Victorian costumes are a wonderful choice for a masquerade, costume party or just for Halloween. Here are some tips on how to pick the perfect Victorian costumes.
The Victorian Era
The Victorian era is usually thought of as corresponding to the reign of Queen Victoria of England, who ruled from 1837 to 1901. Some historians say the period should actually date back to before Victoria actually took the throne, but for our purposes, the 1830s to 1901 is enough to work with.
Of course that's a pretty long time period and it isn't associated with just one kind of fashion. Victorian costumes are usually broken down into early Victorian (to 1860) and late Victorian (1860-1901). There are whole websites devoted to the fashion of the Victoria era, but here's a quick overview.
The early Victorian era was characterized by bonnets instead of hats, ringlet curls and thinner, sometimes quite constricting, arms on ladies' dresses. The ultra-small waist was valued in this time period, and lots of bone was used to painfully constrict and reshape a woman's body into the fashions of the day.
The bell-shaped skirts of the 1830s gave way to much bigger skirts requiring many petticoats and crinoline to support. Evening dresses for upper class women began to bare the shoulders, and cashmere wraps were popular for warmth and to cover up some skin.
As the era progressed, princess-cut dresses became popular, and petticoats and crinoline began to give way to bustles. In the last 20 years or so of the Victorian era, slim-fitting dresses with trains were popular. There was also a "hard bustle" almost like a shelf on the back of the skirt.
Lines tended to get slimmer and more form-fitting as the era progressed, but then toward the end there was a resurgence of mutton sleeves and wider skirts as were seen in the beginning of the era.
Men's fashions did not change as dramatically over the years, but the aesthetic dress movement influenced a lot of artistic men like Oscar Wilde (women were influenced by this movement, too) to wear more natural, undyed clothing, often with embroidered embellishments. Velvet jackets, breeches or Turkish trousers and flowing robes were all the rage among this group.
Finding Victorian Costumes
As with Elizabethan costumes, it can be difficult to find authentic Victorian costumes that are not custom-made (and therefore quite expensive). If you have a costume rental shop near you, that is probably a good place to start looking because renting is much cheaper than buying.
Even those costumes that are not custom-made can be quite expensive to buy, often starting around $200 and going up from there. If you would like to buy your Victorian costumes, here are some options:
- Annie's Costumes has Victorian (scroll down) and turn-of-the-century costumes.
- NexTag usually has some Victorian-inspired dresses that are cheaper than other costumes, but not as historically accurate.
- Simply Fancy Dress has a small selection of Gothic Victorian dresses.
- River Junction sells nineteenth-century dry goods and is an excellent source for simple men's clothing.
Making Victorian Costumes
As you can imagine, a lot goes into making a Victorian costume. There are many historical details you'll want to get right if you're going to a party or event where people will question the accuracy of your outfit. If you're not as concerned about the little details, you'll probably be able to find a simple pattern that will serve you well at your local fabric store (this may be easier at Halloween time).
If you're interested in building or making an authentic Victorian costume, here are some sources that can help:
Remember, too, that the Victorian era was also the time of "rational dress reform," when some smart ladies started wearing bloomers. So for a quick and cost effective costume, make or buy a pair of bloomers to wear under a simple knee-length dress, or slip on some golfing breeches and a fitted jacket and portray yourself as a liberated Victorian woman out for a ride.