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Victorian Era Women's Fashions: From Hoop Skirts to Bustles

Dolores's interest in fashion history dates from her teenage years when vintage apparel was widely available in thrift stores.

Victorian fashion plate: left is an early 1880s daywear dress; center is an 1880s evening dress; right is a mid-1880s day dress.

Victorian fashion plate: left is an early 1880s daywear dress; center is an 1880s evening dress; right is a mid-1880s day dress.

Quick Facts About Victorian Fashion

  • An hourglass silhouette was accentuated by tight corsets.
  • Extreme styles introduced hoop skirts and bustles to fashion.
  • The creation of synthetic dyes led to bright, wild colors.
  • Highly ornamental fashions included ruffles, lace, and draping.
  • The Aesthetic and Rational Dress movements questioned the dictate of fashion.

Victorian Clothing: Prim, Proper, and Outrageous

Despite the prim and proper feminine ideal of the time, fashions of the Victorian period created an often exaggerated, ostentatious look. Tight corsets, gigantic hoop skirts, and outrageous bustles make today's fashion trends look sedate by comparison.

Clothing styles were dictated by propriety, and stylish garments were a sign of respectability. The copious amounts of fabric used in the creation of Victorian skirts usually meant that most women owned few outfits. Detachable collars and cuffs enabled a woman to change the look of a garment for a bit of variety. Of course, wealthier women owned more garments that were made of finer fabrics and used more material and embellishments.

Victorian riding habit circa 1847—in those days, women rode side saddle.

Victorian riding habit circa 1847—in those days, women rode side saddle.

The Victorian Period in Fashion: Historical Background

The Victorian period, generally the time between 1837 and the 1890s, is named after Britain's Queen Victoria (1819–1901), a long-lived and highly influential monarch in an era when women had little power or opportunity.

In those days, women lived at the largess of men—first their fathers or guardians, then their husbands. A young lady was expected to be meek and mild, to acquiesce to her father's or husband's wishes. A woman's intelligence and wit were restricted to social events and amusing conversation.

Jobs for Women

Employment opportunities were limited to teaching young girls, being a governess, domestic servitude, and later factory or mill work. Of course, rural women had plenty of work if they lived on a farm. Some women earned money from cottage industries, but the Industrial Revolution put an end to enterprises such as spinning yarn and making lace at home.

The Industrial Revolution

The Industrial Revolution created new wealth for investors, industrialists, and merchants. It introduced a new middle class who, proud of their status, displayed their wealth with great ostentation. Women wore their status in fabric, and lots of it—from the mid-century hoop skirts to the bustle later on in the beautiful dresses and styles of the Victorian period.

The Industrial Revolution created a new urbanization as towns and cities filled with workers for the new mills and factories where women worked long hours in grim, dirty, and often dangerous conditions.

Queen Victoria 1845 – Portrait by Franz Xaver Winterhalter

Queen Victoria 1845 – Portrait by Franz Xaver Winterhalter

Early Victorian Fashion

1836 ushered in a new change from the Romantic style of dress. Large Gignot sleeves suddenly slimmed and a seam line dropped the shoulder of dresses. A tight-fitting bodice was boned and slanted to emphasize the waist. Cartridge pleats at the waist created volume in the skirt without adding bulk to the waist. Women of a higher social class were expected to be demure and indolent as reflected by the restrictive dropped shoulder lines and corsets.

  • Dresses in soft colors could be refreshed with detachable white collars and cuffs.
  • In the 1840s, extra flounces were added to skirts and women wore a short over-skirt in day dressing. Skirts widened as the hourglass silhouette became the popular look, and women took to wearing layers of petticoats. Bodices took on a V shape and the shoulder dropped more.
  • Evening wear exposed the shoulders and neckline, and corsets lost their shoulder straps. Sleeves of ball gowns were usually short.
  • Although women wore what we call "dresses," many of these costumes were actually a separate bodice and skirt.
  • Three-quarter length sleeves lasted through most of the Victorian period and some sleeves began to sprout bell-shaped ruffles.
  • For most of the 19th century, bonnets were the headgear of choice. Styles varied from plain to heavily ornamented.

Victorian Hair and Makeup

Women's hair was generally worn long, caught up in a chignon or bun. In the 1840s, ringlets of curls hung on either side of the head. In the 1870s, women drew up the side hair but let it hang in long, loose curls in the back. Crimping became popular in the early 1870s.

Throughout the Victorian period, women wore false hairpieces and extensions as well as artificial flowers such as velvet pansies and roses, false leaves, and beaded butterflies, often combined into intricate and beautiful headpieces.

Makeup was mostly worn by theater people. The look for women in Victorian days was very pale skin, occasionally highlighted with a smidge of rouge on the cheeks.

Late Victorian corset.

Late Victorian corset.

The Victorian Corset

A corset is an undergarment set with strips of whalebone (actually whale baleen), later replaced by steel. Though criticized as unhealthy, and certainly uncomfortable, corsets were a fashion staple throughout the 19th century, granting women social status, respectability, and the idealized figure of youth. Often called "stays," from the French "estayer," meaning support. Corsets were thought to provide support to women, the weaker sex.

Critics, including some health professionals, believed that corsets caused cancer, anemia, birth defects, miscarriages, and damage to internal organs. The tight restriction of the body did deplete lung capacity and caused fainting.

The popular concept of an obsession with a tiny waist is probably exaggerated. The competition of cinching to improbable dimensions was more of a fetish or a fad and not the norm as depicted in the 1939 film Gone with the Wind when Scarlett O'Hara cinches her corset to a 17" waist.

Mid-Victorian Crinolines and Hoop Skirts

In the 1850s, the dome-shaped skirt switched to tapered skirts that flared at the waist. The new hourglass figure grew to exaggerated proportions. Layers of petticoats were suddenly not enough and the crinoline was introduced to add volume to skirts. Crinoline was a heavy, stiff fabric made of woven horsehair that was expensive and impossible to clean.

Hoop Skirts (Cage Crinolines)

In the 1850s, a cage-like affair replaced the multi-layered petticoats. Called hoop skirts, cage crinolines, or cages, they were lightweight, economical and more comfortable than the heavy crinolines. Cage crinolines, which produced the huge, voluminous skirts so often associated with mid-century Victorian fashion, were made of flexible sprung steel rings suspended from fabric tape.

The look was so popular and economical that lower-middle-class women, maids, and factory girls sported the style. Cheaper hoop skirts included a dozen hoops while the high-priced variety featured 20–40 hoops for a smoother line. The hoop industry grew large and two New York factories produced 3,000 to 4,000 hoop cages a day, employing thousands of workers.

Early versions of hoop skirts reached the floor, but hemlines rose in the 1860s. Sleeves were often tight at the top, opening at the bottom in a bell-like shape.

Woman dressed in the manner of the Aesthetics; "Symphony in White," 1862 painting by James Abbott Whistler

Woman dressed in the manner of the Aesthetics; "Symphony in White," 1862 painting by James Abbott Whistler

The Sewing Machine and Victorian Technology

The mass production of sewing machines in the 1850s, as well as the advent of synthetic dyes, introduced major changes in fashion. Previously, clothing was handsewn using natural dyes. Other new developments included the sized paper pattern as well as machines that could slice several pattern pieces at once. Clothing could now be produced quickly and cheaply.

In 1860, Charles Worth, a clothing designer in Paris, France, created costumes worn by the French Empress Eugenie, Empress Elizabeth of Austria, and Queen Victoria. Worth became so influential that he is known as the Father of Haute Couture (high fashion). In 1864, Worth introduced an over-skirt that was lifted and held back by buttons and tabs. By 1868, the over-skirt was drawn back and looped, creating fullness and drapery at the rear.

Scaling Back the Ornamentation

Meanwhile, certain fashion mavens felt that the over ornamentation had gone too far. The New Princess Line was a simple form of dress, cut in one piece of joined panels, fitted from shoulder to hem. The Gabriel Princess dress produced a slim silhouette in plain or muted colors with a small white collar and a full, though greatly diminished skirt.

  • The Bloomer Costume, named after feminist Amelia Bloomer, featured a full, short skirt worn over wide trousers for ease of movement. The style did not go over well and was often ridiculed in the press.
  • Followers of the Aesthetic movement despised the Industrial Revolution, exaggerated fashions, and the use of the new synthetic dyes that produced sometimes lurid colors, and weird color combinations. These intellectuals, artists, and literary folk longed for a simpler life and the costumes that reflected the lifestyle. Garments were loose and unstructured, used soft colors created with natural dyes, and were embellished by hand embroidery featuring motifs drawn from nature.
Rear fullness due to bustle (1870s).

Rear fullness due to bustle (1870s).

Late Victorian: The Bustle

A bustle is a pad that emphasized the rear of a skirt. Used in the late 1700s when swagged up skirts emphasized the back of a costume, they eventually became the prime focus of fashion. By the late 1800s, rear pads were called bustles. Held on with a buckled waistband, the bustle was a rectangular or crescent-shaped pad made of horsehair or down-filled woven wire mesh.

  • 1868 saw a fullness appear at the back of the skirt. The ideal female form featured narrow, slope shoulders, wide hips, and a tiny waist.
  • By 1867, Worth's over-skirt caught on and combined with a bustle created an entirely new look.
  • In 1870, ball gowns featured trains. By 1873, trains showed up in day dresses. Trains were a short-lived style, however, as they quickly became soiled dragging along city streets.
  • 1875 saw skirts slimmed down with the skirt low and close to the body—often, but not always, with a bustle.

Growth and Decline of the Bustle

The bustle came back in a big way in the 1880s, creating a huge, shelf-like protrusion at the rear. But the ludicrous style fell out of favor and by 1887, was greatly reduced in size. The 1890s saw some fullness at the rear, but the bustle was on its way out.

Women's fashions took on a more tailored look with the introduction of the cuirasse bodice in 1878. The stiff, corset-like garment dipped down in both the front and back, and eventually reached the upper thighs.

Tea Gowns, Mourning Dress, and Footwear

Tea Gowns

Popular between 1870 and 1910, the Tea Gown was common wear for women receiving guests at home for tea. The hostess hoped to depict an artistic sensibility, influenced by fantasy, exotic styles, and earlier historical periods. The Tea Gown represented a lower level of formality worn without a corset and made of soft, flowing fabric, and trim.

Mourning Dress

After the death of Prince Albert in 1861, Queen Victoria wore full mourning costume. All women wore mourning after the death of a loved one. And in a time of frequent death, mourning could last quite some time.

There were several stages of mourning dress for a widow lasting for 2 1/2 years. The first stage, lasting one year, required women to dress entirely in black. Later, some ornamentation would be added to lusher fabrics. The last six months of mourning reintroduced some color into a widow's wardrobe including white, gray, and shades of purple.


In 1837, British inventor J. Sparks Hall gave Queen Victoria the first pair of boots that featured elasticized side gussets. The easy-to-wear, slip-on boots caught on and were popular throughout the 19th century for both men's and women's footwear.

Front lacing boots called Balmorals resembled modern boxing boots with pearl buttons. Late Victorians often wore Balmorals with contrasting fabric tops.

The Edwardian Era

As Queen Victoria aged, fashionable heads turned toward her son Edward, the Prince of Wales. The combination of his lust for a hedonistic lifestyle and the women's emancipation movement changed the look of fashion for women.

Queen Victoria died in 1901, but changes come gradually and the eras overlapped. The major change in the new Edwardian style was the end of the corset and the introduction of the new "health corset" with an S bend look.

How to Put on a Corset (Good Luck With That)

Further Reading

  • Daily Life in Victorian England by Sally Mitchell; Greenwood Press
  • Costume and Styles: The Evolution of Fashion From Early Egypt to the Present by Henny Harald Hansen; E. P. Dutton & Co.
  • Encyclopedia of Clothing & Fashion, edited by Valerie Steele; Scribner Library
  • Victorian Fashions : A Pictorial Archive by Carol Belanger Grafton
  • Victorian and Edwardian Fashion A Photographic Survey by Alison Gersheim
  • 19th Century Fashion in Detail by Lucy Johnston
  • A Victorian Lady's Guide to Fashion and Beauty by Mimi Matthews

Questions & Answers

Question: Were mob caps worn by women in the late 19th century?

Answer: While mob caps are usually associated with an earlier time, some women wore them in the late 19th century, usually maids or other servants. The size of the cap was smaller than it had been in the past. A mob cap is made of linen or cotton cut in a circle and gathered to create a ruffle around the edge. The reason it's called a "mob" cap is that women wore them during the French Revolution.

Question: Were hoops worn under skirts in 1911?

Answer: Women's skirts of 1911 were narrow, creating a slim silhouette. Hoops and crinolines are worn to create an hourglass figure. The style has come and gone over the centuries from the Wheel Farthingale to the New Look of the late 1940s to the early 1950s. Edwardian dresses did not feature hoops.

Question: What are the Dress styles of 1885 - 1920?

Answer: Women's fashions changed so much over the years that you mention. If you are searching for styles of those periods of time, it would be best to separate your searches. Check out the types of clothing worn in the Late Victorian Era for examples of late 19th century styles. The Edwardian Era covers 1901 - 1910 or the beginning of World War I.

There are many answers to your question. You may want to check out fashions by decade to see the differences in clothing styles.

Question: What are crinolines?

Answer: A crinoline is a large, wide type of petticoat worn to support voluminous skirts. They were made of woven horsehair, a coarse, strong material strong enough to pouf out large skirts. When women wore hoops made of baleen and later, steel, they were called cage crinolines.

© 2011 Dolores Monet