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

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    

Amazing Original 1820's Antique Ladies Regency Corset-excellent ConditionVtg Lingerie Silky Satin Lace Slip Negligee Full Sweep Long Nightgown Size Xl-1xVtg Lingerie Silky Satin Robe Negligee Grande Full Sweep Long Nightgown 2x-3xVtg Silky Satin Lingerie Nylon Lace Full Sweep Negligee Long Nightgown 2x 3x Vtg Lingerie Nylon Lace Sheer Chiffon Lace Sweep Negligee Long Nightgown 3x 4x Vtg Silky Satin Nylon Lace Lingerie Slip Negligee Long Sweep Nightgown 1x XlAntique Late Victorian Or Edwardian Maltese Bobbin Handmade Lace Silk Collar Sexy Vintage Lingerie Satin Nylon Lace Slip Negligee Long Sweep Nightgown 2x 3x Antique Victorian Jet Beaded Appliques Fringe TrimSexy Vintage Lingerie Silky Satin Slip Full Sweep Negligee Long Nightgown 1x XlAntique H & W Ribbon Girdle Corset-steel Stays And Closures Lace Up Ivory SmallAnt. Vict. Edwardian Mesh Net & Lace Jabot Yoke & Collar Dress Suit FrontBernie Dexter Cityscape Aqua DressVictoria's Secret Second Skin Satin Panties Floral Geometric Size L - VintageVtg Lingerie Silky Satin Slip Babydoll Full Sweep Negligee Nightgown Sz 1x XlVictorian Vintage Embroidered Cream Wool Lace Trim Bridal Wedding Cloak Cape1880 Extravagant French Labelled Doucet Rue De La Paix Silk Velvet BodiceBernie Dexter Lemonade DressVtg 90s Minimalist Ivory Cotton Gauze Draped Deep V Hippy Boho Festival Dress2 Charming Antique Victorian Petticoats W Lace & PintucksAntique Victorian Edwardian Lawn Cotton Gatsby Tea Dress Gown Embroidered 1900'sTwo Pairs Womens Vintage Denim Side Zip High Waisted Jeans "sr" Brand2 Prs - Womens Vintage Wrangler Blue Bell Sanforized Denim Jeans & ShortsVintage Victorian Silk Undergarments Camisole & Night Cap Women's Size 38Collar Vintage 1990s Claude Montana Size 10 Black Viscose Blend Fitted Fringed PantsuitAntique Victorian Edwardian Slip Full Length Pettycoat And Thermal Night Gown Antique White 100% Cotton Nightie In Perfect ConditionVintage 1990's Victoria's Secret Silk Satin G-string Thong Panties M 6 *nwot*L Vtg Rare Victoria's Secret Green Second Skin Satin Hi-leg Hipster PantieL Vtg New Victoria's Secret White Second Skin Satin Hi-leg Hipster PantieVtg Jolie Second Skin Thong Panty Black Nwt Stretch Satin Size 9 Sissy GlossyVtg 80's? Zipper Front~racer Back Blue/black Spandex High Cut Swimsuit/bodysuitL/34-36" Forever Hope Vintage Black Satin G-string Sissy Bikini PantieL/7 Vtg Rare Victoria's Secret Sage Second Skin Satin Hi-leg Bikini Pantie Vintage Antique Czech Womens Peasant Folk Kroj Apron Hand Embroidery Bohemian2 Antique Vintage Night Cap Sleeping Boudoir BonnetsVintage Clothing Antique Victorian Split Leg Lace Pantaloons Knickers Lace FlounceTrudy Summer Hat Womens Fancy Wedding High Tea Wide Brim Lace Vintage Style Turn Of The Century Mourning Cloak / Wool Mourning Mantle / Victorian Black CapeAntique Vtg White Linen Ladies Dress Or Nurse Uniform Lace Re Enactment CostumeTommy Hilfiger Crop Top1920s / 1930s Black Velvet And Sheer Gatsby Art Deco Flapper Dress - Xxs / XsGolds Gym Yellow Tshirt Size L Large Workout Training MensVintage Asymmetrical Beaded Evening Top Judith Ann Creations Silk Sequins SmallVtg Hippie Cotton Caribelle Batik West Indies Tunic Shirt Top Mens Womens Sz Xl