Thursday, January 24, 2013

10 Tips on Writing Victorian Garb by Gail Carriger

10 facts Gail wishes others knew about Upper Class Victorian clothing.

1. Gown = Bodice + Skirt

Ball Gown  1900-1905  The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Most gowns and dresses were in two or more parts: the top (or bodice) and the bottom (or skirt/overskirt/underskirt+overskirt). The two were sewn (yes on the wearer), tied, or hooked together. (This continued into the Edwardian era.)

Ball gown and day dress, 1865 Robe à Transformation The Metropolitan Museum of Art

This lead to transformation outfits: same skirt, different bodice dictating different occasions and allowing for double use. Very practical.

 Godeys July 1872 Fig. 12 Low muslin bodice for a white French muslin dress, trimmed with lace and colored ribbon brows. Fig. 14 Pink silk bodice far an evening dress, made with plaited bertha, edged by points bound with satin; a ruche of illusion inside of neck and sleeves. Fig. 15 Ladies drawers, made of muslin or linen, trimmed with tucks, tatting insertion, and tape trimming. Fig. 16 Piece to wear over a surprise dress of black grenadine, made of blue China crape, trimmed with white lace.

2. Lots of Layers

There is usually an article of clothing both under the corset and over the corset. 

Chemise 1876 and Combination 1890s both via The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Slip 1900-1908 and Petticoat 1909-1911 both via The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Under: Depending on time and class, was called a: chemise, petticoat (which, as the name "small coat"  implies had a top part like a slip as well as a bottom part), slip, combination, or camisole.

 Corset Cover  1864-1868 and Camisol 1895-1905 both via The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Corset Cover  1900  The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Over: Camisole (yes called same thing as above) or a corset cover. Then the bodice of the dress, that's so long as there wasn't also a chemisette (which is a little like a Dickey) required for day (see bellow #3).

 Godeys July 1872 Ladies' corset, made of fine linen, and edged with a narrow Valenciennes lace around the neck. Ladies' chemise, made tightly gored, with puffs set in the front from the neck down, insertion and edging around the neck and sleeves.

Godeys Nov 1872 Corset cover for lady, made of fine linen, and trimmed with medallions of embroidery and lace. The sleeves are trimmed to correspond.

3. Detachable Sleeves

Sleeves could be detachable (like those worn by bakers to protect the bottom of their sleeves from flour) and were called undersleeves.

Chemisette, Undersleeves, and Handkerchief  1860s  The Metropolitan Museum of Art
 Godeys Oct 1872 Open habit shirt and sleeves, made of fine muslin ruffles plaited, and embroidered insertion; and Undersleeves and collarette, made of muslin, embroidered and trimmed with Valenciennes lace; Godeys Sept 1872 Collar and under sleeve, made of linen tucks and narrow ruffles; the collar is to be worn with a surplice dress.

In the 1890s there was a brief fad for cage sleeve supports as well.

Sleeve Supports  1890s  The Metropolitan Museum of Art

4. Colorful Stockings

 Stockings  1870 and 1880-1899 both via The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Stockings could be very colorful and were held up with garters (not a garter belts), or garter straps which were attached to the corset and went down over the drawers and bottom part of the chemise often causing them to bunch up.

 Garter 1875-1825 and Waist Cincher 1908 both via The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Stockings  1860s  The Victoria & Albert Museum

5. Drawers, to Split or Not to Split?

Split drawers appear in the late 1840s and continue through the 1910s but drawers were also sewn closed during the Victorian Era. During the Regency Era evidence suggests drawers were not split, but then, corsets were so short drawers didn't need to be split as the waistband din't tuck into the corset.

 Godeys Sept 1872 Ladies drawers trimmed with rows of insertion and tucks, finished by a lace edging.

Split Drawers 1900s  The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Split Underwear 1916  The Metropolitan Museum of Art
A further note on drawers: In England, even during their surge in popularity in Europe, women did not wear pantalettes (ankle length drawers) only girls. Later period knickerbockers were shorter and more practical than drawers but did not entirely replace them. Bloomers is a term not really used in England until after 1910.

6. They Stuffed

Bust Improvers  1890s  Whitaker Auctions
Bust improvers were introduced in the 1880s, so yes, the Victorians stuffed.

7. Leather Undies

In the 1860s some undergarments were made of chamois leather, for added support, and layered over cloth. I had a hard time finding a picture of this, although written evidence abounds, but here are some leather stays from the time.

8. Stays Please!

1876 Corset “Queen Bess” The Metropolitan Museum of Art; 1890s Summer Corset  The Victoria & Albert Museum

Corset  1897-1899  The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Speaking of which, corsets were never talked about in public. If for some reason they had to be mentioned (between ladies of the same age, or in written form), they would be referred to as stays or (better) foundation garments. The word "corset" appears to be mainly used in late period advertisements. Whether there was a recognized difference between the two terms at the time is unclear.

8 From the 1897 Sears, Roebuck & Co. Catalog

Godeys Nov 1872 Waist for child of a year old, to button skirts on, made of white muslin, trimmed with worked edging. Ladies chemise yoke and sleeves, made of insertion and tucks edged with lace.

 Knitted waist for a child.

9. Maid Required

With the exception of some tea gowns and carriage dresses worn, if a lady was daring enough, without stays, it was actually impossible for an upperclass woman to dress herself (or undress, for that matter).

 Not how to lace; going at it alone

Yes, if you are flexible you can button up the back of your own bodice, or even lace your own corset, but most gowns were custom designed to go over a tight lacing and that requires a dresser or lady's maid (unless you're wicked strong and flexible). Speaking of which, corset laces are pulled tight to either side, not straight back. Images like the one above are a joke and the technique would not be effective.

Yes, I'm aware of the recreationest YouTube out there claiming this isn't true (but note her dresses button up the FRONT and she is very relax laced), and I can get into my own full Victorian, but I'm never laced tight, I'm never sewn in, and I'm never fully preiod accurate, because...

I'd need a maid!

10. Occasion Dressing

Gowns had designated times and places they could be worn: from sportswear specific to event specific to occasion specific to time of day. This changed throughout the Victorian era.

Dressing Gown early 1870s versus Tea Gown 1898-1901 both via The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Dressing gown intended to be seen only by a lady's maid and possibly husband, Tea gown worn informally about the house seen by staff and family but not visitors unless very intimate.

Here's a short list from Gail's memory (a lady did not need to actually have one of each!): nightgown, peignoir, wrapper, negligée, dressing gown, morning dress, tea gown, day dress, walking dress, promenade ensemble, visiting gown, afternoon dress, dinner dress, evening dress, ball gown, reception gown, court dress, wedding dress, opera dress, fancy dress, masquerade costume, ice skating ensemble, tennis wear, riding habit, bicycling ensemble, hunting outfit, shooting outfit, country dress (the tweeds), picnic ensemble, travel gown, carriage dress.

Shocking Lady Cricters Punch 1892 (via Project Gutenberg) and Walking Ensemble 1865 The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Plus outerwear. Plus many of the same in various shades of mourning (full mourning, half mourning, and mauves for extended mourning for the pious).

 Evening Dress and matched Shoes 1889  The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The under privileged usually only had three dresses: a working dress (sometimes this could be a uniform or livery), a day dress (for home activities usually worn covered with a pinafore or apron), and Sunday Best.

Much of the same holds true for a man

Which is to say:
* He had lots of clothing in multiple parts some of which hooked together so it wouldn't shift around.
* He wore many layers.
* There were such things as chest and calf improvers (padding).
* He might have had chamois leather undergarments.
* Men undergarments were not talked about in public.
* He needed someone to dress him, which is why even bachelors kept a "man" (his valet). What Jeeves calls a "gentleman's personal gentleman."

Leather Underwear For Men

Retro Rack is also on facebook where I post additional images and fashion thoughts.


  1. This is fascinating--I've been reading a lot of books set in the Regency, and I've often wondered what stays are. Can you shed any light on what 'tapes' are, as in 'tapes of the gown'?

    I wondered how the bodices changed on the robes a la confirmation! I always thought it was a jacket.

    1. So far as I know: Tapes are ribbon attachments or extension (from the waistband of an underskirt, for example). Often used for extra fastening, sometimes tied to each other (in the case of paniers and bustles, for example), otherwise with a hook or button attached to another garment. They could attach to or over an undergarment to keep the dress from riding or shifting when dancing. They could be used at the shoulder to draw in the slip underneath so the garment didn't show at the neckline (like hiding a bra strap).

      My familiarity with the Regency is much slimmer by comparison to the Victorian era.

      I do know that a lace tuck, on the other hand, was a run of lace that tucked in about the neckline to disguise the top of a corset and which was intended to be seen. Since high quality lace was expensive, a lady could get away with only one of two tucks which she shifted between gowns.

  2. Stays are a boned foundation garment with one opening-usually laced in the back, with a busk in the front. Corsets featured back lacing with front opening. As with most things, there was probably always exceptions to the rule, most likely due to having to "make due with", for poorer folk. This is a wonderful post, btw. I just finished reading a "Steampunk" novel, that I found lacking in true period detail, especially regarding the women'ts clothing.

  3. Replies
    1. Since most maids shared a room, each other. For the higher ranked staff like Housekeeper and Cook there's an under-maid or a scullery maid to help them.

  4. LOL. "Who dressed the servants?" Love it! And good point. Very informative article--all you ever wanted to know about old-fashioned lady underwear.

  5. I look at all that and think how sensationally uncomfortable they must have been, nearly all the time.

  6. The servants most likely dressed themselves. People with a great deal of money could afford household help to attend them. The vast majority of people didn’t have that kind of money. Depending on the year and location, clothes for lower and middle class women tended to fasten in the front. Even upper class day dresses fastened in front. Evening wear and ball gowns, worn only by the very rich, tended to fasten in the back and required assistance.
    I’ve been a Civil War living historian for years and most of the time, I dressed myself – multiple layers, corset, etc. It’s easier if you have help, but it isn’t necessary.
    Hopefully, I have a couple of links here to examples of really nice dresses with front fastenings.

  7. Please explain how anyone performed their bodily functions in these contraptions? I am constipated just thinking about it


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