History of Fashion and Dress
Regency  |  Romantic  |  Victorian- Crinoline  |  Victorian- First Bustle Victorian- Second Bustle  |  Edwardian

The Victorian Era- The Crinoline period 1850-1869

Key terms:

Queen Victoria
Prince Albert
The Great Exhibition
Charles Worth
Isaac Merritt Singer
cage crinoline
Knickerbockers suit

Queen Victoria and family
Queen Victoria's family c. 1846
by F. Winterhalter

The Great Exhibition of 1851

The Opening of the Great Exhibition by Queen Victoria on May1, 1851 by H. Selous
(Image courtesy the V&A)

Charles Frederick Worth
(date unknown)

Princess Pauline Metternich
by Winterhalter (1860). Private collection
Patroness of Charles Worth
and arbiter of Parisian fashion.

Singer Sewing Machine 1853
The Singer Sewing Machine
c. 1853

Singer Sewing Machine 1853
Extant Singer Sewing Machine
c. 1853
(Image courtesy The Science Museum)
Brief historical overview:

The Victorian Era began in England in 1837 when William IV died without an heir to the throne- thus leaving his 18-year-old niece, Victoria, to become Queen. However, scholars do not begin to document the marked societal and cultural changes brought about by Queen Victoria's England until 1850.

Young Queen Victoria
A young Queen Victoria of England
by F. Winterhalter

Queen Victoria ruled England and Ireland until her death in 1901- making the Victorian Era one of the longest in history. For the purpose of these pages, the Victorian Era will be broken into a series of periods- The Crinoline (1850-1869), First and Second Bustle (1870-1890), and Turn of the Century (1890-1900).

The Victorian Era itself was a time of great change and progress- with its efforts to reform complex social institutions and its experimentations with mechanical and scientific ingenuities. The Victorian Era was highly moral. Motherhood was cherished and virtue was idolized. There was no greater icon of these ideals than the Queen herself, or the virtuous life of her husband Prince Albert. However, while this strict code of behavior greatly increased the civility and the gentility of life, it also encouraged an austere climate of conformity.

Queen Victoria with son Albert Edward

In 1851, Victoria's husband, Prince Albert, orchestrated the first world's fair. The Great Exhibition as it was called was the first public exhibition to display manufactured goods from around the globe, thus opening the door for an interchange of both cultural and artistic ideas all across Europe. In 1856, the English chemist William Perkin discovered a way to mass produce color, revolutionizing the fabric dyeing process. And in 1858, he invented a new color known as mauve which the Queen wore to her daughter's wedding.

But perhaps the most important ingenuity to impact this period is that of photography. In 1836, Louis Daguerre introduced a way to capture images by exposing copper and silver to a series of chemicals and salts. The type of photography is referred to as a daguerreotype. By 1850, a variety of photographic methods were available and the average citizen could now have a portrait of their loved ones.

The House of Worth and the rise of Couture:
France had not led the fashion world since the Regency period, but a designer by the name Charles Worth would change that. Worth, an Englishman who did not speak a word of French, began his career working in the fabric houses of Paris. Designing couture gowns in his spare time, he soon gained recognition in the fashion industry when he displayed some of his gowns in The Great Exhibition in London in 1851 and the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1855.  In 1858, Worth opened his own house of fashion in Paris.

His gowns gained notice from the very influential fashionistas Empress Eugenie, wife of French Emperor Napoleon III, and Princess Metternich of Austria who became devoted patronesses. With their support, the success of The House of Worth was sealed.

Portrait of Empress Eugénie Surrounded by Her Maids of Honor
by Winterhalter  (1855)
 Musée national du château de Compiègne

But perhaps the most unique quality of Worth's designs was that they were all interchangeable. Bodices, skirts, and sleeves were all drafted to fit any number of his designs and could be mixed and matched to create couture gowns custom to a client's personal taste.

The Great Conflict:
In 1861, the worst conflict on American soil began as a civil war ripped across a once progressive nation. Just four years later, over 620,000 people would have lost their lives.
With a nation at war, industry and technology to support the effort was a priority. Such an example of this technology is the sewing machine.

Originally imported to America in the 1840s, Isaac Merritt Singer patented the first American lock-stitch sewing machine in 1851. By 1857, his sewing machine was available all over the United States. But it was the onset of the American Civil War that spurred it into regular use.

The best documented use of the sewing machine during this period is in factories. The use of a sewing machine could reduce the amount of time it took to make a garment by half. The Union had over 2 million men in uniform and Northern factories- fully equipped with sewing machines- worked day and night to keep their soldiers dressed.

In the American South, blockading and inflation abruptly halted major industrial and technological advancements (as well as fashion trends). Southern civilians worked by candle light in their homes to hand stitch uniforms for soldiers. On the home front, women were left to rely on their own ingenuity to repair, rework, or patch old and outdated garments.
1860 cage crinoline
Cage Crinoline c. 1860
(Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Victorian Era Corset (c. 1860)
Private collection

Left: Early Hooped or caged crinoline under petticoat
(c. 1860s) Musee McCord Museum

Right: Hooped Crinoline (c. 1865)
The Kyoto Costume Institute

Lithograph of a young Queen Victoria
wearing her Scottish tartan.

Queen Victoria's love for all things Scottish led to a craze for plaids. Plaid skirts, gowns, bows, neckties, and even sashes appeared in fashion all over Europe and The United States.
Women's Clothing:

The term crinoline refers to a stiffened skirt- typically some type of petticoat. By the 1850s, increasing skirt widths called for the reintroduction of the whalebone (or metal after 1857) hooped petticoat. (Whalebone hoops were worn during the early 18th century). By wearing the hooped petticoat, the wearer freed herself from the weightiness and cumbersome nature of multiple petticoats.

In the mid 1850s, the cage crinoline (or a petticoat made by sewing whalebone or steel bands to a series of tapes) allowed for even an even lighter undergarment. A single petticoat was worn over the top of the cage crinoline. Wool or flannel petticoats were worn in the winter for warmth.

During the Crinoline period, the corset was a measure of decency. Corsets during this period were not tightly laced. With the introduction of the cage crinoline, corsets were shortened and allowed for freedom of movement at the hips.

Bodices of this period ended slightly above the natural waistline. In the 1850s, feminine versions of shirts, vests, and waistcoats became popular separates. Thanks to the introduction of the sewing machine, time involved in making clothing was now drastically reduced and elaborate self- made trim work became popular. Lavish trimmings such as embroidery, ribbon, braid work, and ruching was used. Jewelry was at a minimum. Necklines rose. Sleeves began to widen and the use of removable undersleeves became prominent.

Two silk day dresses (c 1850).
 The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Early in the period, to emphasize the voluminous nature of the skirt, multiple outer flounces and overskirts became popular. By 1860, the ever-sought-after bell shaped skirt had disappeared and a preference for an oval shaped skirt became popular. In Europe, as early as 1861, the weight of the skirt had shifted backward and the appearance of a "flat-fronted" skirt emerged.

White cotton walking dress
with black soutache braid work (c. 1862).
The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Throughout the entire Victorian period, the bonnet ruled the day as head wear. In the 1860s, younger ladies and ladies of fashion included a variety of hats into their wardrobe. Other head coverings worn in this period included lace or muslin day caps, ribbons, and jeweled hair ornaments.

Fashion Plate of stylish hats (c. 1869)
The Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine

For reproduction Victorian Era women's clothing, please click here.

1860s era child's dress
Mid 19th century child's dress
(image courtesy Wisconsin Historical Museum)

1860s era pinafore
Mid 19th century child's pinafore
(image courtesy Wisconsin Historical Museum)

Boy's Knickerbocker Suit
Peterson's Magazine, 1861

Children's Clothing:

From toddler hood to the age of four, both girls and boys were dressed in gowns ending just below the knee accompanied by a set of pantalettes. After age four, little girls wore shorter versions of women's fashions. As girls grew older, the skirt lengthened. By the age of 16, girl's hemlines were approximately two inches above the ankle.

Victorian Era dress for a young lady (left) and
Victorian Era dress for older counterpart (right)
Leisch, Juanita.  Who Wore What?

Hoops were worn by girls past the age four or five and pantalettes continued to be worn by all ages. Pantalette length ended anywhere from mid-calf to the ankle and it was not considered indecent for little girls and young ladies to allow the hems to peak out beneath their skirts.
child's cage crinoline or hoop skirt
Girl's hoop c. 1856-1865
(image courtesy Wisconsin Historical Museum)

Pinafores were worn over dresses during the day to keep children's clothing clean.

Little boys past the age four wore trousers and coats similar to that of their adult counterparts. The Eton suits and tunic suits of earlier decade were still in fashion. Knickerbockers and the Knickerbockers suit became popular attire for young boys during this period.

Overalls had been in use in rural areas since the 1830s and were worn as outer clothing during heavy labor. Young boys who helped their family work in the fields quite often had a pair to wear over their trousers and shirts.

For reproduction Victorian Era children's clothing, please click here.

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These pages are for educational purposes only.  All text copyright Susan Jarrett.  No unauthorized use without permission.
Copyrighted images must be given source credit as has been done on these page. Public domain images do not require source credit.

Page revised January 2013

Page revised June 2011