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    

Extremely Fine Antique 19thc Victorian Maltese Silk Cream Lace Bridal ShawlAntique 19thc Victorian Cream Embroidered Tulle Lace Square Wedding Veil ShawlAntique 19thc Victorian Deep Cream Ecru Point De Venise Lace Bertha Collar CapeAntique 19thc Victorian Ivory Embroidered Floral Tulle Lace Wedding Cape ShawlVtg 80s Porcelain Cotton Volume Pleated Victorian Draped Trapeze Pouf Blouse TopVintage Victorian Cotton Lace Petticoat- Side Button (p6)Antique Victorian Leather Blue Button Up Shoes Bootie Vintage Baby Child's Tan Leather 4 Button Victorian Frolic First ShoesVintage Childs Baby Shoes Victorian White Leather 3 Button With Tassels Victorian Antique Leather Brown Button Up Shoes Bootie Victorian 1880’s Pale Blue Full Bust Corset For Dress W Floral EmbroideryLate 1800s French Linen Fireman Work JacketAntique 1900s Blue Victorian Edwardian Ladies Dress Lace Embroidery Skirt DressAntique Dress 1870 Cotton Polonaise Bodice And JacketAntique Victorian Silk Wrapper Gown Dress Med LargeAntique Victorian Edwardian Embroidery Crochet Lace Evening Dress Wedding Gown 4Antique Victorian Edwardian Dress Gown#17124, 1880's Black Silk Moire Bustle Gown#17129, 1880's Wool Cream/orange/blue Floral Print Bustle GownAntique Satin & Lace 2 Pc 1880 Fashioned Dress From Rochester MuseumAntique Victorian Calico Prairie Dress Wrapper Gown Xx LargeAntique Victorian Edwardian Dress Gown Skirt Blouse 3 Pc MedAntique Victorian Silk Bustle Dress Skirt Bodice DamagedAntique Victorian Baby High Button Shoes Leather Art Deco Rare Unique Craftsman Antique Victorian Women's Lace Petticoat/slip Ribbon Attached Beautiful Vintage Victorian Ribbon SmootherVictorian Olive Green Leather / Fabric Boots Sz 7 Antique Dress-white-lace-wedding?victorian-55inch-embroidered-christening?nr!Antique/victorian Black Bodice, Tucks, Lace, Beaded Trim....great For DisplayBeatiful White Lace Eyelet Antique Victorian Lawn Dress Tea PartyAntique Victorian White Lace & Cotton Slip President Andrew Johnson EstateVintage Gunne Sax White Victorian Style Lace Top Long Sleeve BlousePast Times Victorian Style Beautiful Embroidered Cotton Nightgown MediumRare 1800's Lace And Slik Embroidered Flowers Sun Dress 2 Tone Wow!Vandemere Nightgown Battenberg Lace Victorian Cotton White Vintage Size LargeAntique Victorian Ladies Edwardian White Lace Blouse Early 1900's?Antique Victorian Man's Long Bib Front Dress Shirt Peerless BrandVtg 70s 70's Teal Green Semi Sheer Lace Lacing Corset Back Victorian Lace DressVintage Antique Victorian Blouse Cotton Eyelet Small Petite S Mop Pearl ButtonsVtg 70s Emma Domb Hippie Mod Dolly Lace Victorian Mutton Sl Babydoll Dress M LVintage Wedding Dress 1970's Prairie Boho Victorian Style Small Xsmall 1pc Steampunk Black Vest Retro Girls Lace-up Corset Victorian Ladies WaistcoatAntique Edwardian 1800's Creamy Mother Of Pearl Dress Sash Buckle1pc Victorian Ladies Waistcoat Steampunk Vest Vintage Girls Lace-up Corset#17131, Golden Silk 1890's Wedding Gown Opulent PeriodVintage Antique Original Cotton Blouse Victorian Edwardian Uk 8 10 Us 4 6 S #17132, 1890's Red & Blue Wool Young Teens Ensemble