Victorian Vogue

Madeleine Gray, Collections Assistant Decorative Arts

Queen Victoria ruled Britain from 20 June 1837 until her death on 22 January 1901. This exhibition looks at the changes in fashion during her reign.

Balls were a popular form of entertainment among the upper classes. Young women would dress in the latest and most expensive fashions to show off their wealth and attract a husband.

Victorian Britain was an industrial powerhouse and produced a great amount of wealth. This along with the growing numbers of the middle class, meant that there was a widespread demand for new and fashionable garments.

After 1851, when mechanisation was gradually introduced to France on a wider scale, richer fabrics became much cheaper. Fashionable garments were no longer restricted to the upper or middle classes.

‘Haute couture’ emerged. This was exclusive custom-made clothing made by the best dressmakers. One of the pioneers and founders of haute couture was Englishman Charles Frederick Worth. His most famous customer was Empress Eugenie.  

1910s evening dress.


Victorian women were expected to be decorative and look after the running of the household.  Appearance was extremely important, and an upper-class lady could change outfits up to eight times a day.

Dresses in the 1840s were characterised by pleated bodices, low pointed waists, and full bell-shaped skirts. The skirts were held out by layers of petticoats, including stiffened horsehair petticoats known as crinolines.

Sewing machines appeared in 1846, but most clothing continued to be hand-made until the 1860s.

Throughout the Victorian period men wore coat, waistcoat, and trousers in shades of black, blue, brown and green. These were usually made of woollen cloth.  A white linen or cotton shirt was also worn.

Watered silk wedding dress with satin ribbon decoration, c.1841-1850. The dress is lined in cotton and the bodice is boned. There is a large pocket inside the skirt.
Blue muslin dress, c.1842-1846. Roller printed with a floral and leaf pattern. The bodice is lined in calico and the skirt in muslin. One pocket on the inside of the skirt.
White muslin dress with floral pattern, c.1844-1852. The sleeves and bodice are lined and the front of the bodice is boned.

1850s – 1860s

By 1851 women mostly wore separate bodices and skirts. Many had their skirts made with two bodices, one for day and one for evening.

Skirts grew wider throughout the 1850s, with as many as seven petticoats being worn to hold them out. The cage crinoline, a frame of steel hoops, was introduced in 1856.

During the early 1860s crinolines became flatter at the front, although they kept the fullness at the back. They gradually shrank to form the bustle, a small framework that supported the back of the skirt.

Men wore comfortable and informal coats during the day and tail-coats for formal occasions.

Grey satin evening dress covered with black Spanish lace, c.1850s. The skirt is lined with calico.
Velvet jacket with jet embroidered buttons, c.1860. The bottom is pleated to flare out and rest on a full skirt.
Shot taffeta wedding dress, c.1860s, comprising bodice, skirt, and belt. The bodice fastens with hooks and eyes, so the buttons are purely decorative.
Cotton backed jacquard woven waistcoat, c.1855. The buttons are replacements, and the originals would have been covered in the same fabric as the waistcoat.


During the 1870s both sleeves and skirts were worn tight. The longer ‘cuirasse’ style bodice, which came down over the hips, meant that corsets in turn had to be longer and tighter. A decided emphasis was placed on the back of the skirt, using wire and horsehair bustles, bunched and draped fabric and long trains.

This made fashionable clothing very restrictive and gave rise to the ‘aesthetic’ dress movement. Aesthetic dresses were cut more loosely and did not require rigid corsetry to wear. It was a style mainly adopted by women from artistic and intellectual circles.

Silk evening dress comprising bodice and skirt, c.1874. The boned bodice is decorated with black lace and velvet.
Silk dress with velvet decoration, c.1875-1878. There is a bow at the back to emphasis the bustle. The dress fastens down the front with hooks and eyes.
Cotton dress for a girl around age nine, c.1877-1879. Girls' dresses were similar in style to those worn by their mothers but shorter.
Silk waistcoat woven to create a velvet-effect pattern, c.1870-1900. This waistcoat came from a family home in West Butterwick.

1880s – 1890s

Skirts in the 1880s were straight, although the emphasis was still on the back. The bustle had seen a brief respite but was revived in the mid-1880s in a more exaggerated form than before. It disappeared altogether towards the end of the decade. Bodices were tight-fitting with narrow sleeves and a stand-up collar.

During the 1890s skirts were cut in a simpler A-line shape. Emphasis was now placed on the bodice, with high collars and large sleeves.

During this period, as women became more active, their clothing was adapted for a range of sports. This clothing did, however, still retain the fashionable waistline, sleeves and skirts. Among other new innovations was the breathable cotton-mesh fabric Aertex, which was invented in 1888. Less restrictive corsets were made with this mesh included to allow better air flow.

Grosgrain wedding dress, c.1893-1895. The boned bodice is decorated with lace and satin ribbon. There are pearl beads around the neck.
Silk and georgette dress with a boned and pleated bodice, c.1882-1891. There is a watch pocket inside the bodice and a large pocket inside the skirt.
Velvet jacket with floral pattern and small pocket, 1890s. The jacket mirrors the fashionable stand-up collar of dresses of the period.
Gentlemen's waistcoat made from fancy weave wool, c.1880-1890. It has four pockets and fastens with six detachable buttons.
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