Friday, April 1, 2011

CYL: The Neglected and Overlooked Nation of Britain

Victorian women's dresses from (L-R) the 1830s, 1860s, and 1890s (TFC)

You know, if you mention the 19th century and steampunk countries to event-goers or artists the answer you never seem to get is Britain. This overlooked island, though obscure in its contributions and actions on the world's stage in the Age of Steam, still has an exotic culture to inspire even the most timid steampunk. Why don't we take a look at the fashion of this strange land?

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert c. 1860. (vivavictoria)

Historical Background
In Britain, much of the period that deals with steampunk is referred to as the "Victorian" era, named for the queen that reigned from 1837-1901: Victoria, from the House of Hanover. During her reign Victoria was at the helm of an expanding Empire (upon which the sun never set, apparently), saw many social reforms (such as stricter control of child labor and the burgeoning of a middle class), and spread her progeny like crabgrass around Europe.

From the late 1700s to the mid-1800s, Britain was in the midst of a massive Industrial Revolution that forever changed the social, political, and economic climate of the country. As things progressed, work weeks were established and a middle class emerged from the middle management, clerks, and semi-skilled of the population- which led to leisure time (fancy that)! Leisure led to the development of amusement parks, resorts, bicycling, and a variety of other recreational activities that are still being enjoyed today. It also led to a bevy of social and cultural "norms" that were established amongst the middle and upper classes, typically concerning dress and manners. Strange things like yielding to ladies riding bicycles, being pleasant and polite at all times, or (strangest of all) never leaving the house unless completely dressed.

Of course, for the working class toiling in the factories, fine linen and calling cards weren't really part of the equation... but hey... 8-hour work day before you go back to living in an overcrowded, over expensive tenement, right? Right? Oh dear.

Lower-class slums near St. Giles, London. (Getty)

After Victoria's death in 1901, Britain came under the rule of her son, Edward VII, whose reign came with a similar amount of sobriety and preponderance of fancy hats until he kicked the bucket in 1910. While alive, he maintained a rather chilled relationship with his nephew, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany- which I'm sure will have no impact whatsoever on history, so I don't know why I even mentioned it.

Men's Clothing
In the wake of the Industrial Revolution, cotton was the fabric du jour for much of Victorian clothing- particularly for the lower classes (although wool wasn't too far behind and silk also in vogue- if you could afford it). All men wore variation of the same formula: a shirt, vest (or waistcoat), trousers, and coat. Of course the cut, style, and richness varied by class, era, and occasion. Shirts fastened up the front and were typically white or colored, in the case of lower classes. Collars, which were expected to be kept clean and white (quite a challenge in 19th century, smog-filled London) were detachable via studs and were made from paper for the poorer orders.

Menswear c. 1896 (Vintagevictorian)

Waistcoats were tailored fairly close to the body and often the most ostentatious piece of dress: stripes and checks were particularly popular. Lower classes also wore knitted sweaters over the shirts- typically homespun. Trousers were typically wool and fluctuated in tightness (the 1830s and 40s were particularly kind to Victorian ladies) throughout the century. They were kept in check with braces (or suspenders) more and more towards the middle of the 1800s. Coats were also commonly wool and gradually became straighter-sided and longer towards the turn of the 20th century, though (again, in the 30s/40s) they were quite tight, indeed.

It should be noted that men indulged in colorful clothes as well- particularly in the early and middle of the century. It wasn't under the 1870s that the "ditto suit" in all one color was in vogue. Before then men mixed colors, textures, and patterns (3 kinds of plaid, that's all I'm saying) with little or no abandon.

1830s- Tight trousers, cinched waist, long coat. Let's bring it back, shall we?

Women's Clothing
As always (well, since the 15th century, at least) women's dress was more complicated. In addition to the ever-present undergarments (the chemisette, bloomers/drawers, corset, and petticoats) fashion changed every ten years or less! In general, though, the look was full skirts of various shapes (more on that later) with a bodice that fitted over a corset. Lower class ladies wore simpler dresses of cotton that were typically all one piece, joined at the waist. Of course, middle and upper class ladies strutted their stuff in silk, taffeta, and satin productions that were bedecked with pleats, ruching, ruffles, and frills. Typically bodices were sleeved- except for the case of evening or dinnerwear, which sported short or no sleeves at all. Necklines also varied with occasion and also time of day! (Not joking, a high-necked collar was often referred to as a "morning collar" while a low, exposed one was an "evening collar".)

The Curious Evolution of the Bustle
In the beginning of Victoria's reign, skirts were supported by a round hoopskirt and the look was very bell-like. Towards the late 1860s and early 1870s, the shape of the hoop (or crinoline) started shifting backwards, but it was still fairly round- this was the origins of that strange, yet wondrous invention known as the bustle (or: "Why yes, there is a throw pillow shoved up my skirts!"). By the mid-70s fashion had moved even more towards the back, often with long skirts that exploded in a decorative train- this was the First Bustle Period.

But then someone left the air out of things... 1876 (Laracorsets)

In 1875, though, the bustle disappeared into what was called the "Natural Form Era", which was a very good time to be a slim woman as the bodices became tighter and longer with no help from a bustle. Skirts were deflated and straight-sided, but with a peacock-like train in the back. But then... the bustle returned WITH A VENGEANCE! In the early 1880s the bustle exploded back with large, flat shelves in the back of ladies' dresses, which were straight-sided with short bodices. This only lasted for a few years, though- because by 1886 the bustle deflated once more into the A-lined skirt of the late Victorian and Edwardian period (but don't worry, the sleeves started inflating instead!).

I can hear the "Ride of the Valkyries" playing, can't you?

Finishing Touches
Hats were always present on the British during the Victorian era, from the formal top hat and homburg for men, to various kinds of bonnets and perching hats for ladies. Diminutive hats were kept on ladies heads and their intricate coiffures via hat pins (that doubles as a self-defense weapon). Straw hats, bowlers, and driving caps were common on the lower classes or the middle class at leisure.

Longer, heavier versions of the man's coat (called an over or driving coat) were worn in colder or wet weather while women wore short, fitted coats or capes. Gloves were worn by monied members of both genders, the finest made of kidskin leather. Men typically wore low, lacing shoes or boots while riding, while women wore lacing or buttoning ankle boots. Parasols and canes were usually close at hand- though always carried in the right (as was proper!).

Cartoon from Punch! Magazine about the "Inconvenience of taking one's hat to a crowded party". (Victorianlondon)

The Required Warning Label...
Victorian clothing was sometimes hazardous. The metal crinolines of the 1860s were prone to getting stuck in carriage wheels or getting caught by the wind and resulting in the crushing or drowning of the wearer (respectively). If that didn't kill you, the dyes on your clothing would! In the 19th century, synthetic dyes were on the market for the first time, and offered clothes in every shade of the rainbow... but for a price. These colors were often stuffed with toxic chemicals, many of which did not react well together and sometimes resulted in skin irritation for the wearer, poison, or the dye would simply eat away the fabric over time or if washed.

In addition, there was that whole corset business- though that's a matter that's a little overhyped. Yes, corsets were worn by females as young as 12. Yes, they were restrictive. Yes, long-term tight-lacing in a corset WILL reshape your body and how your organs are arranged. HOWEVER (big however), there is a difference between corsetting and tight-lacing. Tightlacing occurs when you tighten your corset more than a healthy amount of your body size (larger ladies can lace tighter than smaller or fitter ones as- to be blunt- fat "squishes" better than lean or muscle). For example, I possess a 30 inch waist. I make no secret of this. Typically when I lace into my corsets (which were made to fit me, and this makes a big difference with comfort and tightening) I go for a waist reduction of 2-4 inches. This is healthy for my size and experience with corsetting. However if I went for a 6-8 inch reduction, that would be tightlacing and should be rarely, if ever done.

That... that's tightlacing. Don't do that. (seattletimes)

Most women in the Victorian period did not tightlace. Typically it was something done by the middle and upper classes, who strove for a tiny waist as a status symbol. Also bear in mind that women were smaller back then in general, with the average shoe size being much tinier and narrower than a contemporary woman's (ever go shopping for period shoes and despair at not being able to find any in your size? There's a reason.)

I hope you give this overlooked nation and its obscure culture and dress a try in your steampunk. The bonus is that you rarely ever see it in mainstream portrayals of steampunk or at events, so if you choose to go with a top hat, bustle skirt, or waistcoat you'll find yourself the most original person there!

Bottle-green 1880s gown, probably synthetic dye. (Pastperfectvintage)

Men's suit styles from 1872

A winter outfit from the Natural Form era (Bustledress)

Two gents in 1901 out golfing (wikimedia)

1885 Gown (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Helpful Links
-Great website on Victorian etiquette.
-Overviews on Men's and Women's fashion from throughout the century.
-Victoriana is a fair resource, if a bit sticky to navigate.
-Victorian London is a fantastic collection of primary sources about the culture of the era.

Oh yes, and....



  1. Britain, you say? It sounds vaguely familiar. Isn't it somewhere near Nepal?

  2. What a quaint, fascinating culture! I shall certainly endeavor to do more research on it! ;-)

  3. I can't wait to wow them all at my next steampunk event with my British garb! I do so love to stand out in a crowd.

  4. Ethnic clothing is so cute!

  5. The center dress of the top picture looks to be more late 1830s early 1840s than 1860s. The waist is quite low, and the bodice point is very long and thin. The skirt is also quite narrow for an 1860's dress. And the sleeve puffs at the elbows are a hallmark of an 1830's gown.
    (Sorry, amateur costume historian here, although my mother is a pro and has worked at museums)

  6. 'though obscure in its contributions and actions on the world's stage in the Age of Steam'

    Are you kidding? The steam engine was invented in Britain, the first steam trains and boats ran here, it was the birthplace of the industrial revolution and had the most powerful (steam powered) navy in the world during the 19th century.

    1. Yes, I am kidding. If you note the date (and the message at the bottom), this is my April Fool's Post meant to lampoon the fact that this is a blog about celebrating other cultures beyond Western Europe looking at the clothes of the largest Western power at the time.

      Is joke.

  7. Vệ sinh cơ thể sai cách khiến vi khuẩn tấn công như hành động gội đầu mỗi ngày, đánh răng ngay khi thức dậy,xem Vệ sinh cơ thể đúng cách

    Quần bó là xu hướng thời trang được nhiều bạn gái ưa thích, bởi những đặc tính riêng của nó. Tuy nhiên, việc mặc thường xuyên sẽ mắc phảinhững căn bệnh không ngờ khi mặc quần bó.

    Những sai lầm không đáng có khi gội đầuGội đầu không đúng cách dễ mắc những sai lầm không đáng có gây ảnh hưởng nghiêm trọng đến da đầu. Sai lầm khi gội đầu mà bạn thường mắc phải: