VICTORIAN FASHION: WHAT TO WEAR IN MAY (1885)

Today, I’m returning to one of my favourite Victorian periodicals: Cassell’s Family Magazine. This illustrated publication was firmly aimed at the middle classes and featured interesting articles on a plethora of subjects such as student life at Edinburgh University, the benefits of Turkish bathing and how to cook fish. A regular column was ‘Chit-Chat on Dress by Our Paris Correspondent’ which advised young ladies and women how to dress fashionably, month by month.

In ‘What to Wear’ for May, the writer commented:

‘This is the month par excellence when wardrobes want fresh supplies, and half-worn costumes fresh trimmings. Neither in new materials nor in garnitures is there any lack this season. Checks, stripes, dots, figures, plain, shot, broché and chiné are all in vogue… Stripes are decidedly fashionable; they are worn in vivid contrasts, and this season they are not monotonous.

From Cassell’s Family Magazine (1885)

Victorian women did not throw out hardly-worn dresses each season unless they were extremely wealthy. Instead, they would use ribbons, lace and embroidery to give their outfits a new look, perhaps by changing the waistbands, sleeve trimmings or necklines, or by adding flowers to a bonnet or hat. This method of refreshing garments was particularly important to those women who had to economise and simply could not afford new dresses. That’s why the illustrations for the ‘Chit-Chat on Dress’ section were aspirational and for guidance only.

The correspondent wrote that ‘the new colour called ficelle is a most convenient one to adopt, for it can be brightened up with ribbons of almost every brilliant hue. It reigns supreme in silks, muslins, woollen stuffs, laces, millinery, embroidery, and the rest.’ This colour was called twine or string-colour, which sounds very like a neutral shade. Other fashionable colours included ‘porcelain-blue, clover, a terra-cotta which is red rather than terra-cotta, Havannah brown, and a Quakerish grey’ which were considered ‘the best and most artistic tones.’ Pinks and buttercup-colour, with eau de Nil, dark greens and dark browns were preferred for evening wear.

From Cassell’s Family Magazine (1885)

Then, as now, high fashion was only designed to fit slim people. Although paniers were a feature of the season’s costumes, the correspondent wrote that ‘slender figures may wear them full and bunchy if so inclined, but stout women (if they adopt them at all) should have them indicated by the merest folds. The new padded sleeves likewise require judgement in adopting them; otherwise they make their wearers look high instead of square-shouldered.’

From Cassell’s Family Magazine (1885)

 

VICTORIAN FASHION: WHAT TO WEAR IN JUNE (1885)

Last week, many of us in the UK were sweltering in temperatures of more than 30 degrees C – very unusual for a British summer! In our house, we coped by throwing open all the windows, staying out of the sun at the hottest time of the day, and eating copious amounts of ice cream. In the 21st century, we’re lucky to have technology like air-conditioning and electric fans, and to be able to wear fewer clothes when it’s hot.

But spare a thought for the Victorians, especially women and young girls, for whom removing layers in hot weather just wasn’t an option. One of my favourite Victorian periodicals is the Cassell’s Family Magazine which is full of interesting articles on subjects as random as the benefits of Turkish bathing, how to cook potatoes and what should be in the family medicine chest. A regular column was ‘Chit-Chat on Dress by Our Paris Correspondent’ which advised young ladies and women how to dress fashionably, month by month. ‘What to Wear in June’ certainly doesn’t mention dressing in fewer layers.

She describes June as “that delightful time of year when nature is seen at its very best, there is every encouragement to dress well. The sun shows up all defects, and you must don your freshest attire.” This was in the days before deodorant and easy-to-wash clothes, although the readers of Cassell’s Family Magazine would probably have had a maid to do their washing or it would have been sent out to a laundry to be cleaned.

The following illustration shows the stylish indoor costumes suitable for June:

Indoor Costumes – What to Wear in June (Cassell’s Family Magazine, 1885)

The women are wearing polonaises (the dresses themselves) made with paniers (side hoops). The Paris correspondent noted that they were as popular as walking dresses because “they are both convenient and economical wear, for it is not imperative they should always match the skirt the accompany.” They were worn “drawn away below the waist in front, curtain fashion, while at the back the drapery is arranged to look as bouffant as possible.” It was important that the flounced skirt had either ruche or kilting at the edge. No concessions to possible heat here!

Outdoor costumes involved even more items of clothing, including gloves, hats and parasols:

Outdoor Costumes – What to Wear in June (Cassell’s Family Magazine, 1885)

These elegant dresses were ‘washing costumes’ made of sateens and cambrics that were easier to wash than fabrics like silk. The dresses had “demi-long sleeves sewn in high at the shoulders, bunchy paniers, and rich embroideries”. The two dresses for adults on the right were “equipped for travelling in soft, light woollens, of which there is an ample choice this summer in both Paris and London.”

The column did offer a small amount of warm weather advice: “Some wonderful parasols are now keeping off the slow-coming summer sun; some have row upon row of red lace, some have stripes of moire and satin, some are of crocheted straw, but the prettiest are large and entirely white, with fall upon fall of lace.”

The writer also advised that for country wear, “small-spotted gauze veils are very much in vogue, and for travelling we could not do better than copy our American cousins, who tie a gauze veil entirely over the hat or bonnet, so that all dust is excluded.”

You can see beautiful Victorian dresses like this at the Fashion Museum in Bath and the V & A in London.

VICTORIAN SHOPPING – SHOPGIRLS AT THE DRAPER’S

If you visit Victorian England right at the end of Queen Victoria’s reign, a look inside one of the luxurious department stores or draper’s emporiums is highly recommended. From the 1880s, shopping had become a leisure pursuit for the wealthy and the largest drapery stores, especially in London, employed hundreds of staff to cater to the needs of their clientele.

By 1900, female shop assistants, or ‘shopgirls’, had become extremely important to the success of the draper’s emporiums, not least because most of the customers were women. The best establishments often had upwards of 250 young ladies working for them; it was their job to dress the windows of their departments and deal with the customers when they came in.   

When Mrs Belloc-Lowndes wrote her article on ‘London’s Drapers’ for Living London (1901), she commented that:

“The best-looking young lady assistants are generally to be found in the millinery department; for human nature being what it is, many a middle-aged plain customer will the more willingly invest in a hat when she has seen it gracefully poised above the pretty face of the young lady who has been told to attend to her wants.”

‘A cash desk’ from Living London (1901)

If a customer had an account and was known to the assistant, the amount of her purchase was simply debited to her; otherwise, she was asked to pay ready cash or to pay on delivery. This was taken advantage of by some ladies and “one type of customer whom the experienced saleswoman can detect almost at a glance” would order a great number of things to be paid for on delivery and then instruct her parlourmaid or butler to refuse the parcels when they arrived the same evening or the next morning.

The busiest times of day were from 12 to 1 o’clock and from 3 to 5 o’clock which meant that meals for the shop assistants in the larger emporiums had to be staggered with five different times. Half an hour was allowed for dinner and twenty minutes for tea. It was more difficult to find time for meals when the bi-annual sales weeks just after Christmas and at midsummer were taking place.

‘Sale Day at Peter Robinson’s’ from Living London (1901)

At the end of the working day, the young lady shop assistants had the whole evening for leisure, unlike, for instance, domestic servants. They also had Saturday afternoons from two o’clock. However, according to Mrs Belloc-Lowndes, in the largest drapery emporiums, they were “not allowed to go out from Saturday to Monday unless they can show a letter from their parents authorising them to do so, and stating where they are going.” They were, however, provided with pleasant sitting-rooms and plenty of books and games. 

‘A Workroom in a Draper’s’ from Living London (1901)

Unseen by the public, women also toiled in the workroom which was a very busy department of a drapery emporium. Before the 1870s, ladies preferred to buy their materials and have them made up at home or by their own dressmakers. By 1900, the sale of made-up goods was the largest and most profitable side of the drapery business. It was important to be able to alter bodices and skirts to fit the figure of every customer.   

From the cash desk and shopfloor through to the workroom, women were vital to the success of the large drapery establishments. Take the opportunity to do some shopping in Victorian England and watch these talented females at work!

WHAT TO WEAR: OCTOBER 1885

While researching my forthcoming book, A Visitor’s Guide to Victorian England, I came across hundreds of fascinating stories in newspapers, contemporary periodicals and original sources. Many of them did not make it into the book so I’d like to share them with you on this blog.

One of the most interesting aspects of Victorian England is the fashion, probably because it’s so different to modern-day clothing. In fact, I first became interested in this period in history after having fun dressing up in replica Victorian costumes at Morwellham Quay in Devon.

Then, as now, young ladies liked to wear up-to-the-minute clothing and they pored over fashion plates in magazines straight from Paris. One of the regular features in Cassell’s Family Magazine was ‘What to Wear: Chit-Chat on Dress From Our Paris Correspondent’. The writer offers highly detailed, no-nonsense advice to look good on a budget. Here are some of her suggestions for October 1885:

“If any of you are in doubt about a becoming, useful and dressy autumn gown, let me advise you to choose a grey beige. Have a habit bodice bordered with close-set rows of silver braid, and a waistcoat of silver braid; arrange the skirt with wide box-plaiting, having seven rows of the braid an inch from the edge, and draperies above bordered in the same way. You will then have a gown that will stand any amount of wear and tear, that will wash like a piece of calico, and cannot fail to be ladylike and in good style.”

Here’s a pic from the article:

Cassell’s Family Magazine, October 1885

You’ll notice that the style of dress in the mid 1880s created an hourglass silhouette. The writer of the article stressed that dresses “should fit glove-tight, and to effect this, and begin at the beginning, the stays must be good.” Another option was to “wear inside the lower portion of the stay a semi-circular nickel plate, which is supposed to compress backwards, and not downwards, and therefore is less hurtful.”

To me, wearing stays (or corsets) still sounds downright uncomfortable! It might be why the lady on the left of the picture below holding the ball can’t bend down…

Cassell’s Family Magazine, October 1885