“One of the great arts of dressing well is to know that what is appropriate to a morning négligé would be out of place in an afternoon, and would not do at all for the evening.”
Beeton’s Young Englishwoman, 1875.
During the Victorian era, ladies of the middle and upper classes changed their gowns multiple times each day. There were morning dresses, walking dresses, visiting dresses, and evening gowns—to name just a few—each suited for a particular time of day and a particular setting. The fashionable Victorian lady was well aware of these subtle differentiations and would no more wear a morning dress to dinner than a nightgown to a ball. So, you may ask, what did she where and when? In today’s article, we look at a few stylish options from the 1870s.
A Victorian lady’s first change of clothes of the day was generally out of her wrapper or dressing gown and into a morning dress. A morning dress was an “at home” gown of simple design. It had long sleeves, a high neckline, and minimal trimming, as can be seen in the late 1870s cotton morning dress shown below. A lady might wear a morning dress to meet with her housekeeper or cook or to receive morning calls from her close friends.
Morning dress hems were short, just touching the floor, and the 1875 issue of The Ladies’ Monthly Magazine reports that “moderate trains” were fairly common. In her 1999 book, Authentic Victorian Fashion Patterns, author Kristina Harris specifies the precise length of skirts and trains on morning dresses, writing:
“The dress’ hem could be short, but often touched the floor in front and at the sides, with a train no longer than six inches in the back.”
Though morning dresses were meant to be relatively comfortable costumes for at home, they could still be quite structured. Below is a cotton morning dress from 1875. As you can see, it has a much closer fit than a wrapper/dressing gown.
Walking OR Promenade Dress
For walks in the park or shopping trips into town, a Victorian lady would often don a walking or promenade dress. Walking dresses had shorter skirts, allowing for ease of motion. For 1875, fashion historian C. Willett Cunnington reports that:
“The short costume is still adopted for unpretending walking dresses…but the more pretentious have the skirts touching the ground in front and trained at the back.”
Walking dresses were usually made of richer fabrics than morning dresses. The illustration at below right shows a fashionable, brown cashmere and wool walking dress from the 1876 edition of The Ladies’ Monthly Magazine. It is described as follows:
“MORNING WALKING COSTUME. Fig. 1. — Dress à deux jupes and tight-fitting Paletot en suite. The under-skirt is of brown cashmire. At the bottom is a flounce headed by a biais band of checked woollen material of a light olive brown shade; having a frill at each side. The upper-skirt and Paletot are of the light olive brown checked material. The front of skirt forms a draped tablier. The sides are caught up and finished by frills and bows, the back is slightly bouffante and forms a long point. The front of Paletot is deeper than the back, and it closes by buttons. The top is finished by a deep collar, and the sleeves have cuffs; the collar and cuffs, with the bottom edges of the Paletot and upper skirt are finished by bonds of the plain cashmire. Chapeau of brown terry velvet, with white lace and feathers.”
Skirts of walking/promenade dresses were generally untrained. However, for those that did possess a train, Cunnington states that the skirts could easily be drawn back and “passed through a loop at the waist” to get them out of the way.
Afternoon or Visiting Dress
Afternoon and visiting dresses were more elaborate than either morning or walking dresses. Skirts were trained and necklines could be lower. They were worn for receiving visitors at home or for paying calls. The formality of these dresses could differ widely since, as Cunnington states:
“…the Visiting Costume called for extraordinary selection, according to the rank of those about to be visited.”
In addition to being more heavily trimmed than morning dresses and walking dresses, visiting dresses were often richer in both fabric and in color.
Visiting dresses were generally trained. However, if one was paying a call by foot (as opposed to by carriage), etiquette manuals of the 1870s strongly advised against long skirts and a train. As Beeton’s Young Englishwoman explains, “nothing is more ridiculous or much dirtier, to speak plainly, than a long dress in the street.”
A dinner dress was more formal than an afternoon or visiting dress, but not as elaborate as an evening gown. According to Harris, the skirts touched the floor all the way around and, usually, featured a train of “up to ten inches.”
In the 1870s, dinner dresses generally had elbow length sleeves. Necklines could be low. However, by the mid-1870s and into the 1880s, the most fashionable dinner dresses had high necks.
Dinner dresses were made in rich, shimmering fabrics like silk brocade, satin, or velvet and often trimmed with glass beads, lace, or even flowers. You will note that, though some 1870s afternoon dresses tended to look a little bit like draperies (complete with tassels and fringe), dinner dresses were usually much sleeker by comparison.
Evening Dress or Ball Gown
An evening dress or ball gown was the most splendid garment of a Victorian lady’s wardrobe. Sleeves were usually short, while trains could be quite long. For the early 1870s, Cunnington reports:
“With evening dresses the train should be 65 inches long; the front and sides of the skirt are gored; two full breadths behind, each 27 inches wide, rounded off bluntly; width of skirt 5 yards.”
Fabrics and trimmings varied according to taste. For 1875, Beeton’s Young Englishwoman advises:
“If made of light materials, evening dresses, as a rule, are very elaborately trimmed; but if heavy fabrics are selected, they can be made up simply, if preferred.”
For dancing, long trains could be pinned up. Alternately, some 1870s dancing masters advised that ball gowns be made without a train.
A Few Final Words…
The above categorizes are the basic, bare minimum for a well-to-do 1870s lady. However, there were also riding costumes, carriage and travelling costumes, dresses for flower shows and for the seaside, and, of course, tea gowns. I’ve written on many of these types of gowns in previous fashion articles (which I have linked below) and I’m sure I’ll write more in future. Until then, I hope this brief, visual guide has given you some sense of the many different styles of dress a Victorian lady might wear in the course of a single day.
Works Referenced or Cited in this Article
© 2015-2017 Mimi Matthews
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