Women's Fashions of the Victorian Era: From Hoop Skirts to Bustles - 1837 - 1901

Victorian Style - 1880s

From Victorian Fashion plate: First is early 1880's daywear dress; center an 1880's evening dress; third is mid 1880's day dress
From Victorian Fashion plate: First is early 1880's daywear dress; center an 1880's evening dress; third is mid 1880's day dress | Source

Victorian Clothing - Prim and Proper Yet Outrageous Styles

Despite the prim and proper feminine ideal of the day, 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 made of finer fabrics using more material and embellishments.

Victorian Riding Habit Circa 1847


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, 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.

Employment opportunities were limited to teaching young girls, being a governess, domestic servitude, and later to 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 the Industrial Revolution put an end to enterprises such as weaving cloth at home.

The Industrial Revolution created new wealth for investors, industrialists, and merchants and 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 later bustle 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
Portrait by Franz Xaver Winterhalter | Source

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, in styles that varied from plain to heavily ornamented.

Victorian Hair and Make Up

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 back.

Crimping became popular in the early 1870s.

Throughout the Victorian period, women wore false hair pieces 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.

Make up 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


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 in 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.

Victorian Ruffled Skirts Circa1853


Victorian Crinoline Skirts circa 1860


Victorian Style Crinoline Cage


Mid-Victorian Crinolines and Hoop Skirts

In the 1850s, the dome shaped skirt switched to tapered skirts that flared at the waist. The new hour glass 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.

In the 1850s, a cage like affair replaced the multi-layered petticoats. Called hoop-skirts, cage crinolines, or cages, they were light weight, economical and more comfortable than the heavy crinolines.

Cage crinolines which produced the huge, volumnous 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.

Victorian Costume - 1860s Hoop Skirts

From drawing by Pauquet
From drawing by Pauquet | Source

Empress Elisabeth of Austria in 1865

Oil painting by Franz Xaver Winterhalter
Oil painting by Franz Xaver Winterhalter | Source

Victorian Fashion - the Aesthetic Movement in Dress 1862

Painting by James Abbott Whistler
Painting by James Abbott Whistler | Source

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 hand sewn using natural dyes.

Other new development included the introduction of 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 worm by the French Empress Eugenie, Empress Elizabeth of Austria, and Queen Victoria. Worth became so influential tha the is known as the Father of Haute Couture (high fashion), a trend steer who introduced new fashion ideals.

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.

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 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 color combinations. These intellectuals, artists, and literary folk longed for a simpler life and the costumes that reflected the life-style.

Garments were loose and unstructured, used soft colors created with natural dyes, embellished by hand embroidery featuring motifs drawn from nature.

Victorian - Brady Photograph of Women and Child circa 1862

Black mourning dress was worn during bereavement.
Black mourning dress was worn during bereavement. | Source

Victorian 1888 Dress With Bustle


Victorian Fashion Circa 1874 - Rear Fullness Due to Bustle


Late Victorian - The Bustle

A bustle is a pad that emphasized the posterior. Used in the late 1700s when swagged up skirts made a large rear end fashionable, they eventually became the prime focus of fashion. By the later 1800s, rear pads were called bustles.

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.

Held on with a buckled waistband, the bustle was a rectangular or crescent shaped pad made of horse hair or down filled woven wire mesh.

By 1867, Worth's over-skirt caught on and combined with a bustle created an entirely new look.

In 1870, ball gowns featured trains and 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.

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 1890's 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 front and back and eventually reached the upper thighs.

The Edwardian Era

Age Queen Victoria aged, fashionable heads turned toward her son Edward, the Prince of Wales. The combination of his lust for a hedonistic life-style 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 over-laped.

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.

Victorian Syle 1880

Victorian Costume - 1880s Fashion Plate

Victorian Fashion Circa 1889

A Beatufil Montage of Victorian Fashion

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

Books consulted:

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

Images thanks to wikimedia commons.

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Comments 12 comments

imatellmuva profile image

imatellmuva 5 years ago from Somewhere in Baltimore

I absolutely love this hub! Just before I joined HubPages, I was reading how women from the Victorian Era, collected their hair from their combs and brushes and saved them in what's called a Hair Keeper. I've actually seen these before, but didn't know what they were....anyway, once they collected enough hair they'd use it to add to their own hair as extensions or to add height.

I am fascinated by this kind of history.

Dolores Monet profile image

Dolores Monet 5 years ago from East Coast, United States Author

Lady - I bet they use tons of fabric, but it would be a lot of fun to create a beautiful Victorian dress!

imatellmuva - Ugh! They also used to cut the hair from dead loved ones and use it to make jewelry with the woven hair. Oh well, waste not want not, haha. Thanks for stopping by!

Dolores Monet profile image

Dolores Monet 5 years ago from East Coast, United States Author

Laine - thank you - glad that you enjoyed!

vnustham - Victorian fashions were beautiful if a bit much. I also love the Victorian houses and interiors. Thank you!

Dolores Monet profile image

Dolores Monet 4 years ago from East Coast, United States Author

Wr1t3r - thank you very much.

cannapro - I do love the Victorian era, the clothes, the literature, the architecture, and interior design. And the dishware. Thanks!

munchwaffle - oh stop. I went from here to your profile, read one of your hubs, now I can't stop thinking about waffles. I've sworn off waffles - they are dangerous to my physique.

I often think of the discomfort of those times. I think I'd go for the Aesthetic look. They seem downright comfty as well as beautiful.

Kitkat 4 years ago

Pssst, if u didn't know the pic in of the woman and her daughter is a photo of Rose Greenhow and her daughter Rosie, nick-named little Rose in the old capitol prison in Washington D.C.

Rose was a Confederate spy who helped them win the first battle of Bull Run. She was very good at her work and used tapestry stichings to give Union info to the South.

She was discovered by Allan Pinkerton of the Pinkerton Detective agency and went under house arrest. Later one of her tapestries were discovered and she went to prison with her little daughter going to.

After her trial that spring she was deported to Richmond and was greeted by Jefferson Davis. Then she went to Europe, hoping to escape the harsh memories of the Civil War.

On her way back, she boarded her ship called the Condor but when they were outside of Cape Fear North Carolina, a Union vessel stranded them on a sandbank. Rose asked the captian for a life boat, and, because there was a terrible storm, the life boat overturned and she drowned

Kitkat 4 years ago

Oh yeah! I forgot! They buried Rose in Wilmington, North Carolina and still is considered a southern hero.

Dolores Monet profile image

Dolores Monet 4 years ago from East Coast, United States Author

Kitkat - thank you for providing the information on Rose. I knew that she was a Confederate spy but did not recall the whole story. The image itself is quite poignant even if you don't know the story, don't you think? We look at so many of these old photos - having the background story really fills it out.

Kitkat 4 years ago

Thank you very much!! I appreciate that nice comment!!!!! P.S I HATE HOW THOSE CORSETS FEE!!!!!!!

femmeflashpoint 4 years ago


I thoroughly enjoyed this! I remember seeing an artificial skeletal structure of a female rib cage when I was on a field trip in high school. The rib contortion, due to tight corseting, reminded me of the African tribe that wears rings around their necks to elongate them.

Their necks only "look" elongated. The rings actually cause their clavicles and the ribs below them to bend downward.

The ribs near the waist on the corseted female were bent as well, and profoundly so.

The clothing (at least most of it) was beautiful, but I'm sooooo glad I didn't have to wear those sorts of get-ups in my lifetime, lol.


Dolores Monet profile image

Dolores Monet 4 years ago from East Coast, United States Author

femmeflashpoint - Women of the Kayan villages in Northern Thailand wore coils of rings for elongation of the neck, beginning when they were young children. The practice has caused some controversy.

Many such body modifications are still being practiced today. Think of the earring plugs that are worn in increasingly large sizes to create large holes in the ear lobe right here in the USA.

Of course poor women and lower class women wore more comfortable clothing during the Victorian period. If you had to work hard, the tight corseting and low shoulder lines that restricted arm movement got in the way of actual physical work!


Melissa Campbell 5 days ago

As an aspiring nineteenth century novelist, I've found this site to be both invaluable as well as insightful. Thank you for sharing. For the sake of all of my fellow history buffs and myself

, please share more of the same in the future.

Dolores Monet profile image

Dolores Monet 3 days ago from East Coast, United States Author

Melissa Campbell - I am glad that you found this article helpful. I started writing about historic fashion after years of reading up on the topic while reading period novels and trying to get a better eye for what the characters were wearing. Of course lots of novels feature working or middle class folks who would not be dressed in fabulous high fashion but would be wearing more comfortable garments.

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