Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Uber Post: Thrifting for Victorian Garb, Womenswear

 Part Two: Victorian Dress Thrifting for Women

Swiss Waist

You have more choices, but more modifications and sewing.

Self in a mainly thrifted outfit: hat Goodwill (dampened and bent, decorated - using hot glue gun - with ribbons and flowers from a church rummage sale); velvet cape is the top portion of a coat bottom of which was stained; shirt 1970 boxy cut thrifted on Height Street, tailored in and blue ribbon threaded through; skirt gored made from stain resistant king size bedsheets, bed ruffle at bottom, blue ribbon sewing on all over. Parasol not thrifted but added blue ribbon to match.


 1. Hats
Victorian women always wear their hair up. Only whores and very young girls wear their hair loose. In the streets and when visiting or shopping, hair is also always covered, with any of the following:
A. Mob Cap (or Mop Cap): Made of lace or cotton trimmed with lace, usually white, this hat looks like a shower cap with a ruffle around the edge. Favored by older, married women, and widows.
 B. A Floof (or Lace Cap): A lace head covering that drapes over crown of head with ruffles in the back and flaps over the ears. Works both inside and outside the house. Can't be found in thrift stores, but relatively easy to make.
 C. Flat Straw (or Shepherdess Cap): A very shallow crown, very wide brim, close weave straw hat that must be held on with hatpin or bow and curved in interesting ways. Favored by younger women and the country set.
 The cream and brown hat I made, mainly with a hot glue gun for my 1878 walking gown.

D. Lady's Bowler: Shaped like a bowler with a slightly smaller brim, made of straw, and worn tilted to one side affixed with a hatpin. Difficult to find.
E. Riding Hat: A lady's top-hat, this is usually shorter than a man's, decorated with a vale, and worn with a riding habit. Considered very daring.
 F. Perch: An undersized, highly decorated hat with a narrow brim curled up on each side and peaked in the front (like a cowboy hat), worn perched far forward on the head, or far to the back later on in history, and affixed with a hatpin.
 Mine is made from a fez with a turned up back brim. Feathers from an African mask, and dried flowers.

G. Bonnet: Sits way back on the head, highly decorated to match the dress.
 H. A whole range and variety came in the 1870's that emulated turbans and flowerpots like the toque.

I. And in the mid to late 1970s the teeny tiny hats came in as well. You can make on of these using a doll's hat blank from any craft store.
 The crazy purple Ivy hat I made using a bucram blank, a Styrofoam flowerpot insert, a glue gun, and lots of scraps.

THRIFTERS: Bonnets and flat straw hats can be made by cutting down regular straw hats. Look for close weave, bendable straw of any color with a shallow crown. All of the above tended to be highly decorated with silk flower, fake fruit, feather birds and more. Millinery is lots of fun, especially with a glue gun!

2. Shawls
Large square or triangle shape of heavy silk usually embroidered. NO CUT-VELVET! Cape is another good option.

Tip: Christmas tree skirts work really well as cape-like jackets.
Here is one I picked up from an after Christmas sale at TJ Max used as a shawl, and also as a can can skirt for a steampunk outfit.

3. Vest
You can, as a shop-keep, get way with a woman's vest instead of jacket (vests are also worn under bolero style jackets). Vests should have no pockets, be VERY fitted, button or clasp up the front, have a full back (none of the fake liner fabric), flare at the waist, and have wide sloping shoulders. You will need a shawl to go into the streets. Swiss waists are also an option.

THRIFTERS: Look for full, fitted vests with darts.

4. Blouses
Usually white and designed to show only at the wrists and neck, blouses tend to be pretty masculine in cut and look, although they should be fitted to the torso. They usually have little lace collars, and full sleeves to a tight band of lace at the wrists. Shoulders are sloped. Necklines are high and round or v-shaped (with or without a turn-down collar), or mock turtle style, all with lace at the edge. Blouses can have some shirtfront detailing or lace, but NOT a tuxedo ruffle.

THRIFTERS: Avoid sleeves that puff out from the shoulder, are ruffled at the shoulder, and anything that turns the silhouette square (unless, of coarse this will be covered over by the rest of the outfit). Look in the white blouse section of thrift stores, you should find something. Remember you can go very masculine and wear a little necktie or lady's cravat.

5. Jacket
You have many different style choices but only three are likely to turn up when thrifting. All the following jacket's sleeves are full bell-shaped, although some have the fullest part at the elbow and taper in at the wrist.
  A. Bolero: If your blouse is fitted, or you have a vest, you can wear a bolero style jacket. These usually end just below the breast, have one clasp or are held closed with a broach, and taper back with a curved line.
 Jacket made from a shirt I reversed and slit up the front, than pealed back and sewed ruffle on edge.

B. Regular: A tight single-breasted jacket, with or without a collar, fitted to the waist in a peak then flaring out as basques, slight tails, or a deep pointed front.
C. Blazer: Usually only worn by very poor women, they resemble modern men's suit jackets, are usually velvet and darted to fit tight at the waist.

THRIFTERS: Look for close fitting, single-breasted jackets with NO SHOULDER PADS and wide sleeves, velvet blazers, bathrobes of good material, and the top half of dresses that can be cut off.

6. Skirt
The easiest part to find and to make from scratch, skirts are very full, gored, and run the gambit from pleats to ruffles to roushes to swags to ribbons. They changed in general silhouette over the years, from full crinoline to bustle to natural form, but always had a lot of fabric.

1860, 1870, and 1879

THRIFTERS: Look for a full skirt that has a waistband (rather than elastic) and can fit over several underskirts or a crinoline. It doesn't have to be floor length, you can always add ruffles to the bottom. Wedding dresses can often be cut apart and ribbon added. Check the LINEN SECTION as skirts can be made from curtains or sheets. Dust-ruffles for beds make great readymade ruffles.

7. Shoes
A. Ankle Boots: Should hit just below, just above, or several inches above the ankle and lace up the front or (better!) up the side, with a flat sole or low hourglass heal. Boots can be made of leather or canvas in any color with a natural toe shape. The difficulty is in finding them without zippers. Consider substituting ribbon for laces.
B. Dancing Slippers: Ballet flats with a round toe made of satin or leather in any color that can ribbon tie up the ankle (but don't have to).


8. Chemise (optional)
A fitted undershirt worn beneath the corset, with a low square or scooped neckline and capped sleeves, made of a very light material. You do not need one unless you have a corset.

9. Corset
They are nice because they make your posture Victorian and your clothing hang correctly. Either invest in a cheap stretchy one (under $50) or buy the real thing ($150 - 500), don't go halfway, nothing in the world is worse than an ill-fitting corset.

10. Petticoat
Originally a petticoat was a kind of chemise with a skirt attached to the bottom that falls to just below the knee. You do not need one unless you have a corset or a scratchy underskirt.

11. Underskirts
Often wrongly called petticoats, real Victorian underskirts are worn over the crinoline (to disguise the hoops) or (by the lower-classes) instead of a crinoline, later on they were to stiffen or make to bottom skirt flow properly. The "substitute crinoline" was usually made of compressed, starched horsehair, very stiff and VERY scratchy, with a ruffle at the bottom. You can cheat by using modern "petticoats," the kind made to go under wedding dresses (but you'll probably want to add a cotton or lace ruffle to the nylon in case it is seen). The Victorians were fond of outrageous underpinnings. Demurely clad young ladies often wore bright red underskirts, teal bloomers, and so forth.
THRIFTERS: Look for petticoats made for wedding dresses and/or stiff taffeta skirts. You can always wear more than one.

11. Crinoline (optional)
Known by us laymen as "the hoopskirt," you probably won't find a crinoline thrifting, though they do turn up with wedding dresses occasionally. You can buy the cheep nylon kind for $30 from a dance supply store, or sometimes secondhand for less from a costume shop. Alter Years sells fancy cotton ones with or without ruffles from $50 to $100. Think carefully about whether you want to spend the money, crinolines can be very annoying to store and clean.

12. Under Drawers
Under drawers are not optional. You have two choices, both VERY easy to make. Both styles can be made from plain wide-legged, baggy women's slacks in cotton, silk, or satin fabrics. In Victorian times both styles were split at the crotch, so you didn't have to unlace your corset to use the loo. You don't have to go that far unless you wear a corset.
A. Bloomers: Baggy breaches, which end just below the knee in a wide, fat, lacy ruffle. (Originally called 'pantaloons' the actual bloomer was designed as outerwear - too shocking!)
B. Pantalettes: Traditionally worn by young girls in the nursery, pantalettes briefly made an appearance as an adult garment in 1853 and were considered quite scandalous as they could be (gasp!) SEEN when a lady lifted her skirts. They are longer than bloomers and taper slightly, to end at the ankle, again with lots of lace at the bottom.
THRIFTERS: Look in women's pants section for wide, white, drawstring slacks.

13. Stockings
White, knee-high or over-the-knee socks in a natural looking fabric. Target has them.

ACCESSORIES (the fun part)

14. Gloves
Short, white (usually kid) gloves were a vital part of any lady's wardrobe, but you can use a color that matches your outfit. Your options also include: lace and net, fingered, fingerless, and gauntlet styles.

15. Parasol
My favorite, the parasol has a glorious history, it was one of the most significant gifts a man could give his intended. The shades were smaller than those you can find today, almost doll like, coming in a variety of sizes with very long handles turning them, by 1880 into a kind of walking stick. By about that same time a lady of quality had a parasol to match every daytime outfit.

16. Belt
More like waist cinchers, lady's belts are wide and stiffened with boning usually made of a dark, contrasting color or matched to the fabric of the dress. They are either peaked at bottom front (and sometimes also top - called a Swiss Waist) and fastened behind, or sash-like and tied in a wide trailing bow down the back of the skirt.

17. Reticule
The Victorian purse, this item matches the dress and comes in a wide variety of shapes and styles. A simple reticule is very easy to make from extra material and trim.

18. Basket
A good alternative to the reticule, Victorian baskets are carried by lower and middle-class women. They are usually made in a closer weave and smaller size than Ren Faire baskets. They can be lined in fabric and decorated with lace and ribbon.

19. Jewelry
Victorians love jewelry and a lady of any class always wears some, even if it is all she has. Such jewelry includes: hatpins, hairpins and clasps, earrings (yes, pierced), broaches, scarf clasps, necklaces, bracelets, and rings.
THRIFTERS: Look for subtle, delicate costume jewelry including or combining: pearls, crosses, cameos, lockets, old-fashions gems, filigree (metal fashioned to look like lace), set in or made from silver, gold, or both. Target actually has some great stuff.

20. Decoration
Think in terms of excess where decoration is concerned. Load your outfit down with ruffles, ribbons, lace, tassels, fringe, beads, embroidery, fake flowers, and feathers. Once you have a color scheme I advise buying at least 10 yards of one nice ribbon to use to decorate and tie the entire outfit together.
TIP: Expect to spend good money on trim (unless you have a stock or hit a really good church bizarre). It is worth it because it makes all the difference.

Don't be afraid of WHITE.

The cream and brown dress, all thrifted, and its influences.

Women, when you walk into a thrift store you should zero-in on these sections:
Women's White Blouses
Women's Vests
Women's Jackets = bolero, blazer
Women's Skirts = long, full
Dresses = use top part as a jacket, or the bottom part as a skirt
Bathrobes = jacket
Wedding Dresses = underskirts or skirts
Women's Shoes
Women's Pants = wide leg slacks for bloomers
Linen's Section = bed ruffles and curtains


  1. Wonderful resource! Though at H. you said 1970 and I'm pretty sure you meant 1870. Though the 70's were an unusual decade, so who knows!

  2. wonderful resource. thanks a bunch for posting it!!

  3. Your shortlist is so helpful - it's really a matter of shifting one's expectations when shopping, and that is an excellent reminder of what to keep an eye out for.
    Teslacon is my first Steam event, and I would be positively frantic over costuming if it weren't for Goodwill!! I have not managed to create anything quite so ingenious as turning a shirt round to make a jacket, but I've found some good basics that have saved me lots of time & monies!

  4. Um - I think if I ever do a Victorian period costume I'll do "Wild West Victorian" - with the stereotypical "woman wearing buckskins or other men's clothing" look. LOL Hey, they had jeans back then for the miners! Some fringed top from the 70s and a cowboy hat and boots....

  5. When I worked at a Victorian living history farm, I wore corded petticoats. Sew in lines of laundry line or similar to the bottom, and you have period-accurate poof and swish. Although I did once see someone successfully milk a goat while wearing a hoopskirt, as a rule animal husbandry and hoopskirts are not a crack pairing.


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