Fashion and Beauty Essentials for a 19th Century Summer Holiday

Individual Collage Images via MFA Boston and Victoria and Albert Museum.

In women’s magazines today, we often see lists of summer vacation “must haves.”  These lists usually include such hot weather essentials as swimsuits, sunscreen, and a romance novel or two to read at the beach.  But what about ladies in the Victorian era?  By the end of the 19th century, beach holidays were certainly on the rise.  However, our Victorian sisters met the heat without benefit of air conditioning, skimpy clothing, or sun protection.  What did they have instead?  In today’s article, we look at a few fashion, beauty, and novel necessities for a 19th century summer.

Summer Day Dresses

A suitable day dress was a must for hot summer weather.  In her 1870 book The Art of Dressing Well, author S. A. Frost states that “the most beautiful and useful of summer fabrics is a fine quality of linen lawn.”  Cotton, cambric, muslin, gauze, and other light, airy fabrics were also quite popular.  Below is a lovely summer day dress from 1872.  It is made of sheer, floral printed cotton.

1872 French Cotton Summer Day Dress.(Met Museum)

1872 French Cotton Summer Day Dress.
(Met Museum)

It was not uncommon to see summer day dresses of solid white.  Equally fashionable were soft prints, stripes, and light colors such as green, lavender, and pale blue.  The day dress below is a blue striped cotton gauze from 1874.

1874 Cotton Gauze Day Dress.(Fashion Museum Bath)

1874 Cotton Gauze Day Dress.
(Fashion Museum Bath)

Trimmings on Victorian summer day dresses were generally minimal.  For example, the two white cotton day dresses below are trimmed with brightly colored silk satin ribbon and little else.

1869 Cotton Muslin Summer Day Dress.( Victoria and Albert Museum)

1869 Cotton Muslin Summer Day Dress.
(Victoria and Albert Museum)

Late 1860s Cotton Tarlatan Summer Day Dress.(Kyoto Costume Institute)

Late 1860s Cotton Tarlatan Summer Day Dress.
(Kyoto Costume Institute)

Summer Hats

Though smaller hats (like the one seen in the image at above right) were very fashionable during the Victorian era, a wide-brimmed hat was far better suited to protecting a lady’s face from the sun.  For summer, straw or reed hats were a perfect option.  They were usually trimmed fairly simply and could be worn at the beach or while playing outdoor games like golf or tennis.

1870-1875 Straw Boater with a Blue Silk Ribbon. (Victoria and Albert Museum)

1870-1875 Straw Boater with a Blue Silk Ribbon.
(Victoria and Albert Museum)

As an alternative to a wide-brimmed hat, a Victorian lady might wear a large, broad-brimmed leghorn bonnet.  Below is a yellow leghorn straw bonnet from 1840.  It is trimmed with green ribbon and artificial flowers.

1840 Leghorn Bonnet.(MFA Boston)

1840 Leghorn Bonnet.
(MFA Boston)


For those ladies wishing to protect their complexions from the sun, a parasol was another stylish summer accessory.  Below is an 1867 fashion grouping featuring a gentleman’s suit, a lady’s summer day dress, and a plain silk parasol.

1867 Summer Ensemble.
(Met Museum)

In contrast to plainly trimmed straw hats, parasols could be quite luxurious.  They were frequently made in silks and satins with elaborately carved handles of ivory or wood.  Below is one of my favorites—a late 19th century parasol of green and cream silk taffeta with an ivory handle.

Late 19th Century French Silk Taffeta Parasol.(MFA Boston)

Late 19th Century French Silk Taffeta Parasol.
(MFA Boston)

A Victorian lady embarking on her summer holiday via a crowded coach or train, would likely have taken a carriage parasol.  Popularized by Queen Victoria in the mid-19th century, carriage parasols were made with a hinge in the middle of the handle so that they could fold up for ease of travel.  Below is a silk carriage parasol with a handle made in the shape of a bird’s claw grasping a ball.

1860-65 American Silk Parasol with Bird's Claw Handle.(Met Museum)

1860-65 Parasol with Bird’s Claw Handle.
(Met Museum)

1860-65 American Silk Parasol with Bird's Claw Handle.(Met Museum)

1860-65 Parasol with Bird’s Claw Handle.
(Met Museum)

Bathing Dresses

Not every Victorian lady had the luxury of a seaside holiday during the hot summer weather, but for those that did, The Art of Dressing Well recommends that bathing dresses be made of “fine flannel” and “trimmed with a worsted braid of fast colors.”  Wool was also a common fabric for lady’s swimwear, as illustrated by the 1875 twilled wool bathing ensemble below.

1875 Women’s Bathing Ensemble.
(FIDM Museum)

Though still a long way from a 20th century bikini, by the end of the 19th century, bathing dresses were becoming a bit less cumbersome.  For example, when compared to the 1870s wool bathing dress at below left, the 1890 twilled wool bathing costume at below right looks almost modern!

1890-1900 Bathing Costume.(Manchester Art Gallery)

1890-1900 Bathing Costume.
(Manchester Art Gallery)

1870s Wool Bathing Suit.
(Met Museum)

Summer Skin care

If wide-brimmed hats and summer parasols failed to protect a Victorian lady from sun damage, there were various lotions and potions available to repair her complexion.  To fade freckles and unsightly suntans, ladies employed strawberry water or Gowland’s Lotion.  To soothe sunburns, they bathed their faces in fresh milk or cream.  An emulsion of almonds could also be used in cases of sunburn.  Beeton’s 1871 Dictionary of Practical Recipes and Every-Day Information offers the following recipe.

Almond Emulsion Recipe, Beeton's Dictionary, 1871.

Almond Emulsion Recipe, Beeton’s Dictionary, 1871.

Summer Reading

There were no designated beach books in the Victorian era, but for ladies of the 19th century, a good sensation novel was always great fun.  One of the first, and most well known, of the era was The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins (1859).  Another thrilling sensation novel was Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon.  Published in 1862, it features murder, insanity, and accidental bigamy!

Lady Audley’s Secret
by Mary Elizabeth Braddon, 1862.

The Woman in White
by Wilkie Collins, 1859.




 A Few Final Words…

Above are just a few of the items I consider to be essential for a 19th century summer holiday, but this list is far from complete.  For one thing, not all summers were scorching hot.  For another, even on holiday a Victorian lady would need more than day dresses, straw hats, and a swimming costume.  If you would like to learn more about other styles of dress, I encourage you to consult the 19th Century Fashion and Beauty tab at the top of my site.  I’ve also included a few relevant fashion links below.

Seaside Fashions of the 19th Century

Victorian Sportswear: Tennis Fashions of the Late 19th Century

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

The 1860s in Fashionable Gowns: A Visual Guide to the Decade

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. 


Beeton, Samuel Orchart.  Beeton’s Dictionary of Practical Recipes and Every-Day Information.  London: Ward, Lock, and Tyler: 1871.

Braddon, Mary Elizabeth.  Lady Audley’s Secret.  n. p. 1862.  Project Gutenberg.  Web.  15 Aug. 2016.

Collins, Wilkie.  The Woman in White.  n. p. 1859.  Project Gutenberg.  Web.  15 Aug. 2016.

Frost, S. A.  The Art of Dressing Well.  New York: Dick & Fitzgerald, 1870.

Tortora, Phyllis G.  Dress, Fashion and Technology: From Prehistory to the Present.  London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2015.

© 2015-2017 Mimi Matthews

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21 thoughts on “Fashion and Beauty Essentials for a 19th Century Summer Holiday

  1. Lucy says:

    I love those bonnets, I wish they would come back into fashion, although if they did crossing roads and driving cars could involve a lot more head turning than we’re used to!

    Liked by 1 person

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