Women’s Fashions of the Late Victorian Era

During the Victorian Era, advances in technology and distribution saw fashion change from an exclusive privilege of the wealthy elites to something that could be enjoyed by ordinary people.

The Industrial Revolution inspired a flowering of creativity in architecture, literature, and decorative and visual arts, all playing a part in influencing the latest fashions.

Changing attitudes to traditional gender roles and the rising middle class meant that by the late Victorian Era, a new age of mass consumerism had begun.

Unlike earlier centuries, when it was commonplace for women to help with the family business, Victorians thought a woman’s place was in the home.

1885 Fashion plate
1885 Fashion plate

Victorian fashion wasn’t utilitarian, it was an expression of position in society.

1888 Fashion Plate
1888 Fashion Plate

The upper class wore clothes adorned with embroideries and trims; the middle class, less extravagant; and the working class, whatever they could afford.

Depicted in this painting is a middle-class woman showing off her newly purchased bonnet at her sister’s modest home.

The New Bonnet by Eastman Johnson, 1876
The New Bonnet by Eastman Johnson, 1876

Casting off the shackles of crinolines of the 1850s and 1860s, the late Victorian era saw several innovations to bring more practicality and mobility to fashion whilst maintaining the volume of fabric.

Introduced in the late 1860s, the bustle was a framework used to expand and support the fullness of a woman’s dress at the back, leaving the front and sides flatter for ease of movement.

Reaching its greatest extension by the mid-1880s, it was popularly boasted that the cantilevers of bustles could support an entire tea service.

1884-86. Dinner Dress. American. Silk. metmuseum
1884-86. Dinner Dress. American. Silk. metmuseum

With women becoming more involved in activities outside the home, fashion designers made changes to suit.

Skirts were given more ground clearance and trains were made simpler, stronger and dragged less on the ground while keeping the same overall form.

1885 Walking Dress. French. House of Worth. Silk, glass. metmuseum
1885 Walking Dress. French. House of Worth. Silk, glass. metmuseum

Abandoned by the 1890s, the bustle evolved into skirts with a much more subtle flow from the wearer’s thin corsetted waist.

Necklines were high, while sleeve size increased.

1892 Dress. American. Silk, cotton
1892 Dress. American. Silk, cotton

Becoming bell-shaped, dresses were made to fit tighter around the hip area.

1892 Dress. American. Silk, cotton
1892 Dress. American. Silk, cotton

While sleeves and bodices initially peaked at the shoulders, size would increase considerably.

1890 Dress. American. Silk, linen
1890 Dress. American. Silk, linen

Beginning in the mid-1890s, exaggerated “leg o’mutton” sleeves grew in size until disappearing in about 1906.

1895 Afternoon jacket. French. Silk, jet, beads
1895 Afternoon jacket. French. Silk, jet, beads
1896 Wedding dress. House of Worth. Silk, pearl. Credit metmuseum
1896 Wedding dress. House of Worth. Silk, pearl. Credit metmuseum
1895 Dress. French. Silk
1895 Dress. French. Silk

Skirts started to take on a graceful, curved, “A-line silhouette”.

1900 Ball Gown. French. Doucet. Silk, metal. metmuseum
1900 Ball Gown. French. Doucet. Silk, metal. metmuseum

A glittering extravaganza, the neoclassical motifs in the below dress add a texture and lighting effect to stand out at a formal ball.

1890 Evening ensemble. American. Silk. metmuseum
1890 Evening ensemble. American. Silk. metmuseum

Changing attitudes about acceptable activities for women also made sportswear popular, particularly for bicycling and tennis.

Bicycling; The Ladies of the Wheel by François Courboin, 1896
Bicycling; The Ladies of the Wheel by François Courboin, 1896
Le Chalet du Cycle au Bois de Boulogne by Jean-Georges Béraud, 1900
Le Chalet du Cycle au Bois de Boulogne by Jean-Georges Béraud, 1900
A Rally by Sir John Lavery, R.A., 1885
A Rally by Sir John Lavery, R.A., 1885

Although introduced much earlier, the riding habit became more practical, with a much simpler, more formal appearance.

Void of embellishments, it was made of tough woolen fabric in a single dark colour and worn with matching hat and veil.

1890 Three-piece Riding Habit. Wool twill, full finish
1890 Three-piece Riding Habit. Wool twill, full finish
The Ride by Pierre Auguste Renoir
The Ride by Pierre Auguste Renoir

Crucial to a respectable appearance were hats and gloves—to be seen bareheaded was simply improper.

1899 Millinery Print. France
1899 Millinery Print. France

Dozens of fanciful designs provided women with almost endless choice.

Fashion plate showing three bust portraits of Jane Harding, Baronne de Carlsberg, and Suzanne, actresses at the Gymnase theater, Paris, wearing hats designed by Madame Carlier
Fashion plate showing three bust portraits of Jane Harding, Baronne de Carlsberg, and Suzanne, actresses at the Gymnase theater, Paris, wearing hats designed by Madame Carlier

Women who wanted a more modest appearance often preferred bonnets but they became associated with a matronly appearance.

The Summer Bonnet by Pierre Carrier-Belleuse, 1893
The Summer Bonnet by Pierre Carrier-Belleuse, 1893
1892 Evening bonnet. American. Silk, cotton, jet, feather. metmuseum
1892 Evening bonnet. American. Silk, cotton, jet, feather. metmuseum

Straw hats were essential summer wear for outdoor activities like croquet.

1890 Hat. American. Leghorn straw, silk chiffon
1890 Hat. American. Leghorn straw, silk chiffon
The Croquet Party by Sir John Lavery, R.A., 1890
The Croquet Party by Sir John Lavery, R.A., 1890

The widening of hats towards the end of the 19th century hinted at the enormous hats that were to follow during the Edwardian era.

A Portrait of a Lady in a Black Hat with a Bouquet of Flowers in her Arms by Edouard Bisson, 1895
A Portrait of a Lady in a Black Hat with a Bouquet of Flowers in her Arms by Edouard Bisson, 1895

The late 1890s returned to the tighter sleeves often with small puffs or ruffles capping the shoulder but fitted to the wrist.

1897 Two-piece dress. House of Rouff. Silk twill and silk cut velvet on twill foundation
1897 Two-piece dress. House of Rouff. Silk twill and silk cut velvet on twill foundation

Indispensable accessories for the Victorian lady, parasols of the late Victorian era were exuberant and lace-covered with extremely fine handle detail.

Here, the bright colours indicative of the French touch on the left contrast with the black parasol for mourning.

1895 - 1900 parasols. Silk, wood, metal, tortoiseshell.metmuseum
1895 – 1900 parasols. Silk, wood, metal, tortoiseshell.metmuseum

From the 1870s to the twentieth century, women’s shoes changed to include higher heels and more pointed toes.

Low-cut pumps were worn for the evening.

Ankle-length laced or buttoned boots were also popular.

Woman's Bar Shoes, 1898
Woman’s Bar Shoes, 1898
1890 Evening slippers. French. Silk. metmuseum
1890 Evening slippers. French. Silk. metmuseum
1894. Evening slippers. American. Silk
1894. Evening slippers. American. Silk
1890 Eveing boots. French. Silk, metla. metmuseum
1890 Eveing boots. French. Silk, metla. metmuseum
1895 Women's Wedding Boots. Kid leather with sueded leather and pearls
1895 Women’s Wedding Boots. Kid leather with sueded leather and pearls

Those of the upper class who were invited to attend the royal courts of Europe would wear something altogether more extravagant and reminiscent of the 18th century.

As the wife of Washington Augustus Roebling, the chief engineer of the Brooklyn Bridge in New York City, Emily Warren Roebling ran the day-to-day supervision of the project for a period of fourteen years after husband became ill.

She wore this gown for her formal presentation to Queen Victoria in 1896.

Presentation at court was a special event for American women of Roebling’s social status and court protocol dictated the attire.

Lavishly embroidered, the sumptuous textiles and long train are characteristics of a formal gown appropriate for the occasion.

1896 Court Presentation Ensemble. American. Silk, metal, cotton, leather
1896 Court Presentation Ensemble. American. Silk, metal, cotton, leather

Originally intended to be worn at home for afternoon tea with family and friends, by the late 1900s, tea gowns were worn through the evening for dinner and other events.

Although just as elegant as formal wear, tea gowns were worn without corsets or assistance from a maid.

Comfortable and relaxing, they would be harbingers of things to come.

1900 Tea gown. French. House of Worth. metmuseum
1900 Tea gown. French. House of Worth. metmuseum

By the close of the Victorian era, women were liberated from tight-laced corsets, restrictive layers of crinolined or bustled fabric, and society’s expectation of a woman’s role.

1891 Corset. French. Silk. metmuseum
1891 Corset. French. Silk. metmuseum

There was a new woman in town and she was more confident, self-assured, and ready to meet her true potential than ever before.

No longer were women seen as either “fragile” or “voluptuous” as portrayed in earlier decades, but athletic, emancipated, and ready to enter the workforce.

Gibson Girls in beach attire by Charles Dana Gibson, 1898
Gibson Girls in beach attire by Charles Dana Gibson, 1898

She was the Gibson Girl.

And she would fight for the right to vote in the 20th century.

Read more:
Photochrom – Victorian Era Color Photography

Architectural Styles of Victorian Homes: a 5-Minute Guide

Redlands – A Victorian Jewel of the “Inland Empire”

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