Saturday, January 30, 2010

Victorian Clothing: Fabrics of our Lives Part I

Chemung County Historical society in Elmira, NY currently features an exhibit of Victorian clothing called Fabrics of our Lives, Great Life Moments through Clothing, 1860-1900. Yesterday I had the pleasure of viewing the many dresses, suits and childrens' frocks with my husband, who took some delightful pictures.

These two gowns appear in a center display depicting the changing hours of a woman's wardrobe, from a morning dress to the two evening gowns seen here. The first is a golden yellow silk brocade from the 1890's, meant for wearing from 10pm to midnight. The second one is a creamy gold silk taffeta and brocade gown, circa 1880's, meant to be worn from 8pm to 10 pm.

Following is a rear view of this same exquisite piece.
The fine quality of the color and condition in which these dresses remained amazed me. And the utterly petite figure a Victorian woman must have had also made me marvel. These are small gowns, with shoulder widths more like a child's than the average modern woman's. Also noted were the layers of underpinnings beneath these dresses. From chemise, to petticoats to bustles or hoops, a Victorian woman wore a full twenty pounds of clothing on average.

The dark brown piece seen here is a late morning walking dress, meant for wearing out of the home for calling on friends or a trip to the post office or for running any miscellaneous errands. Note its longer sleeves and higher neckline. This would have been worn after 10 am up through the noon hour. I imagine with its tailored jacket it would have been meant for cooler weather. It strikes a somewhat formal image.

Next, this afternoon tea dress begins to relax the neckline and was meant for entertaining friends at home. This would be worn from one until four in the afternoon. Again, the fine condition of this fragile silk material was impeccable, and the colors of the chocolate and red medallions over the pale background just popped. It lacks some of the ornamentation of other gowns, and was displayed without bustle.

Finally, this last dress pictured is a most basic frock, a morning dress in which a working class wife would perform her household chores. Even the more well-to-do wore morning dresses as they prepared for the day. This would be worn from 8am until 10am.

This is part one of my series on Victorian clothing, covering the changes in a Victorian woman's apparel. A well-to-do woman of this age could change clothes up to six times in a typical day. Middle class women tried to emulate wealth with lavish styles, but the truly wealthy distinguished themselves by clothing with more ornamentation and finer fabric.

Next post, we'll view the childrens' clothing collection.


  1. Kathleen-

    This is great. Thank you for sharing with all of us. I love the creamy gold silk taffeta and brocade gown! Lovely!


  2. My favorite, too, Kristina! thanks. : )

  3. Gorgeous! Thanks for sharing this! It's something I don't have much knowledge in, but am eager to learn so this is wonderful. If only we could try them on :)

    They are all so beautiful, I don't think I can choose a favorite.

    I'd love to have you on my site sometime to share all this wonderful knowledge!

    Tina Dee

  4. The one thing that never ceases to amaze me is knowing how long it took to get in and out of those gowns, plus how often a woman might change in one day. They could spend almost all day getting dressed and undressed. No wonder the wealthy often didn't get much done. LOL!

    Thanks for sharing, Kathleen!

    And yes, do come over to Bustles and Spurs blog for Tina to share this knowledge. We'd love to see you there.

    Amber Stockton - Historical fiction author

  5. Kathleen,

    Please email me:



    Tina Dee

  6. Wonderful pictures and information Kathy! Love them!

  7. Oh, how I wish I could be there to see the exhibit in person! Thank you so much for sharing this with us.

  8. One of our local historical societies has a few victorian gowns on display and shoes, etc. I cannot get over how tiny these women were, like the size of a 12 year old girl, maybe even more petite than that!

    I just love the cream colored bustle gown that you showed here.

  9. Just the thought of changing that many times a day makes me want to take a nap. 8-)

  10. Kathleen,

    You obviously took careful notes to be able to share such detail with us. Thank you so much! These are exquisite. I cannot begin to imagine having to change that many times in one day. Surely this was the habit of the mid-to-upper class, for I cannot imagine a farm wife's wasting so much of her day in such a manner, for the changes would be time consuming. Nonetheless, the dresses are scrumptious!Please pass along a thank-you to your husband for taking the photos. It's a magnificent exhibit, indeed!

    Because of Christ,

  11. Thanks, ladies! And Sharon, John (my husband) says thanks for the nod. : )

  12. Hey, That's cool. Do you know how long this display is supposed to last? I'd love to check it out.

    I agree, for some reason those women seem so much smaller.

    I got to see the First Ladies' dresses display at the Smithsonian. I don't know if that's a permanent display or not but it was wonderful.

    thanks Kathy, great photos!

  13. Debra, yeah, this exhibit will remain through March 31st at the museum on Water Street in Elmira. If you're coming, I'd love to meet you for lunch. email me at

  14. I found this fascinating. I loved the photos and the information!

    I'm glad I'm not a Victorian woman. Beautiful as the clothes were, I know they had to be most uncomfortable!

  15. On behalf of the staff of the Chemung County Historial Society, thank you for visiting us and sharing your experience. We're glad you enjoyed it.