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.