Posts Tagged ‘Victorian fashion’

Hello darlings.

Yes, I’ve been away far too long. But Lolita Theresa has been working dilligently on a new steampunk novel for you. In the meantime, since you know how much I adore research, I thought I’d take you on a little trip into fashion.

I’ve always found it fascinating how our society and what’s happening in it can directly impact the way we dress. Today we’re going to look at the changing silhouette of the Victorian era as a mirror of the times. (Courtesy of http://lady-of-crow.deviantart.com/art/Victorian-Silhouettes-83666275 which provided the original artwork.)

In 1837, Victoria ascends to the throne. She’s young, only 18, and beautiful and the silhouette of the time reflects that ingénue-like frame. Times are changing, there’s research happening about dinosaurs in the Pleistocene epoch, Samuel Morse has exhibited his electric telegraph at the College of the City in New York, and there’s a Gag Law in place passed by the U.S. Congress suppressing the debate on slavery.

By 1842, Victoria would have been, 23, and trying to appear very grown up. The skirts are widening (as are the hips and bust line after bearing two children), and do so even more in 1847 when she would have already had five children.

In 1852, at the age of 33, Victoria is truly on her way to showing the world that the English are a world power. They control India, Tasmania, Australia, parts of Canada. Notice the amount (and expense) of ruffles and added lace in the silhouettes of both 1852 and 1857.

However by 1862 the silhouette changes drastically to more simple lines. Victoria’s beloved husband Albert died in December 1861. As Victoria grows older and more critical of the behavior of her wild son Prince Edward, you can almost see the stricture and behavioral mores of the Victorian era changing in 1867 as the skirts grow increasingly more tight and confining until 1882.

Know what surprised me most? Check out the difference between the first image 1837 and the third to last image of 1892. Not much difference is there? Ever hear how at the end we start thinking about the beginning. Makes me wonder if the same was happening with Queen Victoria. Or perhaps, like all fashion, they just started recycling things, and she just happened to be old enough for what was old to become new again *resurgence of 1980’s fashions, cough, cough*.

Notice that by 1902 the silhouette has become so relaxed there’s barely even a bustline anymore. It looks almost worn out and tired. Since Victoria died in 1901, I can see why. (Well that and Edward, who succeeded her, did tend to be a pretty relaxed sort of guy.)

These images also illustrates why it’s so critical to make sure you know precisely which decade (or in many cases which five year period) you are discussing in your steampunk writing. Sure you don’t have to be accurate all the time (as rayguns and dirigibles aren’t exactly accurate either), but if you put an enormous bustle fit for 1887 in your 1847 set book, you really ought to be able to explain why.

Next time you are writing a scene, ask yourself, what do you read into the changing clothing trends and how can it more aptly reflect your characters?

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Today we welcome Victorian costume expert Karlee Etter who’s going to tell us how during the Victorian era fans were used for far more than keeping the bearer cool.


The Secret Language of the Fan

by Karlee Etter

For much of the nineteenth century and well into the early decades of the twentieth, women were expected to conduct themselves in an even-tempered manner. A woman’s deportment or behavior, especially in public was expected to be gracious, courteous, and respectable.  Any demonstration of the contrary was frowned upon not only by parents and potential suitors, but from contemporaries, as well. Vocally rejecting a suitor was deplorable, even if a woman believed him to be unacceptable. Likewise flirting with a desirable suitor was equally appalling. So, while in attendance at a Ball or other social gathering, what was a woman do to when faced with numerous men, all vying for her attention; how was she to express or communicate her “choice” or “choices” without violating those stifling rules of etiquette?  With visual clues, of course; although simply using facial expression was often too subtle.  Therefore, the secret language of the hand-fan might be employed to clarify a woman’s acceptance or rejection of potential suitors.

However, if the language of the fan was a secret, how did young women learn the various silent gestures of the fan?  If such a language really did exist and some historians will argue that it did not, others believe the language of the fan was passed down from woman to woman. Each gesture of the hand holding a fan contained a powerful hidden meaning.

If a young woman was unavailable, she might gesture in the following manner:  Fanning slowly meant, “I am married”, or, fanning quickly, “I am engaged.” Twirling her fan in the right hand meant, “I love another.”  Or, if the young man was of interest as a friend rather than a suitor, she might drop the fan, which communicated, “We will be friends.”  Then, by placing the fan behind with a finger extended meant, “Goodbye.”

Now, let’s imagine a young woman is available (not spoken for); she might begin her secret discussion with a new acquaintance and appropriate suitor in the following manner:

1)       If she holds the fan in her left hand in front of her face, “I am desirous of your acquaintance.”

2)       By touching her finger to the tip of the fan she would be gesturing, “I wish to speak to you.” Or carrying the fan in her left hand, indicates, “Come and talk to me”.

3)       Responding to a cue from her suitor, she might continue with, “Yes” by letting the fan rest on her right cheek.

4)       Or if she rests the fan against her left cheek, she is saying, “No”.

5)       A closed fan touching her right eye, “When may I be allowed to see you?” Or, a partially open fan showing the number of fan-sticks indicated the hour at which she agreed to meet her suitor.

6)       Opening the fan wide, “Wait for me.”

7)       Placing the fan behind the head, “Do not forget me.”

8)       Fan in her right hand in front of her face, “Follow me.”

9)       Of course, using the silent language of the fan didn’t always mean the two sweethearts were succeeding in their covert communication – there was always the risk that some busy-body would spy the young couple’s interaction.  With that, the young woman might twirl her fan in the left hand, which meant, “We are being watched.”

10)   Covering the left ear with an open fan, “Do not betray our secret.”

Once the couple had an established relationship, there were still rules of etiquette and spoken phrases of love that were never to be expressed aloud, unless in the privacy of one another’s company. Rarely would an unengaged couple be alone, especially within a strict New England community. So, even in such a setting, the secret language of the fan was useful – especially if the young couple was chaperoned by old, Puritanical, spinster, Aunt Bitty. Then their “secret” communication might unfold in the following manner:

11)   Drawing the fan across the eyes, “I am sorry.”

12)   Hands clasped together holding an open fan, “Forgive me.”

13)   The fan placed near the heart, “You have won my love.”

14)   Presenting the fan shut, “Do you love me?”

15)   Drawing the fan across her cheek or hiding her eyes behind an open fan, “I love you!”

16)   Half-opened fan pressed against her lips or putting the fan handle to her lips, “Kiss me” or “You may kiss me.”

17)   Shutting a fully opened fan slowly, “I promise to marry you.”

Not every form of communication with the fan was intended to encourage or continue a relationship.  The fan’s secret language might also be used to discourage or kindly reject a potential suitor, or communicate the absolute offensive nature of a young man toward a young woman.

18)   Drawing the fan across the forehead, “You have changed.”

19)   Carrying the open fan in the right hand, “You are too willing.”

20)   Fan held over left ear, “I wish to get rid of you.”

21)   Threatening movements with a closed fan “Don’t be so imprudent.”

22)   Opening and closing fan several times, “You are cruel.”

23)   Drawing the fan through her hand, “I hate you!”

Whatever the historians say, I trust that the nineteenth century language of the fan was a form of communication fundamental to the romance of America’s Victorian Era.  Not only did it afford a bond between generations of women, but it also offered a form of communication enabling young women an outlet to express sincere feelings towards suitors in an acceptable manner and within the confines of the Victorian Era’s oppressive etiquette.


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Okay, so it’s a horrible pun. But really, if you’re looking at the historical development over time of the bustle, could you resist? The fact remains that one of the classic elements of refined lady steampunk wear is the bustle. But what people seem to forget is that the bustle wasn’t always part of Victorian fashion and actually changed in style during the course of the Queen’s reign. If you’re going to use a bustle you might want to know exactly what decade (or in some cases as little as five year span) your character is from.

In the early Victorian era, women’s dresses didn’t even sport bustles. From the period of 1837 to 1860, skirts were still the wide-hooped variety you’d see in the costuming of the movie Gone With the Wind. It wasn’t actually until between 1865 that skirts, though still wide with extra crinolines, thank you, started sporting extra fullness toward the back, with an overskirt pulled back over an underskirt.

US patent 131840 circa 1872

Closer to 1870, this had developed into a padding placed beneath the skirt to accentuate that fullness toward the rear. From 1870 to 1875 you begin to see skirts of enormous volumes of fabric (like those designed by Worth) that is in cascades, and bunches, drapes, folds and dragging trains, augmented by a low-placed bustle (that actually would have hit about at the back of your knees – oh joy) to provide fullness to the fabric arrangement.

Dimity bustle of 1881

By 1875 to 1880 the skirting becomes more fitted to the form and nearly cylindrical in the front, yet still gathered in trains toward the back, with low fitted bustles that are more padding to augment the long-curved bodices in fashion. Ruching, pleats, full draping of fabric is still in vogue as are slightly smaller trains.

From the height of the bustle's glory

In 1880 to 1885 the bustle begins to emerge as more of a necessity as the gowns, nearly now all floor length unless you happen to be dragging about a train for an evening gown), sport even more of the overskirt gathered to the back in ever elaborate arrangements, which are so heavy that they drag the skirt down without proper support. The look of a shelf off the back of your bum is at it’s height and bustles come in any number of arrangements from collapsible wire cages, to ruffled, many layer long bustles meant to run the length of the skirt and be secured about the waist.

While still part of fashion, the bustle begins to shrink a bit in 1890 to 1895, probably in response to the enormous ballooning of the tops of ladies’ sleeves (in what’s called the Gibson girl or mutton sleeve look). The skirts still have also widened out a bit into more of a bell shape and are not so confining as they were in the 1875-1880 period, leaving room to wear a bustle without it being too evident, yet allowing it to make the waist, which is nipped in, look smaller. And really, by about 1893, the bustle has been reduced to just a pad.

A variety of mesh bustle designs

In 1895 to 1900, the sleeves shrink back down, big hats take center stage and the bustle is more of a remnant designed to add fullness, as the silhouette slopes forward in a changing corset style which also forces the rear to stick out.

The bustle still remains a fashion item up until about 1905, in the Edwardian period, when waistlines and the silhouette begin to meld together into a more tubular type skirting.

Like fashion, bustles were an evolving item. Knowing just how much to put behind you, and how to make it look, can peg you character from early to late Victorian. So, how much bustle will you be sporting?

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Behind every woman is a good partner. Behind every queen is a prime minister. And behind every Victorian lady is … a bustle. With the Steampunk Steamboat event approaching in July in Nashville, TN, I wanted to make a steampunk costume to wear. And for me, that means a Victorian outfit. However, you can’t make a Victorian dress without the foundation garments, because they won’t hang properly. So the thing to do is to start with the bustle petticoat from Truly Victorian.

Then it was off to the fabric store for white cotton sheeting. I got 100% cotton, but ladies, think about ironing 27 feet of ruffles. Not gonna happen. So the next time I make this up, I’ll use a 65/35 poly/cotton blend.

Lay out the pattern, cut out and mark the pieces, and you have a pile-o-stuff on your table.

The pieces are large and the instructions clear, so it doesn’t take long for this to go together. Even the boning channels are straightforward, and you can buy the bones–big honkin’ metal ones with plastic tips that won’t poke through your fabric–from Truly Victorian, already cut to size. I can’t tell you how much time and aggravation that saves.

Now, you’ll notice that the bones don’t look very bustle-y. That’s because we now have to put the bend in the bones. You sew strings into the seam allowance on each end of the bones, then pull them together over your butt and tie them, essentially forming hoops.

Then it’s time for the ruffle overlay. Since the only person who can carry off the bony look successfully is Kate Moss, I don’t want the bones showing through my skirt. One must maintain the element of mystery, after all. So over the whole contraption goes a ruffled overlay to soften the lines of the bustle and hold the skirt off the bones a bit.

Ruffles: 27 feet of them. It took me a week to sew them–and since you lay them on top of the overlay pieces, you need to finish them or they’ll ravel with use. So that means sewing lace and ribbon on top of each one–meaning you sew all that acreage three times. Can you even imagine doing this in Victorian times, without a sewing machine?

But voila, the finished product is worth it–and now we have the foundation to build the rest of the costume on. I’ll post about the skirt construction in a few days.

Happy birthday, Steamed!

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When I volunteered to blog here, I had a look around the internet for information on Steampunk fashion, since that is a subject that fascinates me. In several places, I came across a notion about Victorian fashion that I knew was wrong, and I thought it would be fun to blog about it. Somehow, the idea has gotten fixed in some people’s minds that Victorian fashion was dark and rather gloomy, with an emphasis on black and dark brown. This is simply untrue.

First, I’d like to point out that the Victorian era was a long one, with significant shifts in fashion. I’ve noticed that many Americans think of Victorian times as being limited to the end of the nineteenth century. Actually, the era began in 1837, when Victoria ascended to the throne, and ended in 1901 with her death. Women’s fashion, especially, underwent major changes during those years.

In the beginning of the era, women’s style emphasized sloping shoulders, tiny waist and full, bell-shaped skirts. Women wore enormous bonnets that partially obscured their faces, and their movements were hampered by the many layers of petticoats they used to create the full skirt effect. In the 1850’s, the crinoline was invented, freeing women from the weight of all those skirts, and by the end of the century women’s clothes had taken on aspects of men’s style, such as shirtwaists and tailored suits with exaggerated broad shoulders (although retaining the artificially tiny waist).  Color was used generously throughout the era.

A Victorian lady wearing all-black would generally be assumed to be in mourning. Victorian women loved color in their clothing. Aniline dyes were invented in mid-century, making it possible to create brighter colors than had been available previously, and women took full advantage of this. Even gentlemen wore colorful garments, although their choices were much more subdued generally than the women’s.

I Googled Victorian men’s fashion and found a site called Victoriana, which had some men’s fashion plates for viewing. For the year 1868, from Harper’s Bazaar, I found these colors described: brown, dark claret, blue, drab (beige or light taupe), and gloves of golden brown or maroon. For lounge jackets, the fashion was to make them of gray cloth lined with purple, crimson or green flannel, trimmed with soutache (a kind of braid) in the color of the lining. The magazine also referred to an English style of “full dress”, for evening entertainments, consisting of blue coat, white vest and lavender pantaloons and gloves. In the 1840’s plates, I noticed these colors: black, dark brown, medium brown or tan, navy blue, burgundy, dove grey, a very colorful red spotted or checked fabric on a waistcoat, and several pairs of pantaloons with either striped or checked fabric.

My copy of Mr. Godey’s Ladies (a compendium of the popular magazine) shows much color variation over the decades from the 1830’s to the 1860’s. From the fashion plates, I find rose, blonde (cream or ecru), blush, pale lavender, maize, blue, purple, maroon, black, gray, pearl, plum, and “tan d’or” (a golden tan, judging by the plate). This list comes from just two fashion plates from the years 1858 and 1860.

I also have a copy of La Mode Illustre, a French fashion magazine, for the years 1860 – 1914.  Technically not Victorian, in my opinion, since it’s French and we all know the French and English don’t appreciate being confused with one another, but a beautiful book for anyone interested in the bustle years.  Unfortunately, the pictures are all in black and white, but they do give color descriptions.

Here are the colors given for one plate from 1860: bright blue, orange-and-black striped, black, green edged with black velvet, violet, pale green, white blonde.  This plate describes day dresses, so the bright colors are not only for evening.  Here is another from 1881: “dress of white batiste and blue satin damask” . . . “white broderie anglaise percale dress, over plum surah underdress.”

And speaking of color, I found this amusing tidbit in a book titled Victorian and Edwardian Fashions for Women 1840-1919, by Kristina Harris.  She’s referring to the 1850’s here: “For some time having being (sic) virginally white, petticoats suddently became popular in scarlet red when Queen Victoria was reported to have switched to the color ‘to reawaken the dormant conjugal susceptibility of Prince Albert.’ ”  I had to laugh at that.  I wonder if a red skirt would awaken my husband’s “conjugal susceptibility?”  Not that his is dormant, of course.

Naturally, people working in laboratories and workshops would have worn more practical, and probably dull-colored, garments.  So, if you have a mad scientist, he might not want to be dressed in lavender pantaloons . . . unless he’s attending a party or ball.  Your girl genius might have a work apron over her dress, but if she’s going out in the evening, I say let her go in full color!  It’s perfectly period.

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