Shades of Victorian Fashion: Pretty in 19th Century Pink

Individual Images via Met Museum, Cincinnati Art Museum, and MFA Boston.

During the Victorian era, pink was considered a sweet, feminine color, suitable for the gowns of young ladies in their first season.  It was also fashionable for more mature Victorian women, who often wore evening dresses made of fine pink satins and silks.  Most commonly of all, pink was an accent color used for trim and accessories.  Ladies carried pink parasols and pink fans.  They decorated their bonnets with pink ribbons and flowers.  And, in the summer, their light cotton gowns were brightened with pink stripes and pink floral sprigs.  In today’s article, we look at some of the loveliest examples of the color pink in Victorian fashion.

GOWNS

The 1862 edition of Littell’s Living Age states that pale pink was not an ideal shade for daytime wear, explaining that “in daylight, pink heightens the sallowness of the complexion.”  For evening dress, however, pink was highly recommended as it was “often becoming by candle-light.”  The below dress is a classic example of a late 19th century pink evening dress.  Made of silk, it is trimmed in pink flowers.

1898-1901 Pink Silk Evening Dress.(Cincinnati Art Museum)

1898-1901 Pink Silk Evening Dress.
(Cincinnati Art Museum)

According to Littell’s Living Age, pink was most flattering when “uncombined with other colors.”  As for trimmings, Victorian ladies were advised that a pink evening dress was “more elegant” when worn with flowers or trimmings that were also a shade of pink.  As an example, the below evening dress is made with a pale pink satin and a slightly darker pink tulle.

1897 House of Worth Pink Satin Evening Dress.(Victoria and Albert Museum)

1897 House of Worth Pink Satin Evening Dress.
(Victoria and Albert Museum)

Pink was considered a flattering color for blondes and fair-skinned brunettes, but the 1860 issue of Godey’s Lady’s Book advises that “those of darker complexion must avoid pinks.”  Littell’s Living Age echoes this sentiment, warning ladies with “raven hair and dark eyes” to steer clear of pink and choose deep reds instead.  The pink silk ball gown below looks like it may have fit the bill for a Victorian blonde or brunette.

1868 Pink Silk Ball Gown.(Met Museum)

1868 Pink Silk Ball Gown.
(Met Museum)

Slightly darker shades of pink were suitable for morning dresses, day dresses, and tea gowns.  These included colors such as “shrimp-pink” and “salmon-pink” (frequently mentioned in Victorian fashion magazines of the day).  The brighter shades of pink could be quite dramatic, as illustrated by the silk taffeta afternoon dress shown below.

1857 Pink Silk Taffeta Afternoon Dress.(Museum at FIT)

1857 Pink Silk Taffeta Afternoon Dress.
(Museum at FIT)

Darker pinks could be contrasted with other colors, such as white or black.  Black could be especially striking when worn with pink, but Littell’s Living Age is careful to warn that “black, although agreeable, is so positive a contrast, as to savor somewhat of the theatre.”  A harsh judgment indeed!  The below pink cotton dress employs black trim in what would have been an acceptable fashion.

1862 Pink Cotton and Wool Dress.(Met Museum)

1862 Pink Cotton and Wool Dress.
(Met Museum)

Pink and white was another popular color combination—especially for young ladies.  Pale pink roses and ribbons often adorned white ensembles, while pink and white stripes were regularly seen in summer day dresses and evening gowns.  The below dress of pink striped silk taffeta is one example.

1866 Striped Silk Taffeta Evening Dress. (Kyoto Costume Institute)

1866 Striped Silk Taffeta Evening Dress.
(Kyoto Costume Institute)

Pink paired well as a trim with other warm colors.  It looked particularly pretty with browns and tans.  The evening dress below is tan silk faille trimmed with pink.

1866-1868 House of Worth Evening Dress.(Philadelphia Museum of Art)

1866-1868 House of Worth Evening Dress.
(Philadelphia Museum of Art)

When pink was paired with a cold color, such as blue or gray, Littell’s Living Age advises that the cold color “should always predominate.”  This advice is illustrated perfectly by the dress below.  Made of green-blue silk, it is trimmed with pink ribbons and bows.

1871-1873 Pale Green Silk Dress Trimmed in Pink.(Manchester Art Gallery)

1871-1873 Green Silk Dress Trimmed in Pink.
(Manchester Art Gallery)

1871-1873 Green Silk Dress Trimmed in Pink.
(Manchester Art Gallery)

 

SHOES

Pink accessories were quite fashionable during the Victorian era.  Pink slippers, pumps, and boots were also considered very stylish.  The silk evening pumps below are one example of how pink was used in Victorian footwear.

1885-1895 Silk Evening Pumps.
(Met Musem)

Pink boots could be worn for day, evening, and formal occasions—even weddings.  Below is a gorgeous pair of pink evening boots from 1870.

1870 Pink Evening Boots.(Met Museum)

1870 Pink Evening Boots.
(Met Museum)

BONNETS

Pink ribbons, pink plumes, and pink silk flowers were popular trimmings for Victorian era straw bonnets.  The straw hat below features pink flowers, ribbons, and white plumes at the back.

1892-1895 Straw Hat with Pink Flowers.(Met Museum)

1892-1895 Straw Hat with Pink Flowers.
(Met Museum)

Pale pink was particularly pretty when combined with the lace on ladies’ indoor caps.  These sorts of caps were worn by matrons and spinsters throughout the 19th century.  Below is an 1880 lace cap trimmed with pink silk ribbons.

1880 Lace Cap with Pink Ribbons.(Met Museum)

1880 Lace Cap with Pink Ribbons.
(Met Museum)

PARASOLS

Pink parasols were another fashionable accessory.  They were generally made of silk and came in a range of shades, including pale pink and delicate pink prints.  Many of them were trimmed with lace, adding to their soft, feminine appeal.

Late 19th Century French Parasol.(Met Museum)

Late 19th Century French Parasol.
(Met Museum)

FANS

For evening dress, a soft, pink fan could be a lovely accessory.  In addition to painted paper fans, there were decadent feather fans like the one below.  Note the hummingbird drinking from the orange blossoms!

1870s French Feather Fan.(MFA Boston)

1870s French Feather Fan.
(MFA Boston)

JEWELRY

Pink jewels, like pink diamonds and pink sapphires, may sound like a modern fad, but they existed in the Victorian era as well.  Even more popular were necklaces, rings, and brooches made of pink topaz or pink conch pearls.  Conch pearls were highly prized during the 19th century.  In his 1886 book Pearls and Pearling Life, Edwin Streeter describes them as having a “wavy appearance and a peculiar sheen, something like that of watered silk.”  Most were irregular in shape.  Those that were perfectly round were exceedingly valuable.  They were used in all manner of jewelry, including brooches, rings, and even hatpins.

1800-1869 Conch Pearl Ring.(Victoria and Albert Museum)

1800-1869 Conch Pearl Ring.
(Victoria and Albert Museum)

A FEW FINAL WORDS...

I hope the above has given you some idea of how shades of pink were used in Victorian women’s fashion.  I’ll be back soon profiling other popular colors of the era.  Until then, I leave you with the following quote from Littell’s Living Age:

“It is chiefly in the choice and arrangement of color that a woman’s taste in dress is displayed.”

Toilette by Jules James Rougeron, 1877.

Toilette by Jules James Rougeron, 1877.

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 January 2018). She researches and writes on all aspects of nineteenth century history—from animals, art, and etiquette to fashion, beauty, feminism, and law. Her articles have been published on various academic and history sites, including the Victorian Web, and are also syndicated weekly at Bust Magazine.

Sources

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

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

Godey’s Lady’s Book.  Vol. 54-55.  Philadelphia: Louis A. Godey, 1857.

“How to Adorn the Person.”  Godey’s Lady’s Book.  Vol. 60.  Philadelphia: Louis A. Godey, 1860.

“A Lady’s Dress.”  Littell’s Living Age.  Vol. 75.  Boston: Littell, Son, and Company, 1862.

“London Fashions for the Month.”  Ladies’ Cabinet of Fashion.  London: Geo Henderson, 1841.

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

Streeter, Edwin William.  Pearls and Pearling Life.  London: George Bell & Sons, 1886.


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19 thoughts on “Shades of Victorian Fashion: Pretty in 19th Century Pink

  1. Sarah Waldock says:

    I eschewed pink for many years, having grown up with Sindy and Barbie, and their usual rather unfortunate accessories in what was called cerise when I was very little and is now usually called Barbie Pink. However, I will say I use it now as an accent with grey, brown, navy or olive. Pink on its own, especially a bright pink, is a little overwhelming unless you are black, and fairly dark at that. It makes some fair skinned people – those with more Celtic complexions – look decidedly yellow.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mimi Matthews says:

      It’s good to know the 19th century advice about pink making fair ladies look sallow still applies! I think so much depends upon the shade. I do have some pink clothes myself, but I much prefer pink’s far more aggressive cousin red 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

    • moara says:

      I’ve found the opposite to be true. I’m light skinned of celtic heritage, and coral makes me look sallow. Cerise makes me look amazing.

      Unfortunately, I don’t wear it very often, because I’m in a masculine field, and I’m afraid of being taken less seriously if I show up for work in “Barbie pink”.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Pam Shropshire says:

    I have never been a huge fan of pink myself (my hair is too red), but it is my mother’s favorite color. I do love that Worth gown in tan silk trimmed with dusty rose, though – that would be something that I would wear, as it looks more mature than the frothier confections. I would also wear those pink silk evening boots, perhaps under a love black or charcoal silk gown (although I know those colors weren’t commonly used for evening wear in the Victorian era).

    Liked by 1 person

  3. maykhella says:

    Gorgeous post! I am so glad I stumbled across your blog. THIS is what I was looking for. I will be fervently looking forward to your posts, Mimi. I am in awe of how fashion has changed over the last century. Some of the dresses shown above were worn at the turn of the 20th century. How is it that the unspoken, unofficial uniform of our day boils down to wearing jeans? I am baffled by how much we have lost in terms of fashion. I always wonder how shocked women of centuries passed would be if they saw the way we dress nowadays.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mimi Matthews says:

      Thanks, May 🙂 I’m so glad you enjoyed my article. Fashion has changed a great deal since the 19th century. There was much more emphasis on utility and practicality as women’s roles in society began to change. Wearing a silk bustled dress while entertaining at home is one thing, but bicycling or playing sports or working required a different wardrobe altogether!

      Like

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