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    

Victorian/edwardian Cascading Ruffled Silk Collar With Lace Trim AmazingPair Of Cotton Embroidered Victorian Vintage StockingsVictorian Lace Trimmed Boned Ladies Corset Wrap Around StrapsAntique Lace Ruffled Victorian Wedding Bridal Brides Dress Blouse Top 1860 Ladies Antique Black Chantilly Lace Shawl Civil War Large Size1860s 1870s Purple & Cream Plaid Silk Basque W Pagoda Sleeves,lace Cuffs,as IsVintage Skirt Hoop/cageVtg Bohemian Chic Lace Womens Edwardian Antique Dressing Gown Slouchy LookVintage Antique Dress Lawn Dress Lot As Is Very Old Lot Of 8 Items Socks & VestVictorian Embroidered Red & White Trained Duster Dress Adorable!Antique Civil War Floral Lace Collar 2 Piece Dress Skirt Bodice 1800's1870's Civil War Era French Steampunk Black Chantilly Lace ShawlElaborate Victorian Ivory Blouse W/embroidery/tucks/pleating Small Beautiful Ec! Antique Victorian Small Padded Bustle Pad With Attached Flaps~skirtingAntique Lace And Satin Victorian Womens Fancy Bridal Dinner Dress Collectible Victorian 1890s 2 Pc Dress Beaded Trim Leg O Mutton Sleeve For Study / RepairOver 20 Pieces Victorian Clothing 2 Dresses And Many More!4 Vintage Victorian Steampunk Blouses Jackets Black Silk Jet Beads RestorationLovely Full Victorian White Cotton Petticoat Skirt With Lace FlounceAntique Victorian Bodice And SkirtVery Sweet Edwardian Era Petticoat Skirt Ivory Cotton And Lace Needs TlcAntique Civil War Era Victorian Dressing Gown Pegnoir Paisley Authentic 1800sVictorian/edwardian Vtg 1890s Black Soutache Wool+silk Ruffle Cape/coat S/m/lAntique Woman's Wool Cape!!!!Lot Of 15 Pcs. Victorian Collars, Neckpieces, LaceStunning Ladies CapeAntique Civil War Era Black Lace Shawl 'as Found" #2Antique Victorian Lot 2 Black Net Yokes & 1 Fancy Sequin CollarAntique Black Victorian Era JacketAntique Lace Exquisite Burano Lace Bertha CollarAntique Victorian Edwardian Women's Beige Top Jacket Satin W/ Lace BeautifulLot Of Victorian Clothing, 3 Sets Hosiery, 2 Shawls, 2 Scarves, Spats, 1 CollarLot Of 16 Pcs. 13 Victorian Collars, 3 Nightgown YokesVintage 1870’s Post Civil War Ladies Dress Jacket TopAntique Victorian Lady's Night Gown Wonderful Civil War ? Ear Large Size Antique- Romantic Edwardian White Ornate Lace Feminine Romantic Dress Blouse Victorian Skirt/slip-white Cotton-laceVictorian Ladies White Cotton Blouses/ Collection Of 2/ Pin Tucks And MoreAntique Edwardian-rare Romantic Pink Apron Floral Skirt Dress-as Is UnfinishedAntique- Romantic Edwardian White Ornate Crochet Lace Feminine Dress Blouse XlVictorian Vtg 1880s Antique White Cotton Maxi Bishop Night Dress Puff Sleeve s/mAntique Cotton Victorian Bloomers Split Leg Tie Waist Pantaloons Civil War Era 1840-1870 Black Silk Taffeta Skirt Ruffle Bottom Adjustable Waist