Building A Victorian Wardrobe
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Building A Victorian Wardrobe
Why Dress Well?
Carrie Foisel


          “Yes, but you ladies are upper class. Your clothes show it.” Not necessarily! One of the problems with interpreting history is that we naturally look at it through the eyes of a later time. We impose our own 21st century values on the behavior of our ancestors, ignoring the rational which made that behavior perfectly sensible to them. We, with our “sweatshirt mentality”, can hardly understand that clothes really did make the man (or woman), or at least outwardly reflected his inner character!

                Because 19th century people were well connected to the world due to improved transportation, they were a much more homogeneous group than we might suppose. Virtually everyone had access to a variety of fabrics, trims, fashion periodicals, and even the new paper patterns in the latest styles. A mail order catalogue and the train could bring these wonders to one’s doorstep! While a lady of lesser means might make her dress of “serviceable wash goods” instead of silk, or she might even re-cut last season’s gown, she strove to make her wardrobe conform to the latest mode. And if she and moderate skill with a needle, she succeeded.

                Our Victorian ancestors knew what was proper wear for the occasion, too. No decent woman would have ventured out on shopping or business errands in her house-gown or greeted her callers for dinner without first changing into more formal attire. Nor would the gentlemen of the house have come to the table without their waistcoats. That would have indicated a great disregard for one’s associates, family, and one’s self! Dressing stylishly was part of daily life for the average person in the Victorian world.


Advice for Ladies


            Because beginning to build a Victorian wardrobe can sometimes seem overwhelming,  we will offer some resources in this little article to help you get started on this fun and fascinating hobby.

            Let’s begin by looking at how one of our 19th century sisters would prepare for a shopping excursion. She would start by donning a fresh pair of drawers and a chemise to prevent her corset from pinching her. Next she would slide her feet into a pair of dark cotton or silk stockings, held up by round elastic garters. Shoes are next, since they are easier to lace or button before the next article, the corset, is clasped on and laced tightly. Over the corset, one or more petticoats are tied or buttoned on. Most women wore a corset cover over the corset, also, to shield the outer garment from body oil and perspiration, and prevent the bones of the corset from showing. Our lady would now finally be ready to slip on her skirt and waist, perhaps worn with a belt, lace collar or jabot, tie or bow at the neck, and brooch, necklace, or watch, and earrings. She would top the ensemble with a ravishing hat or bonnet, a wrap or jacket, gloves, and pick up her bag and umbrella or parasol as she left the room. It’s no wonder she moved with a regal walk; she couldn’t move very freely layered in all those tightly fitting clothes!

            While it is fun to step into our Victorian lady’s shoes as closely as we can, it is not necessary to wear all items to present a 19th century appearance. A good, serviceable beginning to a wardrobe can be made with a simple walking skirt and waist. Add a belt, hat, boots and gloves and you will be appropriately dressed for almost any event. A basic muslin petticoat will be found most useful. You can add to this outfit an overskirt (over-drape) for the skirt and a basque bodice or a polonaise and an earlier hat, and your trusty skirt will take you from one decade to the next. It is probably most practical to consider making the skirt in a good neutral color like black, brown, dark green, or dark red. Remember that dark colors will not need to be cleaned as often.

            The correct underpinnings are fun to have and contribute to the authentic posture and silhouette of the Victorian lady, though they can be expensive to acquire all at once. A good substitute for a corset can be had from an exercise bra and a waist cincher with some boning in it. I have also cheated by wearing a body briefer under a tightly fitted bodice. While these modern undergarments can be used, do try to plan to add a real corset to your wardrobe at some time. A well-fitted corset need not be uncomfortable, although it will definitely restrict your movements and give you fine posture, in other words, the bearing of a true Victorian lady. And all that embroidered, lacy underwear really makes you feel like a lady!

            Don’t forget the accessories. A period appropriate hat and jewelry will make your ensemble really look the part. Always check your inspiration fashion plate for head-gear. Many times a suitable hat body can be found in the thrift store or created from a reshaped straw garden hat from a discount store. Keep the trimmings within the time period. Basic colors almost always look more elegant and authentic than very bright ones. Throw out your ideas of huge hats trailing long bright ribbons behind them. Really look at the hats shown in fashion plates for the era your costume represents.

            Invest in some good books to familiarize yourself with the silhouettes, colors, and accessories of the different decades of the 1800s. Remember that the Victorian period lasted from 1837 to 1901. That’s a respectable portion of the century encompassing many changes in fashion.

            When choosing fabrics for the first articles in your Victorian wardrobe, remember that natural fibers are more comfortable and will drape more like the originals did than synthetic fibers. Cotton, wool, silk and linen were the fibers used in the 19th century. Sometimes rayon will give the appearance of these fibers and can be used. You will get a lot more from your skirt if you choose a good basic solid color for it. Dark green, brown, gray, dark red, or especially black are good choices. Stripes and plaids were used also during this era, but steer away from prints until you have familiarized yourself with those appropriate to the different decades.


Advice for Gentlemen


Men’s styles of the 19th century changed much more slowly than those of women, so a basic outfit will carry our Victorian gentleman through most of the era with ease. There are a few basic differences between garments of the modern man and those of a gentleman of the 19th century. Our Victorian gent would wear a shirt (part of his linen) with a front button placket and a neckband to which he would button a detachable collar. Most shirts were white, for ease of laundering. Only those worn in very casual circumstances were colored or patterned and all were worn with a collar.

            The next item of our gent’s wardrobe is a pair of trousers. These would sit at his natural waist, higher than modern pants sit, and would fasten with a button fly at the center front. Belts were not commonly worn until well into the 20th century, so our fine fellow would secure his trousers with a pair of braces (suspenders) buttoned onto his trousers. Trousers were made of rather somber colors in stripes, plaids and solids, and pant-legs were not creased until the 1890s.

            Our gentleman would never go into mixed company without his waistcoat (vest), which could have a plain neckline or a lapel, be double or single breasted and would have buttoned up quite high on the chest.  In the early years of the period, the waistcoat and tie were the only places a man might sport a little bright color, however, after the Civil War, somber colors were worn so extensively by the male gender that even the waistcoats became more subdued and were made up in brown, gray, black or blue, in solids, plaids and stripes. The bright brocades and prints were relegated to the realm of the dandy and gambler.

            The frockcoat was the “uniform” of the business man of the 19th century, serving well for all but the most formal occasions. This coat could be either single or double breasted and was frequently made of a dark wool in a solid color, most often black, but possibly brown or gray.

            Our gentleman would complete his look with a cravat, string or four in hand tie, watch chain or fob suspended from his waistcoat pocket, a bowler or top-hat and perhaps a walking stick or umbrella. Men wore gloves, too, usually gray for day wear.  Shoes were either low boots or laced or buttoned shoes in black or brown.

            Good reproduction frockcoats, waistcoats, trousers, shirts, collars, ties and hats are available from Wild West Mercantile, which has an on-line store. Modern oxfords will often serve the purpose for footwear and the other accessories are fun to shop for at thrift shops and antique stores.

            Other types of men’s clothing, such as sack suits, morning coats, and tail coats can be added to our gentleman’s wardrobe as time and finances permit, but the basic frock coat ensemble, which can be altered with a variety of vests and ties, will take him through most events in style.

            So with very little effort, our modern man can be transformed into a true Victorian gentleman.


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