The Victorian period ran from 1837 to 1901 and is named for Queen Victoria, who reigned during that time. It was a period that was transformed by the Second Industrial Revolution, the California Gold Rush, and the Civil War, to name but of few of the era’s landmark events.

At the beginning of this rich period, women’s dresses were bolstered by petticoats to give them shape. Bodices were tight fitting, as were sleeves at the wrists, although the arms were often either ballooned or ballooned-and-cinched in several spots to create a mameluke sleeve. On top of such garments, women would sometimes wear a pelerine collar or cape, which could be made out of everything from contrasting lace to a fabric that perfectly matched the dress underneath it.

By the middle of the century, several simultaneous impulses were in play. First, skirts reached their maximum circumference—some were 30 feet around. After getting as wide as traffic (literally) would allow, skirt widths slowly pulled back. One reason for the retrenchment may have been the invention of the sewing machine in the 1860s, which permitted more people than ever to make or alter their own clothes.

Around the same period, in the United States, the women’s suffrage movement was gaining momentum. Though it would take until 1920 for women in the U.S. to be granted the right to vote (women in England had to wait until 1928), in 1851 a woman named Amelia Bloomer began to wear the precursor to loose-fitting trousers. Bloomer did not invent the garments, but she promoted them heavily and so the word “bloomers” stuck. Later in the century, a few women wore similar pants when cycling or pursuing other physical activities, but trousers remained an aberration in women’s fashions until the 1920s.

Redingotes, which had been around since the 1700s, were now the standard costume for outdoor wear, accompanied, of course, by a sturdy bonnet. If it was cold outside, a ribbon-trimmed alpaca traveling cloak or coat could be worn over another garment. When indoors, women wore dresses with three-quarter-length sleeves and multiple flounces trimmed with lace.

The death of Prince Albert in 1861 sent Victoria into mourning for several decades, and fashion followed suit. Mourning jewelry and clothes were worn at court as a show of support for the queen, but not everyone felt so constrained. Many day dresses worn by the growing middle classes featured short trains in the back, above which were endless folds and pleats so that the outfits resembled draperies more than they did dresses.

Formal day dresses came with matching hip-length jackets and overskirts, below which was silk lining. Evening gowns were no less unrestrained. Sleeves ended at the elbows in a blur of ruffles, while the front panels, or plastrons, of these outfits were typically cut in hourglass shapes from the same material used for the dress’s trim. Bows and sashes made the costumes look even more like the ornate trophies they really were...

As the century drew to a close, one of the most popular style variations was the leg-o’-mutton sleeve. Like the cut of meat for which it was named, these sleeves were big and thick at one end (in the case of the dress, between the elbow and the shoulder) and narrow at the other (from the elbow to the wrist). These sleeves were part of a bigger general trend as fashions were moving toward what would become the Edwardian archetype of the top-heavy, Gibson Girl, defined by big hair, bigger hats, a full bust and shoulders, and a narrow wasp-like waist.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

MyVintageVogue

MyVintageVogue

The history of 20th-century women’s fashion largely played out in the pages of magazines such as “Harper’s Ba… [read review or visit site]

The Scrap Album

The Scrap Album

Malcolm Warrington’s The Scrap Album is a handsomely organized site, as you’d expect from an articulate champio… [read review or visit site]

Fashion Columbia Study Collection

Fashion Columbia Study Collection

The Fashion Columbia Study Collection (FCSC) is the digital home of the Columbia College Chicago’s fashion archiv… [read review or visit site]

Stevengraphs Bookmarks and Postcards

Stevengraphs Bookmarks and Postcards

Malcolm Roebuck's tribute to the ornate silk picture bookmarks and postcards ('Stevengraphs') produced by Thomas St… [read review or visit site]

1960s Fashion and Textiles

1960s Fashion and Textiles

Put on your go-go boots and check out this wavy, groovy tribute to 1960s fashion and textiles, courtesy of the Vict… [read review or visit site]

Vintage Fashion Guild

Vintage Fashion Guild

While primarily designed to steer buyers to online vintage clothing shops, this blog is chock full of interesting, … [read review or visit site]

Fashion-Era

Fashion-Era

Bursting at the seams with content, this site contains hundreds of pages of fashion and costume history, including … [read review or visit site]

The Antique Corset Gallery

The Antique Corset Gallery

Take a deep breath, and check out this sparse, simple, and beautifully designed site showcasing 250 years of corset… [read review or visit site]



Clubs & Associations

Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

1040, 1900 Warped Printed Rose Ribbon Work Silver Lame Lace Ballgown1041, 1860's Floral Printed Wool Daytime EnsembleAntique Victorian Edwardian Old Stock Near Mint Bustier Fleur Delis Kabo CorsetVictorian Antique 1890 Cream Beaded And Lace Bodice Wedding Gown Dress-xxs!Antique Victorian 1880's Silk & Brocade Lace Ball Wedding Gown Study Opulent 1880's Silk Bustle Wedding DressOriginal Antique Silk Civil War Era Dress For Study Display Late 1800's Victorian Walking Suit D Mccarthy & CoAntique Victorian Green Silk Bustle Dress With Corset Stays In BodiceAntique Victorian Wedding Embr Petticoat Normandy Lace Flounce & Silk RibbonAntique Victorian ~edwardian White Lawn Dress With Pintucks And Lace~small SizeVictorian 1880’s Double Layer Gray Polonaise Bustle Skirt W Draw StringsVictorian Ivory Silk Satin & Lace Wedding Gown Dress-xxs!Antique Victorian Edwardian Tassel Trimmed Tuck Pleats Tea Dress LargeAntique Victorian Lavishly Embroidered Lace Applique Beaded Fancy Jacket Ornate Rare Antique Mid 1800's Pre Civil War Embroidered Dress Wool Petticoat Skirt OldPretty 1860's Pink Cotton Dress Study Or PatternVictorian Gay 1890’s Black Striped Silk Skirt W Taffeta Flounce BottomVintage Edwardian White Batiste Blouse Handmade Pintucks Embroidered Lace Sz 4/6Rare Antique 1800's Victorian Linen Print Day Dress 1880's Bustle Museum Doll 1900 Cafe Au Lait Embroidered Shawl Chinese Piano ShawlDecorative 1860's Cotton PelerineVictorian Blue Cotton Dress W/soutache Waist 40-26-42 As IsDocumented 1860's Cottonprint Dress & Chenille Velvet HeaddressAntique Victorian Edwardian Teen? Size White Linen Tea DressAntique 1800's Prairie Farm Edwardian Day Dress Cotton Primitive Civil War Era?Bound 1883 Peterson's Magazine~womens Fashion Plates~24 In ColorVictorian Floral Wax Wedding Headdresses1860 Fine Wool Challis Printed Shawl Scottish OriginsAntique Victorian/edwardian Bustle Long Slip Petticoat Some Lace Shear TlcAntique Cotton & Lace Nightgown, Petticoat, Wedding Slip Or Chemise Antique Corset Cover Camisole W Ric Rak Trim Strong Heavy Cotton With Peplum Antique 1800's Women's Black Velvet Vest/ Bustier Top-silver ButtonsC1790-1800 Hand Stitched Linen Bonnet W Metallic Embroidery Handmade Lille Lace Exquisite 1800-1820 Embroiderd Fichu/neck ScarfEarly 1830-40 Cotton Candlewicking Embroid. PetticoatWonderful Orig Indian War Era Womens Ca 1870s Western Bodice Top -antique LaceVintage Antique Silk Shirt Waist Blouse Dress Top-striped1860's Iridescent Copper Flame & Gold Silk Dress W/cartridge Pleating, Lace TrimAuthentic Antique Victorian Mourning Cap Or Hat~ Black Silk? & Crochet, RibbonAntique Victorian 1800's Ivory Lace Wedding Gown Dress --- Look!!!!!!Antique 19thc Ecru Lace Shawl- Embroid & Applied On NetBlouse Bodice Womens Victorian Blue Satin Lace Antique 1800sVictorian 19th C Bodice W Embroidery & Lace For PartsVintage Antique Nightgown Cotton Muslin Great Condition Victorian Edwardian?1890 Victorian Sweet Light Cotton Embroid Blouse OrchidAntique Vtg Civil War Mourning Accordian Silk Rayon Ruffled Cape CloakAntique Victorian White Lace Fingerless Gloves Vintage 1901 Wedding Ensemble W/ 2 Piece Bridal Attire 3 Piece Groom Suite Wow!Victorian Black Wool Fitted Jacket W/velvet 36 BustVictorian Silk Velvet Top W Black Jet Bead Scroll DetailsFab Victorian Black Wool Cape One Size Fits MostAntique Dress 1800s Victorian Teal Prairie Church Shirtwaist Jacket Skirt Lined1860 Cotton Button Front Ladies Chemise UndergarmentVintage Victorian White Cotton Batiste Embroidered Drawnwork Lace Shirt BlouseLot 2 Antique Victorian Black Trained & Yellow Polka Dot SkirtsLot Of Victorian Ivory Antique Lace Ladies Shirts Rhinestone Puff Sleeves1900s Pleated Satin And Lace Slip - Larger Size - Mint Condition - Never WornVictorian Large U Finish Lingerie Snow White Top With Fabulous Embroidery1878 Victorian Fashion Magazine, "harper's Bazar"