During the Victorian era, yellow was believed to be the color most similar to light. With shades ranging from the palest butter to the liveliest lemon, it was suitable for morning dresses, day dresses, evening gowns, and seaside wear. Fashion magazines and color experts of the day recommended restricting clear, bright yellows to spring and summer. However, shades of yellow could be seen in fashionable dress throughout the year, often in the form of gloves, a decorative fan, a frilly parasol, or a stylish hat. In today’s article, we look at some of the loveliest examples of the color yellow in Victorian fashion.
In his 1870 book Color in Dress, author George Audsley calls yellow “the color nearest approaching to light.” As such, he advises that true, brilliant yellow should be used quite sparingly in dress lest it overpower its wearer. Instead, he recommends that Victorian ladies wear a modified hue of yellow, such as gold, maize, or primrose. Soft, buttery yellows could also be flattering, as illustrated by the 1868 dinner dress below.
Yellow was considered to be particularly becoming to brunettes and ladies with black hair as it neutralized the yellow and orange undertones in their skin, thereby whitening and brightening the complexion. In fact, and 1855 article in Godey’s Lady’s Book state that, for brunettes with orange undertones, “there is no color superior to yellow.” The below 1844 dress of bright yellow printed cotton would have been an excellent choice for a dark-haired Victorian lady.
For fair blondes, Audsley calls true yellow a color that is “particularly to be avoided.” Deeper and darker shades of yellow, such as gold and maize, were much more flattering to blondes, especially when combined with other complementary shades. The below 1892 evening dress by the House of Worth may have been a good option for a fair Victorian blonde as it leans more toward gold.
Yellow harmonized with a variety of colors, including shades of purple, brown, red, blue, and black. Yellow was also often paired with white as an accent color in the form of ribbons or trim. The below dress combines shades of yellow and gold with black lace to magnificent effect.
According to Audsley, “The effect of yellow upon the mind is of a bright, gay, gladdening nature, owing to its likeness to light, both natural and artificial.” It was a cheerful color which Audsley claims was best suited for “spring and early summer.” Below is a detail image of an 1887 House of Worth ball gown. I encourage you to click through to the Met Museum website so you can see additional views of the delicate butterfly fabric. (For more on the use of butterflies in Victorian fashion, see my article HERE.)
Yellow could be a bit tricky to wear. A lady must not only choose the correct shade for her complexion and for the season, she must also choose the correct shade for the time of day. The 1897 edition of Hill’s Manual of Social and Business Forms, exhorts its readers to remember that though white and yellow was flattering at night, the color combination was “unbecoming by day.” Conversely, pale shades of yellow, which were handsome in the daytime, became “muddy in appearance by gaslight.” The bold, golden yellow used in the 1880s dress below is one example of a shade that was suitable for evening.
Yellow was not a common color for everyday women’s boots and slippers, however, as the 19th century came to a close, many ladies began to don brightly colored evening slippers with their evening dresses. Among these, shades of yellow were well-represented. The below evening slippers from the 1890s are a perfect example of just how striking a pair of bright yellow shoes could be.
Evening slippers were generally made of silk satin and often featured decorative beadwork or ribbon bows (as seen above). The below evening slippers are made of yellow silk satin with glass bead embroidery and rhinestones.
Yellow gloves were fashionable throughout the 19th century. However, in the Victorian era, yellow kid gloves were more often seen on men than on women. For ladies, an 1894 edition of Godey’s Lady’s Book states that, though there may be “fanciful and striking colors” available in gloves, “as a rule women of good taste prefer tans, russets, and light golden browns to the more glaring shades.” Below is a pair of 1870s evening gloves in a subdued shade of butter yellow.
Yellow ribbons and flowers were popular trimmings for Victorian era hats. When combined with a hat of a darker color, such as deep blue or black, the effect could be quite striking. The below sunbonnet from 1842 shows how dramatic a darker straw hat could look when accented with yellow.
Not all yellow hats were as dramatic as the one pictured above. Shades of yellow could also be delicate and quite feminine. As an example, consider the below bonnet of golden yellow silk, horsehair, and straw.
Shades of yellow were also used in women’s undergarments, such as stockings and corsets. The below corset from 1880 pairs yellow with black.
Yellow fans could be quite fashionable, especially when made to complement a lady’s evening dress. Victorian fans came in many different varieties. There were painted fans, feather fans, and fans decorated with sequins and spangles. Below is a particularly striking fan made of pierced yellow horn sticks accented with painted polychrome floral motifs.
For the Victorian lady seeking a piece of yellow jewelry, a pale topaz or citrine set in gold was both fashionable and affordable. The below brooch from the early 19th century is made of gold filigree and set with a large citrine accompanied by smaller emeralds and rubies.
If citrines were not to her taste, a Victorian lady might adorn herself with yellow diamonds or yellow sapphires. Yellow diamonds were rather expensive. By contrast, yellow sapphires—though still very brilliant—were actually quite affordable. Below is a 19th century yellow sapphire ring set in gold.
A FEW FINAL WORDS…
There is no one color that fully represents the Victorian era. However, I hope the above has given you some idea of how yellow was used in Victorian women’s fashion. For a refresher on the shades of Victorian fashion that we have already covered, the previous articles in my series are available here:
In future, I’ll be profiling other popular shades of the era. Until then, I leave you with the following wise words on color from George Audsley:
“Beauty is often diminished by an improper selection and arrangement of the hues of the dress, while an increase of the natural charms may always be secured by the artistic application and grouping of harmonizing tints.”
Audsley, George Ashdown. Color in Dress: A Manual for Ladies. Philadelphia: George Maclean, 1870.
Chevreul, M. E. The Laws of Contrast of Colour. London: Routledge, Warne, and Routledge, 1861.
“Choice of Colors in Dress; Or, How a Lady May Become Good Looking.” Godey’s Lady’s Book. Philadelphia: Louis A. Godey, 1855.
Emanuel, Harry. Diamonds and Precious Stones: Their History, Value, and Distinguishing Characteristics. London: John Camden, 1867.
Godey’s Lady’s Book. Philadelphia: Louis A. Godey, 1894.
Hill, Thos. The New Revised Hill’s Manual of Social and Business Forms. Chicago: W. B. Conkey Company, 1897.
A Victorian Lady’s Guide to Fashion and Beauty
What did a Victorian lady wear for a walk in the park? How did she style her hair for an evening at the theatre? And what products might she have used to soothe a sunburn or treat an unsightly blemish? Mimi Matthews answers these questions and more as she takes readers on a decade-by-decade journey through Victorian fashion and beauty history. Find out more…
© 2015-2019 Mimi Matthews
For exclusive information on upcoming book releases, giveaways, and other special treats, subscribe to Mimi’s newsletter THE PENNY NOT SO DREADFUL.