Slip Into Something Victorian

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By Caroline Clemmons

Like many other authors of historical novels, I have several books on period dress. I love the names of the fabrics, descriptions of the textures and styles, and enjoy studying the drawings. When I visit a museum, I linger over the displays of clothing. Sometimes I shudder at the thought of caring for and wearing the clothing.

For today, let’s start with undergarments in our quest to understand Victorian fashions. Shh, Victorian ladies were not allowed to mention undergarments. Some ladies even wore a chemise to bathe – on the rare occasions they took a full bath. Outward modesty was desired. That’s not to say there wasn’t a lot of discrete hanky-panky.

For ladies, the undergarments made a great change during the reign of Queen Victoria. At least by this time, women wore pantalets, usually made of cambric with lace or eyelet decoration. Tied at the waist, they were more like two sleeves for the legs. This allowed a slit between the legs so that a woman could urinate without disrobing. Later in the period, drawers appeared with a drop-down “drawer” opening in the back like that on Union suits.

Numerous slips bolstered skirts to give a flowing appearance. At the beginning of the Victorian era, the slips were shirred over a puffed horsehair crinoline frame. By 1869, a wired crinoline replaced the puffed horsehair. The petticoats were worn over the frame. How would you like to try sitting on one of these? And in days with no air conditioning, think how hot wearing all these layers were. No wonder ladies fainted! As I sit writing in my jeans and knit shirt, I can’t imagine wearing anything that uncomfortable. Appearances were of major importance then. Not too different from the anorexic-appearing women on today’s television and in ads, right?

Under a dress with a train, a slip with a train was worn to protect the dress’s fabric from becoming soiled. The slip also added to the flow of the skirt. What a job for the lady’s maid, though, with all those ruffles, pleats, foofraws, and ironing. Whew, thank goodness for permanent press!

An hourglass figure was required to look like a lady, hence the corset. Researchers believe wearing tightly laced corsets actually caused deformity of the internal organs. This is one explanation for many women unable to conceive a child and also for early miscarriages. To reverse the effect of layers of undergarments, the corset was laced very tight. At least it created great posture. Who could slump while laced into a whalebone-reinforced corset? Remember, young girls were required to wear a type of corset for formal occasions, but their corsets were less severe than those for women. Some people believe a woman could not don a corset without assistance. I beg to differ. Women without servants were able to get in and out of corsets. Perhaps they couldn’t lace them as tightly as if they had help, but they made do.

In addition to shrinking the waist, corsets had the effect of pushing the wearer’s breasts up and out. A surprise for me was discovering the “breast enhancer” from the 1880s. Shades of Victoria’s Secret, Batman! This was worn after the demise of the tightly-laced corset. Women have always been concerned with appearances. Don’t you wonder what awaits us in the coming decades?

Above on the left, you see two styles of corsets. There were as many styles as there are bras today. Center, you’ll see the form for a bustle, next to a bust enhancer or “improver,” both circa 1885. Right, is one of my ancestors, Mary Jane Clemmons, wearing a skirt with a small train. Bless her, no wonder she’s standing for her portrait.

My favorite costume resource: VICTORIAN FASHIONS AND COSTUMES FROM HARPER’S BAZAR 1867-1898, by Stella Blum, Dover Publications, 1974
WHAT PEOPLE WORE, by Douglas Gorsline, Dover Publishers, 1951
COSTUME 1066-1990S, by John Peacock, Thames and Hudson, 1986


More Civil War Curiosities – Part II

Seven months after the American Civil War started Horace Greeley of the New York Herald proclaimed: “Everything the finger of war touches is revolutionized.”

One of the ways the Civil War affected civilian life was the manufacturing of clothing. When the Federal call for volunteers brought forth 75,000 men, the U.S. War Department realized they could only outfit 13,000 soldiers. Manufacturing was transformed within months. The production of woolen uniforms literally exploded. In Massachusetts, stockholders put 2.5 million dollars into constructing buildings and building machinery to enter the field of mass produced clothing.

Shoe construction also was changed as a result of the call to outfit so many soldiers with shoes. In 1860 shoes were made by skilled cobblers who handcrafted three pairs of shoes per day. The shoe industry was forced to abandon this standard. Large buildings with lofts and abandoned cotton mills were transformed into shoe factories, equipped with power stitching machines, invented by Lyman R. Blake in 1858. The machine had seen little use, though, before war broke out.

Blake’s invention was mass produced by Gordon McKay. Before long each worker turned out more than six or more pair of shoes a day.

According to Harper’s History of the Civil War “The bombardment of Fort Sumter touched off a revolution that affected every aspect of life in America.”

Source: More Civil War Curiosities by Webb Garrison

Victoriana Answers Lingering at Cafes


In the recesses of my mind, I’ve stored a list of questions that I’ve carried about with me in the hope they could be answered about the Victorian era. Some answers have been found while I was sipping steaming cups of coffee and tea with friends on foggy or icy mornings. From these experts I’ve learned a few things I’d wanted to know as a storyteller about the 19th Century. I keep in mind as much as I can what the context of those times, that snake oil was easy enough to sell, and that more than social faux pas were covered up, expectedly.

Many a buyer was learning to beware. Despite the speed and quality of postal deliveries having taken on a banner of national pride (albeit the postal riders were hired much younger than those shown in movies, I’ve noticed), the West and many cities repairing themselves after the Civil War were ordering by mail about everything from new socks to replacement balustrades. But the items such as wrought iron often turned out to be hollow, cast iron painted over, according to one architect and government expert on the era with access to the records.

While bantering over such data at the café, I’m often dismayed at descriptions of the types of wares that were expected to be passed off as authentic taking me by surprise even nowadays. Particularly after the Civil War ended, many discerning buyers were very suspicious and were ordering from overseas. Especially to Europe for finer household or office architectural items or decor in order to feel guaranteed in getting exactly what they ordered.

I’ve noticed other things that piqued my curiosity as possible storytelling elements. Many a Victorian era house was added onto in a seeming willy-nilly manner, so I asked more about the arrangement of rooms and their assortments. The strangeness of why rooms were not built to the same size and why windows and doors were typically off by enough that windows in particular would have to be uniquely ordered. It was typical for panes not to be the same size, I learned. That has been my experience while residing in Victorian houses. Replacing doors from doorways in that era also led to the similar moments of having to order custom-sized.

Now, being a romantic as well as a writer of romantic fiction, I’ve always wondered where the real life moments were possible in the Victorian homes while they did their near daily entertaining each evening. I decided to boldly ask where the kisses were stolen, or freely given, at formal parties. My research included more whispered questions over more cups of coffee with costume experts, also. Data gathered and coupled with correspondence over the Internet hot spots from Old World family members while I order a second cuppa joe yielded some interesting information. The journals kept by those who used to plan the State Balls during the Victorian era brought up parlors used for trysts. I couldn’t get a straight answer until I asked a princess, in fact. Balls and ambassadorial level functions accommodated quietly the anticipated desire for guests to have private discussions, even those of a romantic nature. A stolen kiss or two was quite allowable, and many a lady practiced with her hoop skirts to ensure no awkwardness in leaning close enough to her sweetheart. Major domos and liveried attendants were on duty to make certain of privacy. Keeping tabs on the trysts was a typical if quiet duty. Society hosts and hostesses having a house designed that planned to entertain grandly would factor in such conveniences.

Also popular in a more nostalgic manner were sculpted gardens and an occasional maze could still be found. When I asked what the mazes were used for, it was replied that they were where games were played, and one could take a chaperone or guard in livery, of course. But they weren’t lingered in, although they were useful for a variety of reasons during formal functions.

Still in style although not considered a fashion trend were paper-thin clothes for evening wear. Something that had gone on since the Dark Ages, as far as my research goes. The experts bring it up as romantically viewed as well as a matter of economy, and considering how many layers of underpinnings were donned the typical ball gown of, say, royalty leading a new trend would be in fabrics that were not intended for use beyond that evening. Their levels of embellishment were also decorously on a smaller scale than I’d imagined, having been led to think they’d be more grandiose than they often were. Jewels were often already heirlooms, with trendy jewelry and embellishments being left for earlier hours in the day. Perhaps at an afternoon tea with charity society ladies.

Even after years of study on such questions including at the scholastic level I’m always impressed at what conversation reminding me of the fact that Victorians considered both dining, taking tea or coffee or simply conversing as an form of Art.















Tuesday Ten: Victorian Fashion

I came across this article by Kris Lindquist in my Civil War reenactor magazine on fashion during the Victorian era and thought the info would be of interest here.
1) Demin trousers were introduced in the 1850s by the Levi Strauss Company. They made the first ones from brown tent canvas. Blue colored fabric and rivets were introduced later.

2) In 1865, John B. Stetson opened his first hat factory in Philadelphia. His family was in the hat making business and he designed a hat especially for prospecting gold. It had a big air pocket between the head and the crown, creating a cushion of air to keep the head warm, along with a wide brim to keep out the elements. The inside lining was waterproof and could double as a water bucket.

3) Between 1859 and 1860, 100 tons of hair was imported by the United States for wig making. Snow white hair purchased from poor, elderly women was most prized, because of the ease with which it could be dyed.

4) James Smith and Sons opened the first umbrella shop in London, England in 1830. The first umbrellas were constructed of wood or whalebone and covered with alpaca or oiled canvas. Artisans carved ornate handles from hard woods and were well paid for their efforts. Umbrellas were viewed as a women’s accessory, but this implied the woman was too poor to own a carriage. Men who carried them were ridiculed by passersby.

5) The U.S. imported silk fabric until 1839, when silk was produced on a large scale in Patterson, New Jersey. By 1880, Patterson was nicknamed Silk City.

6) Americans purchased over 100,000 sewing machines by 1860. Ebenezer Butterick, a tailor, and his wife Ellen Augusta Pollard Butterick, invented the tissue paper pattern in 1863. This changed the face of home sewing forever.

7) Charles Worth, an Englishman, in the mid-nineteenth century, put his name on the label of the clothes he made. He changed his approach from having a client tell him what to create for them to producing ready made clothing from which a client could view, and approve or disapprove. His approach set a new standard for the clothing industry.

8) Jet was used in the manufacture of jewelry, particularly for mourning. Jet is a form of coal.

9) Wooden hangers didn’t come into use until the 1880s. Prior to that, clothing was hung on pegs in wardrobes or on walls.

10) Flatirons were used to press clothing in the 1860s. They were a heavy mass of metal weighing up to 15 pounds. They were used several at a time and heated on the top of a stove.

Source: Kris Lindquist, Life As They Knew It: Fashion, The Citizens’ Companion, August 2008
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