The term "Victorian fashion" refers to fashion in clothing in the Victorian era, or the reign of Queen Victoria (1837–1901). It is strictly used only with regard to the United Kingdom and its colonies, but is often used loosely to refer to Western fashions of the period. It may also refer to a supposedly unified style in clothing, home décor, manners, and morals, or a culture, said to be prevalent in the West during this period.
Those who have studied the period in detail would protest vacuous generalizations. Clothing, décor, manners, and morals varied from year to year, country to country, and class to class. Whether or not there is a style or unified culture connecting a Scottish fisherwoman, for example, and an aristocratic London lady, might well be debated.
If we carefully restrict our language, however, and take Victorian fashion to refer to the dress, or in a wider sense, the culture of an upper-middle-class London family of fashion and conventional attitudes, and describe it as it varied from decade to decade, we may be able to usefully describe these phenomena. We can also usefully speak of contemporary stereotypes of the Victorian era. These stereotypes, while not historically valid, help us understand current uses of the term "Victorian".
Methods of clothing production and distribution varied enormously over the course of Victoria's long reign.
In 1837, cloth was manufactured (in the mill towns of northern England, Scotland, and Ireland) but clothing was generally custom-made by seamstresses, milliners, tailors, hatters, glovers, corsetiers, and many other specialized tradespeople, who served a local clientele in small shops. Families who could not afford to patronize specialists, made their own clothing, or bought and modified used clothing.
By 1907, clothing was increasingly factory-made and sold in large, fixed price department stores. Custom sewing and home sewing were still significant, but on the decline.
New machinery and materials changed clothing in many ways.
The introduction of the lock-stitch sewing machine in mid-century simplified both home and boutique dressmaking, and enabled a fashion for lavish application of trim that would have been prohibitively time-consuming if done by hand. Lace machinery made lace at a fraction of the cost of the old, laborious methods.
New materials from far-flung British colonies gave rise to new types of clothing (such as rubber making gumboots and mackintoshes possible). Chemists developed new, cheap, bright dyes that displaced the old animal or vegetable dyes.
Women's fashionable clothing began with a straight, Regency silhouette, bloomed into exaggerated skirts and sleeves, moved to small shoulders and even wider skirts supported by crinolines or hoops, and narrowed by way of the bustle to hobble skirts.
Charles Frederick Worth, the "father of haute couture" and the prototype of the fashion designer as the dictator of modes, was a London draper who relocated to Paris in the 1840s. His success led to the fall of Paris fashion houses as arbiters of style and the preferred clothiers for upper-class women in both Britain and US.
Reactions to the elaborate confections of French fashion led to various calls for reform on the grounds of both beauty (Artistic and Aesthetic dress) and health (dress reform). Arthur Lasenby Liberty challenged the dominance of French fashion when he showed English gowns in Paris at the end of the century.
Charles Eastlake's Hints on Household Tastes in Furniture, Upholstery and other Details (1868) attempted to educate the middle class on the proper artistic decoration of homes, which required "taste" rather than lavish expenditure.
Lytton Strachey's 1918 book of biographical essays, Eminent Victorians, is an amusing but acerbic attack on a constellation of attitudes that Strachey believed to be “Victorian”. He was expressing the attitude of his time, in which forward-thinking men and women despised the staid, prim, proper, and fusty era just past. To a great extent, contemporary stereotypes of "Victorian fashion" carry on the Strachey tradition of seeing the period as a whole.
For most, the Victorian period is still a by-word for sexual repression. Men's clothing is seen as formal and stiff, women's as fussy and over-done. Clothing covered the entire body, we are told, and even the glimpse of an ankle was scandalous. Critics contend that corsets constricted women's bodies and women's lives. Homes are described as gloomy, dark, cluttered with massive and over-ornate furniture and proliferating bric-a-brac. Myth has it that even piano legs were scandalous, and covered with tiny pantalettes.
Of course, much of this is untrue, or a gross exaggeration. Men's formal clothing may have been less colorful than it was in the previous century, but brilliant waistcoats and cummerbunds provided a touch of color, and smoking jackets and dressing gowns were often of rich Oriental brocades. Corsets stressed a woman's sexuality, exaggerating hips and bust by contrast with a tiny waist. Women's ball gowns bared the shoulders and the tops of the breasts. The tight-fitting jersey dresses of the 1880s may have covered the body, but they left little to the imagination.
Home furnishing was not necessarily ornate or overstuffed. However, those who could afford lavish draperies and expensive ornaments, and wanted to display their wealth, would often do so. Since the Victorian era was one of extreme social mobility, there were ever more nouveaux riches making a rich show.
The items used in decoration may also have been darker and heavier than those used today, simply as a matter of practicality. London was noisy and its air was full of soot from countless coal fires. Hence those who could afford it draped their windows in heavy, sound-muffling curtains, and chose colors that didn't show soot quickly. When all washing was done by hand, curtains were not washed as frequently as they might be today.
There is no actual evidence that piano legs were considered scandalous. Pianos and tables were often draped with shawls or cloths -- but if the shawls hid anything, it was the cheapness of the furniture. There are references to lower-middle-class families covering up their pine tables rather than show that they couldn't afford mahogany. The piano leg story seems to have originated in Captain Frederick Marryat's 1839 book, Diary in America, as a satirical comment on American prissiness.
Victorian manners, however, may have been as strict as imagined -- on the surface. One simply did not speak publicly about sex, childbirth, and such matters, at least in the respectable middle and upper classes. However, as is well known, discretion covered a multitude of sins. Prostitution flourished. Upper-class men and women indulged in adulterous liaisons. Then of course there were the artists and bohemians, as well as the lower classes.
Also notable is a contemporary counter-cultural trend called steampunk. Youth who dress steampunk wear Victorian-style clothing that has been "tweaked" in edgy ways: tattered, distorted, melded with Goth, Punk, and Rivet styles. Another example of Victorian fashion being incorporated into a contemporary style is the Gothic Lolita culture.