Genealogy

Victorian Fashions: Are they to blame for today’s beauty standards?

I’ve begun the task of adding some historically fun facts to my manuscript. One of these will be the (hopefully!) vivid descriptions of clothing during my MC’s early life and first marriage. For you newbies to the blog, let me give you the deets of the story: My MC, Mary (based on my 3rd great grandmother of the same name), was born in 1861. Her mother passed away during her childhood and by 1870, she and most of her siblings had been separated and sent to live with various neighbors as child laborers. She had a rough upbringing, before marrying a man forty years her senior when she was only eighteen. Her husband, William Dubois, was a wealthy landowner and farmer in eastern Iowa, and according to one of their daughter’s recollection, William lavished Mary with all kinds of wonderful silks and gowns, as well as a pony and cart. The town’s tailor was frequently brought out to the farm in order to create dresses for Mary and her daughters. And so I want to use the fashions of the time to dictate a change from Mary’s childhood to her marriage, and on into her later years which returned her to a state of poverty.

I’ve had this book checked out…well, for like, ever, and I’m so excited to finally begin reading it. I’ve flipped through the pages a few times, looking at the exquisite outfits of the late 1800s, but I haven’t read more than a few paragraphs. Look how fancy those Victorians were!

Victorian Fashions for Women and Children: Society's Impact on Dress
What dapper children you have, Ma’am!

Fashion has always been one of my interests. I think I’ve said before that I once thought about applying to the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising (FIDM) when I was a senior before I decided that it was a little too far away from my family. But that hasn’t stopped me from following fashion houses and trends and eagerly anticipating the premiere of each new collection. When I first began my capsule wardrobe in February/March I had wondered then if it would dampen my fashion spirits. But, truthfully, it hasn’t in any way. I still enjoy shopping, albeit, it’s more browsing than actually purchasing anything. And having s capsule wardrobe has made fashion trends easier for me to decipher. What might appear to be a cute trend in my mind, may actually not work on my body, and by limiting myself to having only a certain number of pieces in my wardrobe, I’ve really been able to distinguish between pieces I feel “meh” about and pieces that I love and will work with all other aspects of my closet.

 And my love of fashion extends beyond what current and future trends may be. I love all historic fashion trends (with the exception of the 1980s which I feel was just a nightmare of shoulder pads, big hair and work-out leotards. Shudders…) Take me to an exhibit of fashion and I’m in heaven. I could spend hours in front of the First Lady inaugural gowns at the Smithsonian, and this spring my mom and I went to an exhibit of Katherine Hepburn costumes that were simple marvelous.

I find that fashion not only gives you a perception of the person wearing the garment: a piece of their personality, social status, wealth, etc., but, as the title of the book pictured above states, fashion can give a person a glimpse into how society views the wearer.

The Victorian era, so named for the years following Queen Victoria’s coronation in 1837, followed the Georgian era of undress and informal styles, and brought about a new sense of morality and values. However, the Victorian times have since come to be thought of as a contradiction. By all outward appearances, Victorians presented themselves as refined and upstanding citizens when, in reality, filth littered the streets, prostitution and child labor were social norms, and in a time when most people married to better themselves and their descendants, extra-marital affairs were commonplace. But, of course like most well-to-do hypocrites today: it’s alright if you’re nasty on the inside. So long as you look pretty doing it.

On a whole, you can see how society viewed women throughout these years just by looking at the way they dressed. Victorians lived without air conditioning, and yet they were covered from throat to toe in an attempt to appear modest. They wore extravagant fabrics over many layers of petticoats to proclaim their wealth and status. Roads and sidewalks were virtually non-existent, and yet dresses and skirts swept the ground, suggesting that women were to remain indoors, operating the household and any staff like a good little woman. It was considered taboo and scandalous for a woman to show any sort of skin above the ankle. But, come on, we all know how extremely sexy ankles are…

Luckily, the Victorian period lasted only about seventy years, subjecting just a few generations to their righteous morals and proper attire. However, there are still a few items of theirs that have lingered on today:

CORSET

who needs Photoshop when you can just wear a corset?!

As a twenty-first century woman who enjoys wearing non-constricting clothing, I think that being forced into a corset each and every day of my life (and inflicting that pain upon any daughters I might bring into the world because that was their age’s twisted idea of beauty) would be a version of hell. Honestly, writing this post brought the sickening realization that history indeed repeats itself. Today’s beauty obsession to be as thin as possible, and the ridiculous idea of waist training I feel can be traced back to these corseted Victorian ladies for that coveted hourglass figure. The only perk to wearing such an awful contraption is it does correct your posture, but seriously, so does the wild idea of standing up straight. But the idea of a corset is older than even the Victorians, with some historians tracing it’s age to around 2000 B.C. What I don’t understand is why it took almost 4000 years for women to finally stand up and say no. However, of all of the shapes and forms that corsets took throughout the course of history, the Victorian corset, in my opinion, was the worst of them all. Literally squeezing the life out of you by rearranging your organs and causing severe pain, it’s no wonder our fore-mothers decided enough was enough.

BUSTLE

Who doesn’t like a little junk in the trunk?

Whenever I think of the word bustle, all I can picture are these evil bitches above. The way the whole bottom part of their dress moved from side to side as they walked is incredibly laughable, but I also really hope that that was what it really looked like. I’m not really sure what else to say about this outrageous piece of clothing. Hoop skirts would’ve been bad enough, but then the fashion changed and decided that women now needed some more cushion on their rear. Which would  pair nicely with their now twenty inch waist . Clearly, the bustle was the precursor to our day’s booty pop.

There are certain time periods that I would love to visit. Visit, because while I could maybe get by for a few hours or a day in their get-up, there’s no way in hell I’m trading in my stretchy, elastic-banded yoga pants for the anything the Victorians had to offer. While I feel pity for my lady ancestors who had to rock those duds, I’m also so thankful they did. And that they had the courage and conviction to choose clothing that allowed them more freedom. That, and World War I. Thanks for needing all that metal that would’ve been used for corsets. At least one good thing came from that.

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