Women's Clothing During the Victorian Period

Updated April 17, 2017

During the Victorian period--an era that spans the reign of Queen Victoria from 1837 until her death in 1901--women's fashions changed on a yearly basis much as they do today. Nonetheless, the essential features of female costume--bonnets, stiff full-length dresses, corsets and capes--remained consistent throughout this time.


No woman would set forth on an excursion in the winter months without her bonnet. The exact profile would be subject to regular change--and also how it was positioned on the head, with some being seated quite far back--but in essence most bonnets were simple items of straw decorated with lace and ribbons. However, some bonnets were made out of more unusual materials such as woven horsehair.


Another essential for going outdoors was the cashmere cape. These could range from long, hooded examples to elbow-length versions without the hood. Some would come with a clasp at the neck, but not all of them, as many women would already have their own favourite cape-brooch that they would use. Women would also be able to choose from a variety of quilted silk linings.


Victorian society placed great importance on the softness of the hands as a sign of breeding. Therefore a woman would always have a pair of gloves or mittens within reach. Mittens were essentially fingerless gloves made of black or white lace or netting, and they came in long and short versions. Gloves were usually made of white kid, fastening at the wrist with a mother-of-pearl button. They also came in long versions with many more buttons.


Hidden a great deal of the time under full-length dresses, shoes weren't the most vital fashion accessory to Victorian women, although they gradually assumed more importance as the century progressed. Most women wore a type of soft, elastic-sided kid boot with a cotton lining. The soles were flat until the 1850s, when heels were introduced.


Although the profiles of necklines and sleeves were constantly changing, women's dresses in the Victorian period remained stiff, full-length affairs. The upper half consisted of a fully-boned corset, while the voluminous skirts were supported with metal hoops well into the 1870s. Even when a supporting structure was finally abandoned in the last decades of the Victorian period, skirts continued to be heavy affairs, often weighed down with embroidery and with the addition of bustles to the rear. Evening dresses often had short puffed sleeves, while many day dresses had wide, loose sleeves making room for cotton or silk under-sleeves. Sleeves of a slimmer profile came into fashion at around the same time hoops went out.

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About the Author

Based in the United Kingdom, Graham Rix has been writing on the arts, antiquing and other enthusiasms since 1987. He has been published in “The Observer” and “Cosmopolitan.” Rix holds a Master of Arts degree in English from Magdalen College, Oxford.