Although you may “come as you are” or throw on a “Topper” or bonnet and shawl to get in the spirit, performers and shopkeepers at the Dickens Christmas Fair have a strict set of costuming rules given to follow. Adherence to these guidelines is one of the keys to creating the authentic feel of the Fair in producing that perfect period picture we call Dickens’ London. This allows you, merry traveler, to determine a passer-by’s social class by his or her style of clothing. If you wish to become a part of that picture, here are a few more tips on how to approach the ideally-dressed image of a Victorian woman or man.
Women's Shoes & Boots
The Victorian Era is almost mythically known for proper etiquette in behavior and dress. Women’s “lower limbs” were kept completely covered by long skirts and crinolines, and ankle boots came into fashion as a way to avoid glimpses of these off-limits appendages. The tops of boots might be decorated with bows or tassels to be tantalizingly glimpsed under a demurely flouncing skirt. (Interestingly enough, this prudery concerning the lower limbs was often balanced by the revealing necklines of fashionable ball gowns.)
- Footwear Trivia: Interestingly, social pressure to conceal the lower extremities mixed with desire for fashion-consciousness, causing a surge of what is called “shoe and foot related pornography” in London. It was at this time that Baron Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, from whence we originate the word masochism, penned Venus in Furs, in which he wrote of experiences with his mistress in which he allowed her to whip and walk on him before kissing the shoes that had caused him pain. This notorious book also inspired the tune by the same name by the Velvet Underground.
Trivia aside, a full day’s walk through Victorian London at the Cow Palace Exhibition Halls can be taxing if one chooses to adhere to the female fashion norm in London during this era: narrow-toed boots in the smallest size possible, to give the impression of extremely tiny, dainty, feminine feet.
Small heels were added to boots the late 1840s and 1850s, and to slippers between 1860 and 1865, so it’s perfectly appropriate to walk about the Fair in flats or heels, square toes or round, to suit your comfort level and fashion tastes. Our most valuable suggestion? Wear cushioned insoles!!!
For photos of actual ladies footwear from the era, check out this Pinterest page about mid-19th century shoes.
Men's Shoes & Boots
In Victorian times, it was said you could judge the caliber of a man by the boots he wore. Men's footwear at the time was very formal and conservative, and the short ankle boot took prominence in fashion; half-boots (calf-length) or knee-length boots were worn mainly for riding, and generally not for strolling the streets of town.
Quite popular in this era was the Chelsea Boot; Charles Goodyear's development of vulcanized rubber enabled Sparkes-Hall, bootmakers to Queen Victoria, to invent the elastic-gusset boot in 1837 (source: Wikipedia). The advantage of elasticized boots was that they could be easily pulled on and off, which appealed to the busier and more demanding lifestyles of Victorian men and women during the Industrial Revolution. However, in the 1850s, elastic-sided boots were joined in popularity by those with lacing on their inner sides.
Wellington boots (worn for riding or mucking about in the country) were named after the Duke of Wellington. He designed them to be worn in cavalry warfare (the top of the boot originally came over the knee to mitigate knee-wounds in soldiers), but they became quite popular with the sports-and-fashion-minded male set.
Lastly, lace-up ankle-length boots, known as Paddock boots, were worn by fashion-conscious gentlemen who also wished to be known for their equestrian skills. Whether on horseback or in the streets (but never at a formal event!), these were the highbrow boots of choice.
A last note: many of these styles have survived to modern times and may be found in modern form at many a local retailer—do some web research, and then enjoy shopping!
Women's Hats & Bonnets
Woman in Flowered Bonnet
- MET Collection
Large elaborate "great hats," popular prior to Victoria’s time, were replaced during her reign by the smaller and more modest bonnet. Most bonnets were made of straw (light, and easy to shape and color). They were lined and had wide brims to protect delicate faces from the sun. Trimmings were elaborate and were changed every season. Frugal ladies often did their own trimming, adding and subtracting flowers, ribbons and other tasteful ornaments and seasonal frills. Bonnet shapes, however, did not vary tremendously, and might remain in vogue for a decade or more (search on Google to see cottage and round, coal-scuttle, and spoon bonnet shapes).
A key clothing element of the time was the Victorian morning cap, which was worn at home, or a more highly decorated/frilled version which would be worn underneath a bonnet outdoors. Interestingly enough, the term “widow’s peak” came from the customary design of caps worn by women who had lost their husbands. Popularized by Queen Victoria after the death of Prince Albert in 1861, these were sewn to form a point or “peak” above the center of the forehead.
- Kate Tattersall - Early Victorian Women's Hats Part 1: Concerning bonnets
Men's Hats & Caps
Like other Victorian wear, hats were available in a various styles (https://www.historicalemporium.com/victorian.php). Pictured below are some examples of popular men’s hats of Dickens’ time.
Top hats were a must for parties and formal events, but were also worn as daywear by the turned-out gentleman. These “toppers” grew taller over decades, eventually developing into the true “stovepipe” shape.
A variety of other hat shapes were popular: soft-crowned hats, some with wide brims, were worn for country pursuits. The bowler hat was invented in 1850, but remained primarily a working-class accessory, not worn by “gents” until much later. A variety of other hat styles persisted, including the wide-brimmed “wide-awake” style and the flat-topped “porkpie,” both of which were seen throughout the Victorian period.
|1850s Silk Top Hat:
Image courtesy of Joan L. Severa,
Dressed for the Photographer: Ordinary Americans and Fashion, 1840-1900, 1995
|1850s Soft Felt Hat:
Image courtesy of Joan L. Severa
Very tall, straight-sided, cream-colored, soft felt hats such as the one at the right were popular during the early 1850s.
|1850s Casual Sea Cap and Railroad Cap: Image courtesy of Joan L. Severa
Sea caps and railroad caps were popular with men and boys for casual attire.