So far in my Victorian series, I’ve touched on the broad topic of what the world was like. I also covered a bit about the Victorian way of seeing the world. In this post, I’ll cover some more practical topics.
What did people wear? How did they decorate? How did they travel?
Today, Victorian styles seem prudish and sometimes outlandish. The cloth from head to toe seems stifling. The girdles, petticoats, and reinforced waistcoats seems constraining. Using cages made of fabric and steel hoops (crinolines) to extend dresses until they were sometimes wider than than the wearer seems pretty extreme.
Still, our own fashions are sometimes strange too: Platform shoes. Fabrics that glow in the dark or change color with heat. Shoes with wheels in the heel. Elective surgery. Spanx. Also, our own formal styles, tuxes and evening dresses, would be relatively familiar to Victorians as evening wear, including exposed shoulders and low necklines. Even the crinoline is still in use today, though they’re now made of plastic or nylon.
Though clothing styles differed drastically for men and women, there were consistent elements. Both featured layers of clothing, necessary in a time without central heating. Both genders would cover with long coats for protection against cold, rain, or mud. Also, hats were common for everybody.
Men’s clothing at the beginning of the era consisted of trousers, shirt, and possibly waistcoat and frock coat if affordable. Breeches might be worn for formal occasions. Narrow waists were in style for men as well as women, and the waistcoat was designed to accentuate this, and might even be reinforced with whale bone to enhance the look.
As time progressed, the frock coats grew shorter, turning into the jackets and blazers we would recognize. Waistcoats grew less common, or were replaced by vests. Coats with tails also became fashionable for formal wear. Colors were generally dark, though bright colors could appear in cummerbunds, and brighter prints were included for informal occasions.
Hats were dominated by the ubiquitous top hat, especially among the well to do. These reached somewhat ridiculous proportions in the mid 19th century with the “stovepipe hat”. Bowlers were common among the lower classes.
Hair was worn short, and facial hair was very common for most of the Victorian period. That could include mustaches, sideburns, full beards, or anything in between. The clean-shaven look didn’t come in again until very late.
Women’s clothes for most of the period consisted of hat and dress. In the early days, the hat was a bonnet, and the dress was bell-shaped, puffed out by layers of petticoats. Girdles were used to constructs the waist into waspish look fashionable at the time. They went a little crazy with lace and trim, as both had recently become more affordable with the advent of mechanical production.
In the mid 19th century, with the introduction of the crinoline, petticoats diminished, and dresses ballooned out to unwieldy widths, even as much as six feet. As you might imagine, this could complicate activities such as fitting through doors, and sitting. In the 1860s, the dresses shrank on the sides and front, leaving them projecting only the back. Crinolines were soon replaced by the more practical bustle, to emphasize which, hats shrank, and were pinned forward on the head.
Toward the end of the Victorian Age, the shrinking of dress width continued. What had once been an upward-pointing triangle inverted, with wide, padded shoulders, and dresses that skimmed toward the ankles. Extravagantly wide hats completed the look. These were often decorated with tropical bird plumage, or even whole stuffed birds, to the extent that it’s now estimated that Florida’s bird population was reduced by 95%. By this time, the girdle had gone out of fashion, and more natural waists were the norm, much, I assume, to the relief of Victorian women.
We often think of European history as being a discrete thing, separated from the rest of the world. However, by the 19th century, merchants, travelers, and soldiers had been carrying on cultural trade between far flung lands for hundreds of years. With the advances in the speed of travel, Victorian tastes were affected even more by eastern themes.
Chinese, Ottoman, and Arabic elements had been filtering into western aesthetics since at least the Renaissance. British interaction with India brought a whole new set of influences. These forces had their effect on art and architecture. Oriental carpets became much sought after, and those who could afford it often had themselves painted in foreign dress.
When Japanese wood block prints reached the European audience in the mid 19th century, it kicked off something of a fad that would be called either Anglo-Japanese or Japonism. Artists incorporated both Japanese subjects and techniques into their work. Clothing also borrowed from the new influence, for instance the tea dress beginning in the 1870s.
Victorian homes were separated into public and private spaces. Entertaining would take place in dining rooms, parlors, and, in good weather, gardens. Bare surfaces were considered unappealing, so walls, floors, and ceilings were textured with scored plaster, paint, wallpaper, or linoleum (invented in 1863). Rooms were filled with photographs, paintings, and trinkets that were meaningful to the owner.
Much like today, Victorians wanted their homes to look more elegant than they could afford. The above-mentioned texturing was used to make plaster look like marble or stone block, and make wood appear to be richer quality. Rich tablecloths would cover inexpensive tables, and linoleum could be made to resemble anything from wood to leather.
These styles also served a pragmatic purpose. Dark colors and those same textures could hide the soot prevalent in urban areas. Thick curtains could muffle the sound of busy streets.
I’ve mentioned the improved access to travel afforded in the Victorian Era. What exactly was available, and what was it like?
The image of train travel is almost synonymous with the time period. In England, legislation was passed in 1844 setting standard for comfort, speed, and availability that helped make this mode of transportation a mainstay. By the end of the 19th century, locomotives were comparable to their cousins from much of the 20th century, and could exceed speeds of 70mph.
A coach was a wheeled vehicle, whose cabin was separated from the frame by suspension, first leather straps, and later springs. They could be enclosed or not, built in several sizes, and pulled by one or more horses. Here are some common ones PCs might encounter
- Hackney carriage
- A hireable vehicle with four wheels, pulled by one or two horses, and seating four.
- Hackney coach
- A larger Hackney with two horses, with seats for six
- Hansom cab
- Small, nimble hireable vehicle with two wheels, pulled by one horse, and seating two (maybe three).
- Large, enclosed vehicle for long distance travel. Pulled by two, four, or even six horses, they followed regular routes in “stages” between stations, where they could change teams.
A clipper was a tall, narrow sailing ship built for speed. They reached speeds of over 16 knots, and were often used for trade and passenger routes. They were eventually traded for steamships, especially after the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, which sailing ships had difficulty navigating.
The greatest advantage of the steamship was consistency. They could maintain speed for days, independent of wind. Speed and efficiency steadily increased through the 19th century with the invention of the screw propeller in the 1870s, and the steam turbine in the 1890s.