems.  This realization led to…

THE LATE 1850s

The cage crinoline, invented in 1856, ushered in a whole new thought process and discipline of dress-wearing.  It allowed women to forgo layers upon layers of petticoats in favor of a hooplike cage which held the petticoat and skirts away from the body.


Photo credits here and here.

It’s not too hard to imagine the difficulties this invention posed.  For one, sitting down became its own adventure.

Yeah, that’s comfortable.

Photo credit here.

The crinolines were often made of steel spring to render them collapsible and squishable for navigating narrow doorways, but if a woman did not properly maneuver and collapse the rungs before sitting down, she risked revealing her undergarments and more to the general public when her own skirts betrayed her and flew up in her face.


Photo credit here.

THE 1860s

Skirts reached their maximum circumference in the early 1860s.  Low necklines were still in vogue for evening gowns, though for everyday wear collars were generally higher.  Sleeve design was on the move again, too, which had begun in the 1850s — the most recognizable design is the pagoda sleeve because of its wide triangle shape; however, by the end of the 60s the sleeves had narrowed once again.



Photo credits here and here.

As the 60s continued, the ideal for the female silhouette began to undergo radical transformation.  Instead of a bell or cone shape, crinolines were constructed so the skirt lay flatter on the front and sides, with extra volume in the back.  This made walking much easier, especially when it came to those doorways, though a lady still had to be careful to collapse her skirts before sitting down.  The bustle was officially on its way.


Many times, people see the bustle as the defining aspect of the late Victorian Era, but don’t realize that bustles came in, went out, and came back in again.  First was the Early Bustle Period of the 70s.

Because of the new shape of crinolines, with only the back extending, the entire thought process of women’s clothing changed.  Bodices, which up until now mostly went only to the waist before terminating in skirts, became longer and extended all the way to the hips.



Photo credits here and here.

Because of the shape of this new bustled style,  and the ability to drape fabric over them so attractively, women wore many layers of visible skirts – an “overskirt” and “underskirt”.  The underskirts were pleated or ruffled (or both) with a separate piece over the top that was attractively gathered to accentuate the bustle.


Around 1876/77, the bustle disappeared entirely.  Instead, the focus became tighter skirts and shapely bodices.  Women wore bum or hip pads to achieve the proper shape, but not to the extent of the bustle.  Whereas earlier women had accented the smallness of their waists with optical illusions (sleeves and wide skirts), the new style of bodice really needed the corset to do that work for them to keep that famous “hourglass figure”.



Photo credits here and here.

Sleeves were narrow and necklines were either high (and buttoned), square, or v-shaped — either way, far more modest than the low, sloping necklines of the 30s and 40s.  Note how, in the dresses pictured above, the brown one slopes more gently down the back, while the blue one has a bit more volume.  The brown ensemble is from 1879, right smack dab in the middle of the Natural Form period, whereas the blue is dated between 1880 and 1882.  The beginning of the 80s saw movement back toward the look of the bustle, because…


Around 1883 (depending on whom you ask), bustles came back.  And boy, did they come back.  Where the Early Bustle Period employed shaped crinolines, vestiges of the hoop skirt years, the 80s was all about dat bustle.



Photo credits here and here.

This is the image that most people seem to have in mind when they think of bustles — large, rear-skirt protrusions that could probably carry a full tea service or smuggle contraband.

I joke…or do I?

Look at it.  LOOK AT IT.

Photo credit here.

Again, sitting down was quite a chore.  Bustles were collapsible and could be folded up accordion-style when the wearer wanted to sit, but it certainly wasn’t easy.

It also becomes an effective weapon during highly-competitive games of musical chairs.  I know this from firsthand experience.

Photo credit here.

Though I love the bustle look, I prefer to wear the natural-form style, as I have a tendency to forget my own dimensions and accidentally smack people when I walk by.  Naturally the women who really wore bustles did so every day and I’m sure they were far more graceful about it.

I promised I would take you through fifty years of women’s clothing, from the 1830s to the 1880s, but the Victorian Age lasted until the Queen’s death at age 81 in 1901.  Therefore, in the interest of finishing what I’ve begun, here is…

THE 1890s

With the advent of the final decade of the 19th century, women’s clothing took on a far more no-muss-no-fuss attitude.  No bustles.  No hoops.  The shape of the corset changed around the turn of the century, as well, which contributed to the new look and feel.

Skirts were once again gathered or belted at the waist, the way they were up through the 60s, though not always.  However, the emphasis was back again to a “natural” look, even more so than the Natural Form period, aided by sleek A-line skirts.


Photo credit here.

Blouses and stylish jackets became popular, and sleeve size increased until disappearing after the 1900s.  It was probably for the best.


Photo credit here.

Here’s my own 1898/99 bodice, so new its’ only seen one event and I don’t have any pictures of me in it yet.  The event for which I made it is turn-of-the-century, so the sleeves are much more subdued than the above photos of actual garments.



By 1900, women’s clothing had officially changed for good.  Corsets lengthened so they also shaped the lower abdomen and hips, allowing for clothes to show “more” of a woman’s body than previously.  Dresses followed suit – the A-line shaped skirts showed off what the corsets held in place, and sleeve pouf was officially a thing of the past.  If you’ve seen the film Titanic (and statistics say you probably have), then you have a good basis of reference for women’s clothing in the 1900s through the teens.

Fashion is, and always has been, a reflection of the times.  The Victorian Era was one of modesty and beauty, and every decade brought something to the table that helped define one of the most fascinating time periods in history.  Yes, the skirts of the 60s were rather cumbersome.  So what if the sleeves of the 30s and 90s were rather overboard?  Those women probably would have something to say about our tank tops and short shorts.

And hey.  Maybe some day someone will write a blog post and say the same thing about shoulder pads.


Photo credit here.

Or not.

This was an article I originally wrote for my friends at CliqUnited.  You should check them out!


2 responses to “Beyond Bustles: Women’s Victorian Fashion

  1. That’s such wonderful information – Thank you! And fantastic pictures of the Victorian dresses!

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