Fashions in the Victorian era were constricting, modest, ornate and still loved today
It isn’t unusual to see Beaumont resident Brian Shajari dressed nicely. Shajari wearing informal clothing is more the aberration.
“You will never find me in shorts and a T-shirt,” he said. “I always try to look sharp and presentable.”
Shajari loves Victorian men’s fashion because it looks clean and professional and a look the U.S. Coast Guard reservist is comfortable with because he has served for almost 20 years. He likes to wear a suit three or four times a week, he said.
Victorian era men’s fashion set the standard for modern American men’s formal fashion. Aside from a few quirky aspects, it largely is still fashionable and allows locals to connect with their families and Galveston’s history.
Men’s fashion hasn’t changed a lot, said Anne Boyd, who was Queen Victoria for 26 years in Dickens on The Strand, a Galveston festival celebrating the Victorian era. But there are some features that made Victorian men’s fashion different, Boyd said.
Men liked to replace their shirt buttons with gems and stones, such as pearls and gold-designed stones to signal their wealth, Boyd said.
Men and women didn’t have shoes specifically for the left or right foot — though that was changing in the Victorian era — and men liked to wear pocket watches, Boyd said. Pants were slimmer at the ankle, never flared, she added.
Men and women wore dark colors so dirt wouldn’t show on their clothes, Boyd said. If men and women needed to wash their clothes, they would have to take them apart and sew them back together, she said. Men’s fashion today is much less complicated, she added.
“Men’s clothes now are better made and not as restrictive as Victorian clothing,” Boyd said. “The fabrics are much more flexible, diverse and care is easy. Victorian clothing is not comfortable.”
Will Wright, chief creative officer for the Galveston Historical Foundation, the organizer of Dickens on The Strand, has participated in the festival for more than 12 years and is comfortable with Victorian men’s fashion, he said. There isn’t much he doesn’t enjoy about it, he said.
He likes the handkerchiefs, bowties and pocket watches, he said, adding he still wears ascots and cravats.
But what he loves most is seeing his 6-year-old son, Dean, develop a similar passion for Victorian fashion.
“He loves wearing Victorian clothes,” he said. “It’s cool to watch him have so much fun with it.”
Shajari has a personal, familial connection with Victorian men’s fashion because his family migrated to Galveston and lived on the island during the Victorian era.
Wearing his handmade British uniform and Victorian suit with a tailcoat and waistcoat pants allows him be a part of his family’s history and preserve his heritage, Shajari said.
More Galvestonians embracing Victorian fashion by dressing up will have the same effect, he said.
“It’s all about keeping our past alive in Galveston,” he said. “Victorian fashion gives us the chance to appreciate what we have.”
– Myer Lee
Although the reign of Victoria saw great strides in energy, science and technology, the era widely is celebrated for its fashion. Wardrobes of American women, especially those of higher social stations, historically were dictated by Europe, mostly France and England. Whenever possible, the wardrobes of the middle and lower classes echoed those of high society.
When Queen Victoria ascended the throne in 1837, modesty ruled. The religious, social and moral values of the time were strict and women’s fashions were equally constricting.
“Girls and young women to a certain age wore round cut bodices with mature women favoring buttoned-up designs, above floor-length skirts,” said J’Nean Henderson of The Victorian Lady in League City. “A lady never showed her bosom during the day. All women wore layers and layers of undergarments and her legs were never bare.”
Henderson has created more than 1,000 costumes from the era and enjoys hosting historic fashion shows and afternoon teas, she said. In the years of 1837-55, multiple layers of petticoats were worn underneath dresses to create the full skirt, she said.
“It was not uncommon for ladies to wear five to seven layers of undergarments,” Henderson said. “Clothes were not made for comfort and you could not just put on a dress and have it look proper. Dressing was an art form.”
Corsets remained popular throughout the era and were used to contour the popular hour-glass figure.
“Anyone who has worn a corset will tell you how constricting it can be at first,” Henderson said. “Victorian women bound themselves so tightly at times, it restricted their breathing. Hence the use of the fainting sofa and smelling salts.” Eventually, the corset contoured to a woman’s figure, becoming like a second skin, she said.
“This is an item that a lady would never borrow nor lend,” she said.
Petticoats were less popular with the invention of hoop skirts, freeing up legs from cumbersome layers of undergarments, but adding a layer of restriction for sitting and moving about.
If a woman fell down while wearing a hoop skirt, the bottom might go over her head, exposing undergarments, Henderson said. Afterward, the bustle-back gown gained popularity and women’s undergarments evolved to the first-ever panties.
“Women changed dresses all day long,” Henderson said. “There was a different dress for every activity. They didn’t run around all day, here and there as we do today. They had social obligations and there were always reasons for leaving the home.”
There was a less formal “wrapper,” or day dress, for home wear, Henderson said. Daytime “toilettes,” such as tea gowns, were popular to wear for visiting. And elaborate, less demure ball gowns were worn for formal evenings, she said.
Of course, the wealthier the household, the more ornate the wardrobe.
“Wealthy and poor women dressed very differently,” said biographer Lucinda Hawksley, the great-great-great-granddaughter of the famed Victorian novelist Charles Dickens. “Textiles varied massively, as did the style of dress.”
Hawksley lives in London but has traveled stateside 10 times to participate in Dickens on The Strand in Galveston where locals and visitors wear top hats, hoop skirts and revel in the Victorian style.
“Clothes worn by working women needed to be practical, whereas wealthy women — who were not allowed to work — could wear very frivolous and detailed styles of fashion.” Hawksley said. “A person’s status in life, the part of the country they came from and their background was often easily discernible by their clothing.”
As the political, social and economic environments of the time changed, so, too, did women’s fashion.
“Women’s clothing changed greatly from the start to the end of Queen Victoria’s reign, partly through the vagaries of fashion, but especially through the women’s suffrage movement,” Hawksley said. “Also, the dress reform movement campaigned for women to stop wearing tight corsets, crinolines, bustles and cripplingly high shoes.”
Advances in the steam engine led way to a railway boom in America and travel to seaside towns like Galveston became more popular. Galveston was a Victorian playground for the rich and wealthy during this time and their clothing reflected the warmer climates of the upper Texas coast.
Lighter linen suits were worn in the warmer weather to promenade. Bathing and sporting clothes became popular at the beach. According to historians, horse-drawn carriages would back into the water and women would be “released” into the sea where they did not actually swim. The first beach clothing had so much material, women could drown in them, both Henderson and Hawksley agreed.
“They splattered about for fun and to cool off,” Henderson said.
The costumes might have had shorter skirts in later years, but a woman’s legs were never bare, Hawksley said. Even in bathing costumes, women wore stockings, she said.
To further keep the appearance of modesty, women and children always bathed separately from the men, Hawksley said.
Accessories, such as wreaths of silk flowers and leaves worn in the hair, as well as fans, embroidered bags and gloves, were popular. Shoes weren’t generally ornate as exposing the ankle was considered overtly sexual, although some sported a high heel to lift hemlines while walking on muddy streets. Victorian ladies never left home without a hat, Henderson said. And the hats could be more diverse than the dresses, she said.
Women gained freedom when the bicycle became popular — freedom from their chaperones and also in their manner of dress. For bicycling or sports, clothing was lighter and made of less inhibiting materials and ladies wore bloomers underneath that made movement easier. Like travel, though, sports activities were limited to the wealthiest of families.
By the late 1800s, young America was rife with raw materials and industrialization. The advent of sewing machines, mass production of clothing, development of department stores and a movement toward women’s political freedoms ushered more modern changes to feminine attire.
Queen Victoria reigned from 1837, at the age of 18, to her death in 1901. There were staggering amounts of innovations during those nearly 64 years and the style of clothing reflected the changing times. A modern-day woman can take a tour of a Victorian home on Galveston Island, such as Bishop’s Palace or Ashton Villa, to easily transport them back to that time. But they won’t be required to wear 27 pounds of clothing while doing so.
– Esther Davis McKenna