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

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]



Clubs & Associations

Most watched eBay auctions    

Antique Victorian Black Mourning Dress Soutache Beads Handmade Bodice Skirt Vintage Lot 4 Pieces - 1 Edwardian Dress & 3-piece Victorian Lawn Outfit #1207, 1900's Silk & Applique Afternoon Gown - Brooklyn Museum Of ArtAntique Victorian Silk Gown,lace,beaded Trim,beautiful Copper Bronze Sz.mElegant 1890's Vintage Linen & Lace DressMagnificent 1870's Aqua Blue Silk Ball Gown Paris LabelVtg. Victorian / Edwardian Era 1900, Ladies Swim Set Sailor Style Collar, Scarce1870-80 Three Piece Ladies Travel Outfit W/mantle As FoundLarge Antique Lot Victorian Edwardian Clothing Skirt Bodice Petticoat 4 Pat /repAntique 2 Layered Womans Formal Party Dress - Hand Embroidery Floral Design1890's/early 1900's Woman's Straw Or Horse Hair HatAntique Vintage Wire Hoop Bustle Cage, Late 1800'sParis Label 1860-1870 Stripe Silk Moire Vintage Evening BodiceVintage Early 1900s Womens Longer In Back White Skirt Fancy Lace Work GoodVintage Victorian Cotton And Lace Fitted Woman's Dress * NrAntique Victorian Collapsible Wire Hoop Skirt Petticoat FrameLight Purple/silver 1860's Silk Taffeta Day DressVictorian 19th C Mutton Sleeve Bustle Gown W Beading Majestic 1880's Gold Floral Brocade & Navy Blue Silk Bustle Vintage DressAntique Victorian Linen & Lace Chemise & Drawers Lingerie One Piece CrotchlessOutstanding Ladies Lace DressAntique Victorian 1800s Prettiest Handmade Unique Needle Lace Linen Chemise Slip1870 Wedding Dress With Fabric Containing General Ulysses Grant's Slogan Antique/vintage Late 1800's Green & Yellow Plaid Dress With Ruffles And BustleAntique English Pair Of Engageants Sleeve Ruffles Hand Embroidery Ca.1770Civil War Era Hand Embroidered Zouave Jacket Pretty Antique Victorian Edwardian Linen Lawn Lacy Petticoat SkirtAntique Vintage Clocked Ivory Cotton Stockings With Silk Embroidery DetailVictorian Turn Of C Blue Print Calico Wrapper GownAntique Vintage Petticoat White Cotton Lace Petticoat Slip Victorian Petticoat Antique 1890's Victorian Black Lace Pink Ribbon Vtg Openwork Silk Blouse BodiceVintage Ladies Lace Petticoat - Handmade Pre-1901 (victorian And Older) XlAntique Victorian Childs High Button Shoes Strait Soles 1870's Pink ButtonsAntique Victorian Pre Civil War Cotton Brown Could Be Maternity Dress SAntique Edwardian Cotton Lace And Velvet Trim Ladies CollarAntique Victorian Mourning Capelet Silk Jacquard Lace CollarAntique/vtg.victorian 1800's Bustle Back2 Pcoutfit / Deadstock/museum QualityLovely Ladies Day DressAntique Regency Early 19th Century White Cotton Square Cut Chemise Shift1890's Woman's Day DressHtf Busty 1800's Antique Victorian Eyelet Lace Camisole Chemise Wedding BodiceLot 2 Antique Victorian Cotton Flared Petticoats Slips With Layered Lace TrimVictorian Antique Women's White Lace Dress 51 1/2" Long Dress 1True Vtg Antique 1900s Victorian Edwardian Era Cream Silk & Lace Blouse Sz S-m `5 Victorian Beaded Motis With Black Jet (?) DanglesAntique Victorian Ladies Hat Black Feathers With Glass BeadsC. 1813 Antique Regency Embroidered White Cotton Muslin Dress Gown PetticoatAntique Victroian Beaded Handmade Womans Dress In Pink Lace And Glass BeadsRare Paris 1870 Antique Vintage Clocked Wedding StockingsAntique Vintage 8 Piece Collars And Cuffs Lot Irish Crochet Schiffli ValencienneVintage Early 1900s Womens Black Petticoat Slip - Drawstring Waist Tiered RuffleAntique Victorian Edwardian Embroidered Eyelet Flounce Petticoat Slip Skirt XlVintage Petticoat - Pre 1901 Victorian Or OlderLot Of 3 Vintage Antique Black Long Skirt PetticoatsTintype Of Mixed Race Group Of Women -- Believed To Be From Oberlin 1890sOriginal Edwardian Lace Bodice Mono-bust StyleRuffle Bustle Circle/swing Black Satin Skirt Sz.s-m Antique Vintage Victorian Blue Chambray Womens Day Work Dress SAntique Victorian Edwardian Bloomers Cotton Lace Split Leg Drawers Pantaloons 28Antique Edwardian Girl's Prairie Pinafore Dress True Vintage