In women’s magazines today, we often see lists of summer vacation “must haves.” These lists usually include such hot weather essentials as swimsuits, sunscreen, and a romance novel or two to read at the beach. But what about ladies in the Victorian era? By the end of the 19th century, beach holidays were certainly on the rise. However, our Victorian sisters met the heat without benefit of air conditioning, skimpy clothing, or sun protection. What did they have instead? In today’s article, we look at a few fashion, beauty, and novel necessities for a 19th century summer.
Summer Day Dresses
A suitable day dress was a must for hot summer weather. In her 1870 book The Art of Dressing Well, author S. A. Frost states that “the most beautiful and useful of summer fabrics is a fine quality of linen lawn.” Cotton, cambric, muslin, gauze, and other light, airy fabrics were also quite popular. Below is a lovely summer day dress from 1872. It is made of sheer, floral printed cotton.
It was not uncommon to see summer day dresses of solid white. Equally fashionable were soft prints, stripes, and light colors such as green, lavender, and pale blue. The day dress below is a blue striped cotton gauze from 1874.
Trimmings on Victorian summer day dresses were generally minimal. For example, the two white cotton day dresses below are trimmed with brightly colored silk satin ribbon and little else.
Though smaller hats (like the one seen in the image at above right) were very fashionable during the Victorian era, a wide-brimmed hat was far better suited to protecting a lady’s face from the sun. For summer, straw or reed hats were a perfect option. They were usually trimmed fairly simply and could be worn at the beach or while playing outdoor games like golf or tennis.
As an alternative to a wide-brimmed hat, a Victorian lady might wear a large, broad-brimmed leghorn bonnet. Below is a yellow leghorn straw bonnet from 1840. It is trimmed with green ribbon and artificial flowers.
For those ladies wishing to protect their complexions from the sun, a parasol was another stylish summer accessory. Below is an 1867 fashion grouping featuring a gentleman’s suit, a lady’s summer day dress, and a plain silk parasol.
In contrast to plainly trimmed straw hats, parasols could be quite luxurious. They were frequently made in silks and satins with elaborately carved handles of ivory or wood. Below is one of my favorites—a late 19th century parasol of green and cream silk taffeta with an ivory handle.
A Victorian lady embarking on her summer holiday via a crowded coach or train, would likely have taken a carriage parasol. Popularized by Queen Victoria in the mid-19th century, carriage parasols were made with a hinge in the middle of the handle so that they could fold up for ease of travel. Below is a silk carriage parasol with a handle made in the shape of a bird’s claw grasping a ball.
Not every Victorian lady had the luxury of a seaside holiday during the hot summer weather, but for those that did, The Art of Dressing Well recommends that bathing dresses be made of “fine flannel” and “trimmed with a worsted braid of fast colors.” Wool was also a common fabric for lady’s swimwear, as illustrated by the 1875 twilled wool bathing ensemble below.
Though still a long way from a 20th century bikini, by the end of the 19th century, bathing dresses were becoming a bit less cumbersome. For example, when compared to the 1870s wool bathing dress at below left, the 1890 twilled wool bathing costume at below right looks almost modern!
Summer Skin care
If wide-brimmed hats and summer parasols failed to protect a Victorian lady from sun damage, there were various lotions and potions available to repair her complexion. To fade freckles and unsightly suntans, ladies employed strawberry water or Gowland’s Lotion. To soothe sunburns, they bathed their faces in fresh milk or cream. An emulsion of almonds could also be used in cases of sunburn. Beeton’s 1871 Dictionary of Practical Recipes and Every-Day Information offers the following recipe.
There were no designated beach books in the Victorian era, but for ladies of the 19th century, a good sensation novel was always great fun. One of the first, and most well known, of the era was The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins (1859). Another thrilling sensation novel was Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon. Published in 1862, it features murder, insanity, and accidental bigamy!
A Few Final Words…
Above are just a few of the items I consider to be essential for a 19th century summer holiday, but this list is far from complete. For one thing, not all summers were scorching hot. For another, even on holiday a Victorian lady would need more than day dresses, straw hats, and a swimming costume. If you would like to learn more about other styles of dress, I encourage you to consult the 19th Century Fashion and Beauty tab at the top of my site. I’ve also included a few relevant fashion links below.
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