4 Cringe Worthy Victorian Fashion Trends

Oscar Wilde QuoteExcept for a brief period of conformity in my teens, I have never been a jeans and t-shirt girl.

My style has always veered toward the fancy, feminine, and frivolous. I own more dresses than pants, more gloves than sneakers. Family members chuckle at my interpretation of “casual wear” because it involves pearls or a cloche hat. Usually both.

This zeal for fanciness is one of the reasons I love Victorian fashion and endeavor to incorporate elements of 19th century style into my 21st century wardrobe.

However, while there’s much to admire about Victorian fashion, there were also trends which make me shudder. I’m all for dressing up. But I’m also all about comfort. To me, style should not involve pain.

Yet to the Victorians, fashion and pain often went hand and hand.

To illustrate, here are 4 Cringe Worthy Victorian Fashion Trends.

1. Corsets

Grand Duchess Elizaveta Feodorovna of Russia, 1887.

Grand Duchess Elizaveta Feodorovna of Russia, 1887.

“The fashionable size for a waist in the 1800s was alleged to be eighteen inches. A corset was the device used to attain this width or something close to it. It consisted of two halves, reinforced with whale bone, that got hooked together in the front and then laced up in back. Compressing all that flesh into a small area was not always an easy job. The corset was one reason women needed a lady’s maid—someone to stand behind them to pull the laces tight.”

~ Daniel Pool, from What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew.

19th Century Corset Advertisement

Fashion-Corset Damage

During the Victorian Era, there was a trend of “tight lacing” corsets among a portion of the fashion conscious, upper-class. Figure “B” shows an example of the deformation which could occur with repeated “tight lacing”.

As one who has suffered a rib injury and the resulting chronic pain, the mere thought of lacing on a corset literally makes me cringe. And wince. And clutch my side, uttering “By the very beard of Jules Verne, why?” Why would anyone purposely endure such a device in the name of fashion? To me this makes no sense. I shall stick to highlighting my waist with a stylish belt, thank you.

2. Crinolines

Empress Carlotta of Mexico, former Princess of Belgium.

Empress Carlotta of Mexico, former Princess of Belgium.

“Made of linen and horse hair, it was a support for skirts. The “cage crinoline” was a frame construction for supporting wide skirts that replaced the original, bulkier crinoline fabric and produced a huge, inflated look and made walking through narrow doorways (or avoiding knocking bric-a-brac off tables in small parlors) virtually impossible.”

~ Daniel Pool, from What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew.

Douglas & Sherwood's Expansion Hoop Crinoline as seen in Godeys,1859.

Douglas & Sherwood’s Expansion Hoop Crinoline as seen in Godey’s, 1859.

CrinolinesThe crinoline is the klutzy Victorian lady’s worst nightmare. Even if one were graceful, having a crinoline lowered onto your hips could erase all poise. It baffles me how the crinoline became fashionable in a society which esteemed the illusion of perfection and shunned at the implication of a blunder. And blunder one did in a crinoline. Into furniture, doorways, and other modish ladies attempting to flutter about like doves in gilded cages. Aside from being impractical, crinolines were also fire hazards. From the late 1850s to the late 1860s, around 3,000 women died in crinoline fires in England. Cue group shudder.

3. Hair Work Jewelry 

Illustration from 1860 book, Self-instructor in the Art of Hair Work.

Illustration from 1867 book, Self-instructor in the Art of Hair Work.

“Persons wishing to preserve and weave into lasting mementos, the hair of a deceased father, mother, sister, brother, or child, can also enjoy the inexpressible advantage and satisfaction of knowing that the material of their own handiwork is the actual hair of the ‘loved and gone.’” 

~ Mark Campbell, from Self-instructor in the Art of Hair Work, Dressing Hair, Making Curls, Switches, Braids, and Hair Jewelry of Every Description, circa 1867.

Hair Jewelry

Hair Jewelry

 

This trend isn’t painful or hazardous so much as it is disturbing. I understand the desire to have a memento of a departed loved one, but to me, weaving their hair into an accessory is cringingly morbid.

 

 

4. The Alexandra Limp 

Princess Alexandra of Denmark, later the Princess of Wales.

Princess Alexandra of Denmark, later the Princess of Wales.

“Taking my customary walk the other day, observant of men, women and things, I met three ladies. They were all three young, all three good-looking, and all three lame! At least, such was my impression, seeing as they all carried handsome sticks and limped; but, on looking back, as everyone else did, I could discover no reason why they should do so.”

~ excerpt from an 1869 report in the North British Mail.

 

 

 

Princess Alexandra

Princess Alexandra

Wedding of the Prince of Wales & Princess Alexandra of Denmark, 1863.

Wedding of the Prince of Wales & Princess Alexandra of Denmark, 1863.

When Alexandra of Denmark wed Queen Victoria’s son, the Prince of Wales, she instantly became a style icon. When she suffered rheumatic fever which left her with a pronounced limp, the Princess inadvertently started one of the most ridiculous trends in the history of fashion. The Alexandra limp. Like today’s royalty obsessed, rushing to imitate Duchess Catherine, Victorian ladies hastened to mimic Alexandra’s gait. They wore one heel high and one low. Even tottered about in a foe hobble. All to be on in vogue.

This trend makes me cringe because it reveals the Victorian ladies insecurity. A vulnerable desperation that drove them to hide and bind any uniqueness which might offend fashion’s fickle tastes and limp about for society’s approval. Sound familiar?

Which of these Victorian fashion trends causes you to cringe? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comment section below. For further reading about the second trend on my list, here is an interesting article on Crinolinemania.

4 thoughts on “4 Cringe Worthy Victorian Fashion Trends

  1. Corsets actually aren’t so bad. It depends on their tightness. I’ve worn them before. They’re basically an archaic bra. Having them too tight is definitely unhealthy, but if they’re at a comfortable tightness, they’re actually pretty fun to wear. And you definitely need help getting into one if you don’t have one you can lace to the appropriate six then use a zipper to get in and out of. They actually make me feel really feminine.

    Weaving a dead loved one’s hair into one’s own hair seems morbidly fascinating to me. XD I’m so writing that down to use for a book.

    The limp is way weird. Why would someone want to pretend to have an ailment? That is strange ….

    • Good day, Victoria! Thank you for stopping by and commenting. :-)
      This post is just my personal opinion on the various Victorian trends. I know my view of corsets is slanted against mainly because of the extreme, chronic rib pain I’ve dealt with for close to three years. I have a hard time even wearing structured blouses now. Anyway, I recently had an online conversation with another corset wearer who said very much the same as yourself, that corsets were quite comfortable so long as they were “laced properly.” Quite a good point. Her corset, however, was modeled after a Renaissance era corset rather than one from the Victorian period. With some more research, I discovered that there was a big shift in corset design over the centuries. The Renaissance era corsets are less hour glass, more conical shaped, and stayed above the hips. Whereas the Victorian era corsets extended over the hips and made an exaggerated, figure eight, hour glass shape. During the Victorian era there was also a trend of “tight lacing” among a portion of the upperclass. From what I’ve read, the Renaissance corsets seem much more comfortable than Victorian ones.
      Which style of corset do you wear, and how did you come to wear it? I’d love to hear more about your personal experience!

      • That is interesting that it shifted over time. I wore a Medieval style one a friend made for me for a cosplay. It was more of a bodice since it went around my waist instead of over my chest as well, but it’s pretty comfortable. It’s leather with ribbing and went over a dress I wore for armor. I think if you wore a corset for a Victorian cosplay, it wouldn’t be so bad though. Like I said before it’s the tightness. It’s different feeling in the costumes I’ve worn a corset with because I’m using wearing three layers of clothing haha.

        • Armor, how awesome! Your costume sounds incredible, and the notion of it has me wishing to dress up as Joan of Arc. :-)
          The Medieval corsets seem quite similar to those worn during the Renaissance. From what I’ve read, the biggest changes in corset design occured during the Victorian period and then again in the early Edwardian era when it took on a weird, body-bending “S” shape.
          I would be willing to at least try on a properly laced, Victorian era corset for historical research purposes. It would be a great learning experience, I’m sure.

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