Look Back in Style: Evolution of Victorian Fashion in the US and UK

by Karen

     Fashion is part of the daily air and it changes all the time, with all the events. You can even see the approaching of a revolution in clothes. You can see and feel everything in clothes.
—Diana Vreeland

Truer words have seldom been said about fashion. Contextualizing Victorian Fashion over the ages tells us how much it has been a lovechild of the social and cultural changes of the century. While regional differences played their role in differentiating fashion in the US from UK and the rest of Europe, there’s only one factor that tied both together: evolution.

Demure to Daring: Victorian Fashion in the UK from the Early 1800s to Swinging Sixties

At the onset, Victorian Fashion for both ladies and gentlemen was all about weaving conservative standards of morality into the style of clothing. So, while women would don stiff, back-breaking bodices with skirts laid over multiple layers of starched petticoats, men would be seen in short lounge jackets and wide-legged trousers.

But there was more to men’s fashion than that. It was roughly around this time that ‘Beau’ Brummell introduced tailored and fitted suits to men’s clothing.

Demure and ostentatious, early to mid-1800s Victorian fashion in the UK kept clothing over-the-top, high-necked, and stiff.

But the Industrial Revolution and subsequent mushrooming of factories led to the rise of readymade clothing. The socio-political changes at the turn of the century were also getting reflected in the style of clothing. Bell-shaped skirts with cinched waists, long sleeves, and high collars became popular. It was around this time that steel-wired crinolines replaced the burly petticoats.

Thanks to commercial sewing machines, women’s skirts underwent a sea of change, including pleated trimmings. Various shades of green dominated the color palette, courtesy of aniline dyes. Bonnets gave away to fashionable hats with plumes, feathers, and even lace decorations.

Morning clothing varied starkly from evening wear. The latter was marked by short sleeves and deep necklines, too risque a departure from the early 1800 Victorian dress code.

1800 Victorian dress

Because women started exploring every other section of the society which they never got a chance to frequent before, menswear influenced womenswear. A-line skirts with blousons tailored to a men’s fit became more and more common. Sweater vests with gigot sleeves were a common choice among women who enjoyed playing outdoor sports, like tennis, golf, etc.

A continuous stream of changes in skirt lengths, sleeves, necklines, and hemlines continued till the 1940s. The advent of the second world war brought with it a strict system of clothes rationing. This not only affected the fashion industry at large but even made affording clothes a luxury.

Victorian Fashion in the UK from the Early 1800s to Swinging Sixties

The Second World War and Rationing of Clothes

As the Allied and Axis forces locked horns, the clothing industry suffered an acute shortage of everything: from materials and dyes to buttons, threads, zippers, etc. Clothes were rationed where you could only buy a certain piece of clothing for a specified number of coupons.

A simple women’s dress was valued at 11 coupons while a pair of trousers and a shirt for men could be bought for 8. The war began with a quota of 66 coupons per adult per year. As the days rolled past, the supply of coupons suffered a steep decline.

So, while readymade fashion suffered, Make Do and Mend campaigns inspired people to come up with ingenious designs. An individualistic sense of style flourished. Many people started making dresses with furnishing fabrics, like curtains, etc. Knitting and homemade jewelry became all the rage.

Another interesting fashion accessory that became quite popular was luminous pin-on flowers, buttons, even hats. These glow-in-the-dark items were Britain’s answer to blackouts that became prevalent to evade bombings by Germans.

Luminous pin-on flowers, buttons and hats clothes

In hindsight, fashion during clothes rationing was subdued, but not dead. Both men's and women’s clothing focused on functionality over tongue-in-cheek style. That was a marked departure from Victorian opulence.

Post World War 2 Extravaganza

However, this frugal form of style died a sudden and unexpected death in the years following the end of the war. In fact, designer houses like Christian Dior started using an overwhelming amount of fabric to design coasts with cinched waists and calf-length skirts that would go on to define The New Look of the era.
Simple silhouettes with dresses that ended a good 6 to 7 inches above the knee followed suit. That’s how Victorian fashion evolved between the 19th to 20th centuries in the UK.

Victorian fashion evolved between the 19th to 20th centuries in the UK

But what was going on in the US? Something certainly interesting, which we shall now find out.

Inspired by Europe, American in Essence: Victorian Fashion in the US

When Europe was witnessing its own set of changes, the US was experiencing rising tensions between abolitionists and supporters of slavery. The fashion of the time was very indicative of which side of the battle people were on.
While men’s fashion was heavily influenced by the trends of London, women’s fashion borrowed from Parisian style ethics. Think of bell-shaped flouncy skirts, held in place by layers of crinoline petticoats with corsets that were tight enough to knock the breath out of someone.

Men, on the other hand, donned coordinated sets of vests, trousers, and jackets. But the “sack coat” was also favored. Such coats were relatively loose-fitting and would often reach up to mid-thigh in length.

However, the coming of the Civil War drastically changed such a high Victorian style of clothing into something that was slightly outrageous for the times. Shirts with buttons down the front, sloping shoulders flared sleeves, and lace collars became more and more common. Single-breasted jackets replaced double-breasted ones in men’s fashion.

As the years progressed, fashion in the US made a very discernible shift towards form-fitting clothes and bodycon dresses. Such clothing was accentuated with petite hats that women would wear clipped on their hair. Men would take to pairing neckties with casually open jackets, ditching the very Victorian cravat.

Victorian Fashion in the US

Such small but peculiar changes affected Victorian fashion in the US till the end of the 1800s.

However, the 20th century had something else in store.

20th Century and Its Rebellion of Style

The very onset of the 20th century in America saw increasing momentum for women’s suffrage movements. These movements brought their own share of changes to women’s clothing which freed itself from the shackles of Victorian morality.

Corsets fell out of fashion as skirt hemlines kept riding upwards and upwards. Harem pants emerged as one of the new favorites, as did ankle-length trousers. Such changes were also reflected in men’s fashion where shorter hemlines were all the rage.

This era of rebellious fashion that was no longer under the shadow of Victorian-European dictates. It translated into something purely American in essence. From formal, fashion made its foray into casuals.
Gingham, plaid, and vertical stripes became common in women’s clothing. Sweaters and sweater vests replaced three-piece suits when it came to menswear.

Androgynous fashion, inspired by sportswear, was in vogue. Unlike the UK and the rest of Europe, American fashion evolved to blur gender boundaries in the early 1900s.

The Flapper Girl: The Quintessential Fashion Icon

But the 1920s saw the emergence of flapper style, perhaps the single-most defining moment in the history of US fashion in the early 1900s. Characterized by bejeweled dresses with low cut necklines, strings of pearls, ruby lips — the Flapper girl was a sight to behold. She was bold, confident, and independent, a new-age woman unafraid of anything.

1920s flapper style

America broke free from the stereotypes of Victorian fashion and the influences of Europe at this time, almost to never look back any time soon.

But as the evolution in Victorian fashion between 1800s to mid 1900s suggest, fashion became a carrier of much more than style. It was a reflection of all that was changing in the world back then.

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