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”)

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]

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]

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]

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]

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

The VFG is a non-profit international educational organization dedicated to the promotion and preservation of vinta… [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]



Clubs & Associations

Most watched eBay auctions    

Antique English Victorian Silk Dress 18th Century Fabric Floral Spitalfields?Super Orig Antique Victorian 1880s Blue Embroidery Eyelet 2pc Bustle Dress Gown Antique Regency Era Two-tone Straw Bonnet Silk Ribbons 1820 1830 Rare!!!Huge Lot Of *11* Vtg Victorian Edwardian Clothes Shirts Dress Skirts Hat BloomerGossamer 1860's Pink Rose Print Cotton DressBeautiful Antique White Muslin Embroidered Regency Empire Shawl Stole Ca.1805Ornate 1890's Peach Velvet & Yellow Silk BodicesVictorian House Of Weeks Silk Brocade Princess Line Dress, As IsHuge Lot Of *11* Vintage Antique Victorian Edwardian Lace Skirts Shirts Fur CapeOrig Antique Victorian Edwardian 1890 Black Dress Gown Lace Up Hourglass Corset Victorian-antique-skirt-dress-lifter2 Yards Exquisite Antique Victorian Point De Rose Gaze 3d Handmade Lace Trim NewHuge Lot Of *16* Vintage Victorian Edwardian Clothes Bloomers Shirts Skirts HatsCivil War Era 1860's Cotton & Eyelet CamisoleVintage (antique) Hat/bonnet With Ribbons--1800/1900s--xs1880s Rich Purple Silk Velvet Tri Corn Hat W Purple Ostrich Plumes,gold Buckle1890-1910 Magnificent French Silver Beaded Panel,wedding,train,shawl,roses RosesVintage 1800's Victorian Lovely Beaded Trim Bodice B 30" Exquisite 1860's Duchesse Lace Antique Collar1880s Original Victorian 19th C Top/skirt Built In Corset Boning Antique Antique Victorian Black Women's Wool Suit Jacket & Skirt, Vg, W/silk DecorationAntique Womans Cage Hoop Skirt Victorian Bustle Dress Rare VintageVictorian/edwardian Nightgown Lace Pink Silk Ribbons19th C.indian Paisley Signed Shawl / Handmade Embroidered Wool Throw 1840 NrPost Civil War Silk Belt With Bow For Bustle GownAntique Edwardian Victorian Colorful Blue/white Corset, Very Small, Hand StitchAntique Victorian Prarie House Work Dress, X Large Size, Yellow Plaid, 1800sAntique Victorian Lovely Silk Corset Cover Camisole W/wide Tatted Bodice *l-xlVictorian Ladies Undergarment, Sz S, Vintage Reproduction. True West Design!Wah Maker Jacket / BlouseCotton Lace Bodice Waist Vintage 1890's 1900 Antique High Style With Match BeltWah Maker Jacket / BlouseExceptional! Hand Embroidered French Whitework Lace Petticoat Skirt Antique C189��antique Victorian Civil War Era Lace Crop Shrug��Antique Victorian Black Mourning Hat Bonnet Velvet~rare Illustrated Antique 1832 Victorian Manners Culture Domestic Americans BookGorgeous Antique Victorian Lg Black Lace~fine Net Flower Design~1 Sm Hole~132x41Victorian Vintage Antique Colorful Floral Beaded Fringe Collar Dress TrimAntique Victorian Fancy Top Blouse C1900 With LaceVictorian Edwardian Antique Short Black Half Cape Ruffled Mourning ShawlAntique Long Country Apron- Shirting Fabric- Well Made & Wearable- Re-enactor Antique Victorian Black Mourning Shoulder Cape, Wool, Hand StitchedAntique 1800s Victorian White Pretty Lined Ruffle Lace Dress Hat Baby Bonnet WowExtremely Rare 19th C. Young Girls Saphire Blue Vevet Bustle DressAntique 1800s-sturdy Lovely Victorian Pleated Dress Petticoat-stains -as Is