Shades of Victorian Fashion: Lilacs, Lavenders, Plums, and Purples

Victorian Purple Collage

Individual Images via Museum at FIT, MFA Boston, and Victorian and Albert Museum.

Purple was one of the most fashionable—and versatile—colors of the Victorian era.  In fabric shades ranging from pale, delicate lilac to rich, deep plum, it was suitable for day dresses, visiting dresses, riding habits, and evening gowns.  It was also an acceptable color for those in half-mourning, with ladies frequently wearing dresses in shades of mauve-grey or lavender.  The 1856 invention of aniline dyes resulted in even more varieties of color.  Gowns and accessories were produced in violets, magentas, and brilliant berry hues.  In today’s article, we look at some of the loveliest examples of purple in Victorian fashion.

GOWNS

In his 1870 book Color in Dress, author George Audsley calls purple “the most retiring of all rich colors.”  It could be worn in winter, spring, or autumn and was considered to be particularly flattering to those with darker hair.  For those with fair, blonde hair, Audsley warns against the color purple, though he does allow that the lightest shades of lilac may be permitted if separated “by an edging of tulle, or similar trimming.”  The below dress looks like it may have fit the bill for a fair, Victorian blonde.

1868-1870 Dress of Mauve Gray Watered Silk.(Manchester Art Gallery)

1868-1870 Dress of Mauve-Grey Watered Silk.
(Manchester Art Gallery)

According to Audsley, purple harmonized well with a variety of colors, including gold, orange, maize, blue, black, white, and scarlet.  Lighter shades, like lilac, harmonized with gold, maize, cherry, scarlet, crimson, or combinations thereof.  One combination Audsley recommends is that of lilac, gold, and crimson.  You can see how beautifully this color combination works in the silk dress shown below.

1872-1875 Silk Dress.(Met Museum)

1872-1875 Silk Dress.
(Met Museum)

Some Victorian dresses were made of two or three different shades of purple.  This could be quite striking, as in the walking dress shown below.  Made of silk and cotton, it combines a dark purple with a medium grey purple.  From a distance, the buttons appear to be a shade of red (which Audsley would consider complimentary), but on closer inspection, you will see that they are, in fact, a berry-colored purple.

1864-1865 Silk and Cotton Walking Dress.
(Met Museum)

Pale purple fabrics contrasted with deep purple fabrics could make for a dramatic afternoon or evening gown.  As an example, below is a rich purple afternoon dress from 1874.  Designed by Charles Frederick Worth, it is made of purple and pale purple silk faille trimmed with purple velvet bows and purple silk fringe.

1874 House of Worth Silk Afternoon Dress.(Kyoto Costume Institute)

1874 House of Worth Silk Afternoon Dress.
(Kyoto Costume Institute)

Rich purples were very fashionable for Victorian evening dress.  Generally designed in silks, satins, and velvets, they were made in shades of mulberry, magenta, and plum.  Below is one of the most stunning evening dresses of the era.  Made in 1894, it is comprised of magenta floral brocade, plum velvet, and yellow silk satin.

1894 Plum Velvet Evening Dress.(Museum at FIT)

1894 Plum Velvet Evening Dress.
(Museum at FIT)

Audsley states that purple, as a color of mourning, was “expressive of gravity, sorrow, and sadness.”  But purple was not always grim.  In fact, it was occasionally used for Victorian wedding dresses.  The below wedding dress from 1899 is made of purple ribbed silk trimmed with lace and braid.

1899 Wedding Dress Ensemble.(Victoria and Albert Museum)

1899 Wedding Dress Ensemble.
(Victoria and Albert Museum)

The Victorian era ended in 1901, but I cannot move on to purple accessories without sharing the following images of a purple silk tea gown from 1905.  This gown was designed by Charles Frederick Worth for the wife of American banker, J.P. Morgan, Jr.

1905 House of Worth Silk Tea Gown.(Met Museum)

1905 House of Worth Silk Tea Gown.
(Met Museum)

1905 House of Worth Silk Tea Gown.(Met Museum)

1905 House of Worth Silk Tea Gown.
(Met Museum)

Shoes

The color purple was not limited to ladies’ gowns.  Shades of purple also found their way into women’s accessories, including bonnets, parasols, gloves, fans, and jewelry.  Purple shoes could also be very stylish.  These brilliant purple panné velvet evening slippers are just one example.

1885-1890 J. Ferry Evening Slippers.(Met Museum)

1885-1890 J. Ferry Evening Slippers.
(Met Museum)

Victorian women’s boots can often be seen in lighter shades of purple, such as mauve, lavender, and lilac.  These colors were far more subdued for daywear than brighter berries and magentas.  Below is a pair of mauve satin boots from the 1860s.

1860s Mauve Boots.(Ron Wood/Bata Shoe Museum)

1860s Mauve Boots.
(Ron Wood/Bata Shoe Museum)

Gloves

The 1900 edition of Good Housekeeping states that “a gaudy red, green, or purple glove is never in good taste.”  However, colored gloves in more subdued shades were popular throughout the 19th century.  These lovely lavender gloves from 1887 are just one example of an acceptable shade.

1887 Kid Leather Gloves.(Philadelphia Museum of Art)

1887 Kid Leather Gloves.
(Philadelphia Museum of Art)

Bonnets

Purple ribbons or purple flowers were often used to trim Victorian era bonnets.  Some bonnets were solid purple, like the 1862 silk and velvet bonnet below.

1862 Silk Velvet Bonnet.(LACMA)

1862 Silk Velvet Bonnet.
(LACMA)

Parasols

Purple parasols were another fashionable accessory.  Generally made of silk, they were available in shades of solid purple as well as in delicate prints and patterns.  On some parasols, purple was simply used as an accent color.  The below parasol from the early Victorian era is made of white, moire silk taffeta with a purple motif.  It is trimmed with white, crimped fringe.

1840-1865 Moire Silk Taffeta Parasol.(MFA Boston)

1840-1865 Moire Silk Taffeta Parasol.
(MFA Boston)

Fans

For an evening ensemble, a purple fan could be quite striking.  Fans came in a variety of styles.  There were painted fans, fans with watercolor pictures, and fans spangled with gold and sequins.  The below fan is made of purple silk satin with brass sequins, gold covered sticks, and mother-of-pearl.

1867-1876 Silk Satin Fan.(MFA Boston)

1867-1876 Silk Satin Fan.
(MFA Boston)

According to fashion historian C. Willett Cunnington, by the early 1870s, “gigantic fans” were all the rage.  The below fan looks to be one of the more conservatively sized fans from the late 19th century.  Made of sheer silk weave, it is designed with a pattern of purple violets and carnations.

Late 19th/Early 20th Century Sheer Shilk Fan.(Philadelphia Museum)

Late 19th/Early 20th Century Sheer Shilk Fan.
(Philadelphia Museum)

Jewelry

Jewels provided the finishing touch to any Victorian ensemble and, among purple jewels, the amethyst reigned supreme.  Below is an amethyst and gold bracelet given to Queen Victoria by the Duchess of Kent upon the queen’s engagement to Prince Albert.

1839 Amethyst and Gold Bracelet belonging to Queen Victoria.(Royal Collection Trust)

1839 Amethyst and Gold Bracelet belonging to Queen Victoria.
(Royal Collection Trust)

Amethysts were versatile stones.  In his 1856 book Jewelry and the Precious Stones, author Joseph Rupert Paxton states that amethysts showed best when set in necklaces.  They were also used in rings, brooches, bracelets, and hair combs.  Below is an 1885 amethyst brooch believed to have been designed by Edward Burne-Jones.

1890 Gold, Silver, and Amethyst Brooch.(Victoria and Albert Museum)

1890 Gold, Silver, and Amethyst Brooch.
(Victoria and Albert Museum)

A Few Final Words...

There is no one color that fully represents the Victorian era.  However, I hope the above has given you some idea of how purple was used in Victorian women’s fashion.  In future, I’ll be profiling other popular shades of the era.  Until then, I leave you with the following wise words on color from George Audsley:

“It is not the material worn, but the judicious choice of colors, which indicates the true lady.”

Portrait of Lady by Jules Louis Machard, (1839-1900).

Portrait of Lady by Jules Louis Machard, (1839-1900).

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

Audsley, George Ashdown.  Color in Dress: A Manual for Ladies.  Philadelphia: George Maclean, 1870.

“The Best Way.”  Good Housekeeping.  New York: Hearst Corporation, 1900.

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

Gernshelm, Alison.  Victorian and Edwardian Fashion: A Photographic Survey.  New York: Dover Publications, 2013.

Paxton, Joseph Rupert.  Jewelry and the Precious Stones.  Philadelphia: John Penington & Son, 1856.

Taylor, Lou.  Mourning Dress: A Costume and Social History.  London: Routledge Revivals, 2009.


© 2015-2017 Mimi Matthews

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28 thoughts on “Shades of Victorian Fashion: Lilacs, Lavenders, Plums, and Purples

  1. Sarah says:

    Wonderful post Mimi! After seeing those gowns and outfits in beautiful hues I feel the desire for some lilac flounces. also, I cab’t help thinking that a fabulous fan would be a fine accessory to have on standby for when the menopause strikes! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Sarah Waldock says:

    I love purple, it is a colour that flatters me too, but you can have too much of a good thing! I can’t say I like it with crimson though! it has too the semiotic message of being ‘born in the purple’, because of the cost of processing the murex before aniline.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mimi Matthews says:

      I originally had a beginning paragraph on the Romans and how they derived purple dye from sea snails, but my inner editor said “Get to the Victorian fashion already!” It is a color with a fascinating history, though. And so many shades!

      Like

      • Sarah Waldock says:

        and of course had its day of puce with Marie Antoinette, a colour named for the humble flea. Over the centuries attempts have been made to make it, usually with some form of ‘scarlet’ [red derived from crushing beetles or weevils; maybe La Pucelle isn’t so out of place] and indigo or woad, with more or less success. The colours closer to puce are certainly those most readily achievable, like morone of the late medieval period, from which the modern word maroon is derived, as well as its more common name, murrey.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. woostersauce2014 says:

    Great post and interesting choice of photos which demonstrates how elaborate and rich clothes were during the 19th century.

    As an interesting note – purple and their related shades were colours of half mourning which was the bridge between full mourning where black was worn and back into colours when mourning was over. Many women never did emerge from half mourning and wore white or various shades of grey or purple for the rest of their lives.

    Liked by 1 person

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