The basic shape was tightly corseted on top and a rounded "bell" shape from the waist down. Every woman wore many petticoats, even the poor. The "crinoline" or hoop skirt was all the rage with the mid to upper classes.
Sleeves were long with a variety of widths from tightly fitted jackets to the wide 3/4 "pagoda" sleeves with a second set of white cotton sleeves underneath. Necklines for the daytime were high, and balls didn't start until late in the evening. Since the Fair is open only until 7 pm, ball gowns are not appropriate for participants.
No respectable London woman would go out without a hat! Look for hats that can be shaped into bonnets to be tied underneath the chin, or make a simple "mob cap" if you're one of the working class. Women did not wear top hats, of any size.
Aprons, shawls, brooches, market baskets, reticules, and lace collars can complete your costume.
Special Notes on Working Class
Working class costume is less expensive and generally more comfortable to wear. Cottons and similar fabrics can be laundered rather than dry cleaned. Working class characters have more choices about their accessories. Working class costume consists of drawers, chemise or undershirt, socks, shoes, corset, possible corset cover, petticoats, outerwear, hair covering, and gloves. For working class you have a choice between a dress or a white blouse with a skirt. The standard skirt is made from 3 lengths of fabric gathered, pleated or gauged onto a waistband. Only ladies with small waists will need to gore the panels. Aprons and mob caps are also appropriate for many vocations.
Special Notes on Middle Class
Middle class costume is of course more expensive to produce and maintain. It is also more work to wear. it requires all of the above items and also a hoop skirt or large crinoline. Dress, corset, crinoline or hoop and accessories can easily run in excess of $500 to have made, and you can spend this on materials alone even if you are making the costume yourself. Skirts are made in the same way as working class skirts. Bodices should be backed onto a lightweight duck (canvas) and lightly boned to stay smooth over a corset.
Starting a New Costume
Once you have selected your character and decided on some basic background information, the next step is to clothe your character. You should have your corset and petticoats complete before you start your dress; corsets and petticoats can dramatically change the shape of your body and the distance to the floor. Also, prewash your materials unless they are dry clean only.
Proper undergarments are crucial in achieving the Victorian silhouette. The wasp waist was a gift of the tightly laced corset, and the skirts were borne out by a vast number of petticoats, starched and flounced, or a lesser number of petticoats and a hoop. The undergarments worn by most women included:
- Chemise - A sleeveless or short-sleeved scoop-necked lightweight cotton or linen blouse
- Pantalets or drawers
- Corset - Not usually worn by lower class women.
- Petticoats - As many as six or seven; once the crinoline was developed, some of these layers could be left off. The hoop skirt gained a foothold in the mid-1850s and eventually replaced the large number of petticoats formerly worn.
Blouses were always long-sleeved and high-necked. They were either collar-less or had a small Peter Pan style collar, made of self fabric or a detachable knitted or crocheted one. Cuffs were narrower than modern ones. Blouses were usually worn with a wide belt (known as a Swiss or Medici belt) and a jacket called a Zouave. A blouse worn without a jacket was considered very informal, on about the same level as a housedress.
Blouses were almost always made of plain white cotton, sometimes embroidered or trimmed with lace and buttoned up the front.
Although a great variety of skirt styles were available, all were very full, at least 120" around the bottom hem. Waistbands were about 2" wide. Skirts should be hemmed so that they do not drag and, to avoid overcrowding, we ask that your hoops be 110" or smaller.
Generally speaking, a day dress bodice had a high neck and long sleeves. It buttoned or hooked up the front (occasionally up the back) and was usually sewn to the skirt, though it was almost always constructed separately. The skirt and bodice fabric matched.
Jackets and jacket-type bodices were commonly worn in the 1850s and almost completely replaced the back lacing or hooking bodice for day wear. They usually had bell-shaped or pagoda sleeves; fastened with ties, frogs, or hooks; and were cut very wide over the hips or had a separate flared skirting sewn to it at the waistline.
Another popular jacket style was the zouave, or bolero, that came down only to the waist or a little above. The sleeves were long and cylindrical and sometimes slit up the back of the arm to the elbow. This collar-less jacket was cut away in a curve in the front and had no front fastening, except maybe a hook and eye or button and loop at the neck.
Choices for outerwear include the shawl, cape or cloak, coat, or pelerine (a shoulder cape with long lappets hanging down the front).
Victorian ladies wore their hair up. At the minimum, it can be pulled into a ponytail and pinned into a bun. Traditional hairstyles were generally parted down the center, sometimes with organized curls. Ladies did not wear their hair loose and flowing.
Hats & Headwear
Adult women were socially required to cover their hair. Day caps protected the hair from dirt acquired through everyday activities - smoke from fireplaces, grease from cooking, dust from travel, etc. Caps also covered hair which was washed infrequently - it was generally thought unhealthy to wash hair too often. It was easier to put on a clean cap.
The more mature the lady, the more of the hair was covered. A working class woman would tend to cover more of her hair. We suggest a day cap for indoor wearing and under your bonnet or hat. There were many varieties of of bonnet (the recommended headwear of choice for The Great Dickens Dickens Fair!) or hat styles (all elaborately trimmed) or, for the lower classes, a simple mob cap.
In Victorian times, cosmetics were used with discretion and consisted mostly of a little face powder. For inspiration, we suggest makeup artist Lisa Eldridge's program on Victorian makeup.
Shoes were typically laced-up boots for outdoor wear. Stockings went over the knee and were knitted out of cotton, wool, or silk and were often embroidered.
Gloves were either colored kid leather or lace. Generally, short gloves were worn with day dresses.
Reticules or purses were made of fabric to match or coordinate with the dress, or were knitted, crocheted, tatted, or netted of fine silk. These purses could also be embroidered or beaded.
Jewelry for day wear was generally less elaborate than for evening wear and included small earrings, rings, brooches, and pins. Cameos were very popular, as were pearls.
Other accessories include muffs, fans, parasols, aprons, and market baskets.
Pictures/text from Victorian Costuming, Volume I: 1840 to 1865, © Other Times Productions.
Additional text from Fezziwig's excellent web pages, for which we are quite grateful!