From Morning Dresses to Evening Gowns: A Day in Victorian Fashion

“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.

Individual Collage Images via Met Museum and Philadelphia Museum of Art.

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.

Morning Dress

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.

Late-1870s Cotton Morning Dress.
(Met Museum)

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.”

1870s Cotton Morning Dress.(Met Museum)

1870s Cotton Morning Dress–Back View.
(Met Museum)

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.

1875 Cotton Morning Dress.
(Met Museum)

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.”

1875 British Wool Day Dress. (Kyoto Costume Institute)

1875 British Wool Day Dress.
(Kyoto Costume Institute)

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:

Ladies' Monthly Magazine, 1876.

Ladies’ Monthly Magazine, April 1876.

“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.

1876 Woman's Silk Taffeta Dress.(Philadelphia Museum of Art)

1876 Woman’s Silk Taffeta Dress.
(Philadelphia Museum of Art)

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.”

1872 Emile Pingat French Silk Visiting Dress.(Met Museum)

1872 Emile Pingat French Silk Visiting Dress.
(Met Museum)

In addition to being more heavily trimmed than morning dresses and walking dresses, visiting dresses were often richer in both fabric and in color.

1875 House of Worth Silk Afternoon Dress.(Image via Met Museum)

1875 House of Worth Silk Afternoon Dress.
(Image via Met Museum)

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.”

1878 Silk Afternoon Dress.(National Gallery of Victoria)

1878 Silk Afternoon Dress.
(National Gallery of Victoria)

Dinner Dress

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.”

1875-1878 Mon. Vignon Silk Dinner Dress.(Met Museum)

1875-1878 Mon. Vignon Silk Dinner Dress.
(Met Museum)

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.

Late 1870s Silk Dinner Dress.(Met Museum)

Late 1870s Silk Dinner Dress.
(Met Museum)

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.

1878 Emile Pingat Silk Brocade Dinner Dress.(Chicago History Museum)

1878 Emile Pingat Silk Brocade Dinner Dress.
(Chicago History Museum)

1878 Emile Pingat Silk Brocade Dinner Dress.
(Chicago History Museum)

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.”

Late 1870s British Silk Ball Gown.(Met Museum)

Late 1870s British Silk Ball Gown.
(Met Museum)

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.”

1872 House of Worth Silk Ball Gown.(Met Museum)

1872 House of Worth Silk Ball Gown.
(Met Museum)

For dancing, long trains could be pinned up.  Alternately, some 1870s dancing masters advised that ball gowns be made without a train.

1874-1876 Corded Silk Evening Dress.(Manchester Art Gallery)

1874-1876 Corded Silk Evening Dress.
(Manchester Art Gallery)

1874-1876 Corded Silk Evening Dress. (Manchester Art Gallery)

1874-1876 Corded Silk Evening Dress.
(Manchester Art Gallery)

 

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.

Riding Habits of the 19th Century

Seaside Fashions of the 19th Century

The 1870s in Fashionable Gowns: A Visual Guide to the Decade

Mimi Matthews is the author of The Pug Who Bit Napoleon: Animal Tales of the 18th and 19th Centuries (to be released by Pen and Sword Books in November 2017).  She researches and writes on all aspects of nineteenth century history—from animals, art, and etiquette to fashion, beauty, feminism, and law. 

Sources

Aldrich, Elizabeth.  From the Ballroom to Hell: Grace and Folly in Nineteenth-Century Dance.  Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1991.

Beeton’s Young Englishwoman.  London: Ward, Lock, and Tyler, 1875.

Cunnington, C. Willett.  English Women’s Clothing in the Nineteenth Century.  London: Faber and Faber Ltd., 1939.

Cunnington, C. Willett.  Fashion and Women’s Attitudes in the Nineteenth Century.  New York: Dover Publications, 2003.

Harris, Kristina.  Authentic Victorian Fashion Patterns.  New York: Dover Publications, 1999.

The Ladies’ Monthly Magazine.  Vol. 52.  London: Simpkin, Marshall, & Co., 1875.


© 2015-2017 Mimi Matthews

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26 thoughts on “From Morning Dresses to Evening Gowns: A Day in Victorian Fashion

  1. Mari Christian says:

    What a pleasure to read, Mimi. Some of the dresses are breathtaking-to look at but probably not to wear. With all the changes in costume one could easily spend all of one’s leisure time dressing and undressing. I can understand why a lady’s maid would be essential, without even considering the hair. A most sincere thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mimi Matthews says:

      You’re very welcome, Mari 🙂 Thanks so much for your comment. And you’re right–changing gowns and repairing one’s hair could be incredibly time consuming. I’m sure many women & their lady’s maids had it down to a science!

      Like

  2. Annette k says:

    GOOD MORNING, the wonderful insight you have on Victorian Costume is quite well written. My grandmother cut out of a magazine in 1899 a picture of WORTH’S COSTUMES and then framed the two pictures. I loved the two pictures. My mother sold them for 25 cents a piece after her mother’s death. atk

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Vickie says:

    What a fabulous post – Mimi you are definitely much appreciated for all of the hard work researching these beautiful examples. It is hard to imagine something so beautiful without the pictures and your detail helps us connect to this fashion era. A sincere thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Pam Shropshire says:

    Well done as always. My fashionable side always longs for a return to the more beautiful, feminine apparel of the past, but my practical, comfort-loving side loves today’s easy knit dresses, tunic-and-leggings, and flipflops!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Ford Cornell says:

    If a proper lady wore all four of these types of gown in a single day, what kind of daily schedule/routine did these women have? How long to dress? What did they do then in the morning? When did they change clothes? How long did it take? Etc.

    This was a very interesting article! More of this theme would be much appreciated (hint, hint)

    You know, I can barely pull on a pair of jeans and a clean t shirt! I dont think i could have coped with all this clothing but I LOVE to see it and read about it!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mimi Matthews says:

      Thanks for your comment, Ford 🙂 A lady’s schedule really depended. She could deal with concerns about the house while in her morning gown, then change into a walking dress to shop, and later a visiting dress to pay calls on friends, and so on. I don’t know the precise time it would take to change clothes, but since these ladies had the assistance of a lady’s maid, I suspect it would not be above an hour–if even that!

      Like

    • Mimi Matthews says:

      Glad you liked it 🙂 Yes, the fabric & trim are really helpful in recognizing the purpose of each gown–at least, in my examples. It gets a little trickier when comparing promenade dresses to carriage and travelling dresses!

      Liked by 1 person

      • woostersauce2014 says:

        Agree but at the bare minimum, fabric and trim are easy indications and your blog did well to highlight this. From simple dresses worn in the morning at home to elaborate gowns in the evening for dinner or a ball or a night at the theatre.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. authorangelabell says:

    Although I do envy the Victorian wardrobe, I can’t fathom changing my ensemble multiple times a day! 🙂

    Excellent article! Quite a helpful resource for my own historical research.

    Liked by 1 person

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