Shades of Victorian Fashion: Cerulean, Mazarine, Navy, and Blue

Individual Collage Images via Met Museum.

During the nineteenth century, blue was considered a versatile color, as suitable for elegant evening gowns and demure day dresses as it was for fashionable bonnets, slippers, and parasols. In shades ranging from the palest cerulean blue to the deepest navy, it adorned women of every age and every station, harmonizing with a wide range of hair colors and complexions. In today’s article, we look at some of the loveliest examples of the color blue in Victorian fashion.

*Please note: Deep blues were generally achieved with aniline dye.  Invented in 1856, aniline dye produced a wider range of color than natural blue dyes like indigo. 

GOWNS

In his 1870 book Color in Dress, author George Audsley describes blue as “a cold and retiring color…symbolical of divinity, intelligence, sincerity, and tenderness.” It could be worn in any season and, in its deepest and richest shades, was thought to be particularly flattering to ruddy blondes (i.e. those which Audsley describes as having “dark blue or brown eyes and brown hair”).

1865 French Evening Ensemble.
(Cincinnati Art Museum)

For fair blondes, Audsley advises using lighter shades of blue such as sky blue or turquoise. The reasoning behind this was that light and medium blue were “the perfect contrast of orange,” thus helping to emphasize the “very pleasing” hints of gold and orange in a fair blonde’s hair and complexion. In fact, in her 1872 book Hints on Dress, author Ethel Gale claims that, “of the primitive colors,” these lighter shades of blue were the only ones that a fair blonde could wear—at least, up until the age of fifty, at which point Gale directs the fair blonde to stick to blacks and whites.

1867 Depret Silk Dress.
(Met Museum)

Victorian era opinions differed on whether blue was a flattering color for those with dark brown or black hair. An 1855 edition of Peterson’s Magazine declares that the color blue was completely unsuitable for brunettes. While Gale states that, for vivid brunettes (i.e. those with warm complexions and dark brown or black hair), a “bright and decided” shade of blue was always flattering.

1870 Silk Dress.
(Met Museum)

Audsley appears to concur with Gale’s opinion. He directs pale brunettes (i.e. those with fair complexions and dark brown hair) toward the deepest, darkest shades of blue, advising that the nearer the shade was to black, the more suitable it became to a pale brunette’s complexion.

1881 Dress.(Met Museum)
1881 Dress.
(Met Museum)

For ladies with red hair, an 1858 edition of Godey’s Lady’s Book reports that “almost all shades of blue are becoming, especially ‘mazarine blue,’ for morning, and a somewhat lighter shade for evening dress.” Mazarine blue is a very deep, rich blue, almost purple in appearance.

1876 Silk Dinner Dress.
(via Met Museum)

Shades of blue could be worn at any time of day. However, for evening wear, both light and dark blues tended to lose their brilliancy by gaslight. For this reason, Audsley recommends that light blue be combined with white for evening dresses in order to preserve its “proper value” and hue.

1860 Blue Silk Ball Gown.
(Met Museum)

To combat the negative effects of gaslight, evening dresses of darker blue could also be combined with white or another light shade, such as ivory or cream.

1850-1855 Silk Evening Dress.
(Philadelphia Museum of Art)

Certain shades were believed to harmonize well with blue. These shades included white, gray, orange, gold, and chocolate. According to Audsley, orange and blue were in “perfect harmony” and blue and gold were in “rich harmony.”

1880 Silk Dress.
(Met Museum)

Blue dresses were sometimes accented with a contrasting color. When that contrast color was of a “similar power,” Audsley states that the two would “mutually intensify each other’s brilliancy.”

1895 House of Worth Day Dress.
(National Gallery of Victoria)

Some Victorian dresses were made of two or three different shades of blue. This could be quite striking and was a very popular combination throughout the Victorian era, both in day and evening dresses.

Early 1880s Silk Dress.
(Met Museum)

Shades of blue can also be seen in Victorian dresses made of patterned fabric such as plaids or floral prints. In these cases, blue often acts as the base color.

1850 Blue Silk Brocade Evening Dress.
(Philadelphia Museum of Art)

Blue plaid dresses were especially fashionable in the 1850s. Generally more subdued than red or purple plaids, they could be accessorized with blue parasols, bonnets, or gloves.

1857 Silk Dress.
(Met Museum)

Shoes

By the late nineteenth century, colorful boots and slippers were all the rage. They could be found in all shades of blue, from the palest to the darkest. For day wear, light blue was well represented, as illustrated by the silk shoes below.

1870s Silk Shoes.
(Met Museum)

For evening wear, Victorian ladies frequently donned brightly colored slippers or pumps with their gowns. These often featured decorative ribbon, glass beadwork, or embroidery. However, when the color was as vivid as that of the 1885 evening slippers below, no additional embellishment was necessary.

1885 Blue Silk Evening Slippers.
(Met Museum)

Bonnets

Blue ribbons and flowers were popular trimmings for ladies’ hats and bonnets. Depending on the shade, these bonnets could look quite elegant and sophisticated, even when they were made of straw.

1886 Aitken Son & Company Straw and Silk Bonnet.
(Met Museum)

Bonnets of blue silk and velvet were also very fashionable. These were often combined with blue ribbons or dyed blue ostrich feathers.

1880 Silk and Feather Evening Bonnet.
(Met Museum)

Parasols

Blue parasols were another fashionable Victorian accessory. They were generally made of silk and came in a range of shades, including pale blue, dark blue, and delicate blue and white prints.

1850-1859 Blue Silk Parasol.
(Met Museum)

Fans

For evening, a blue fan could be a beautiful accessory. Victorian fans came in a variety of sizes and styles. There were painted paper fans, feather fans, and fabric fans spangled with gold and sequins. The below fan from the mid-nineteenth century is made of metallic paper with mother-of-pearl and ivory.

1840-1859 Eugene André Fan.
(Met Museum)

Victorian fans came in all shades of blue. The shade that a lady chose was dependent on the color of her evening dress. Fans could either harmonize with an evening dress or provide a pop of contrasting color. The below fan from the mid-nineteenth century has leaves of light blue satin embellished with steel sequins.

Mid-19th Century Blue Satin Fan.
(MFA Boston)

Jewelry

The fashionable Victorian lady had several options when it came to blue jewelry. Of these, the sapphire was, by far, the most popular. Victorian era sapphires came in shades from deep blue to pale blue and could be found set in necklaces, earrings, bracelets, brooches, and rings.

1850 Sapphire and Gold Ring.
(Victoria and Albert Museum)

In his 1856 book Jewelry and the Precious Stones, author Joseph Rupert Paxton states that the sapphire was “the emblem of heaven, the firmament, truth, constancy, and fidelity.” In Victorian jewelry, it was often set in gold with other precious or semi-precious stones. Sapphires and diamonds were one of the most striking—and expensive—combinations.

1850 Sapphire and Diamond Necklace and Earrings.
(Victoria and Albert Museum)

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 blue 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:

Shades of Victorian Fashion: Pretty in 19th Century Pink

Shades of Victorian Fashion: Orange, Pumpkin, and Peach

Shades of Victorian Fashion: Butter, Lemon, Gold, and Yellow

Shades of Victorian Fashion: Crimson, Claret, Scarlet, and Red

Shades of Victorian Fashion: Lilacs, Lavenders, Plums, and Purples

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 an 1850 edition of Peterson’s Magazine:

“Want of taste is more frequently exhibited, perhaps, in the selection of colors inappropriate for the complexion, than in any other thing in female dress.”

La Parisienne (The Blue Lady) by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 1874.
(National Museum of Wales)
Mimi Matthews is the author of The Pug Who Bit Napoleon: Animal Tales of the 18th and 19th Centuries (to be released by Pen and Sword Books in November 2017).  She researches and writes on all aspects of nineteenth century history—from animals, art, and etiquette to fashion, beauty, feminism, and law. 

Sources

Audsley, George Ashdown.  Color in Dress: A Manual for Ladies.  Philadelphia: George Maclean, 1870.

Gale, Ethel.  Hints on Dress: Or, What to Wear, when to Wear It, and how to Buy it.  New York: J. P. Putnam & Sons, 1872.

Godey’s Lady’s Book, Vol. 56. Philadelphia: Louis A. Godey, 1858.

Hill’s Manual of Social and Business Forms.  Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1885.

“How to Choose Colors in Dress.”  Peterson’s Magazine, Volumes 27-28.  Philadelphia: C. J. Peterson, 1855.

“A Lady’s Dress.”  Littell’s Living Age.  Vol. 75.  Boston: Littell, Son, and Company, 1862.

Paxton, Joseph Rupert.  Jewelry and the Precious Stones.  Philadelphia: John Penington & Son, 1856.

Peterson’s Magazine, of Art, Literature, and Fashion,  Vol. XVII. Philadelphia: Charles J. Peterson, 1850. 


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23 Comments on "Shades of Victorian Fashion: Cerulean, Mazarine, Navy, and Blue"

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paper doll
Guest

WOW, these blues still pop!

Mimi Matthews
Guest

Aren’t they stunning?

dianabirchall
Guest

I’m thinking that the early 1880s silk dress of several shades of blue, might be a good representation of the dress Louisa May Alcott described in Eight Cousins. Young Rose is dressed up in a fashionable dress of “peculiarly contrasting shades of blue,” described with great disapproval – and I can imagine it looking like this! Eight Cousins was written in 1875.

Mimi Matthews
Guest

You may be right, Diana :) It makes one wonder, what combination of blue made the dress in the novel so objectionable?

lizannelloyd
Guest

This post makes me think of Renoir’s Les Parapluies. I believe he updated the fashion of the central lady some years later.

Mimi Matthews
Guest

I love that painting! The lady is wearing such a gorgeous blue ensemble.

lizannelloyd
Guest

It was always my favourite when I visited The National Gallery in London as a child.

nottooshabby
Guest

what a post! you just keep on outdoing yourself — thank you so much for these beautiful and informative posts.

Mimi Matthews
Guest

You’re very welcome :) I’m so glad you enjoy my posts!

Lindsay Downs (@ldowns2966)
Guest

In my regencies I most always put the heroine in a blue ball gown or day dress. Sometimes even the hero will wear a deep blue jacket. Such a versatile color.

Mimi Matthews
Guest

It really is a versatile color, for both men and women!

victorochoa2016
Guest

Such lovely blues and stunning outfits. Thank you so much! Vic

Mimi Matthews
Guest

You’re very welcome Vic :)

Angelyn
Guest

The Victorian blues–so vibrant and full of depth.

Mimi Matthews
Guest

They’re beautiful, aren’t they?

Baba StringThings
Guest

I am always so excited to see that you have posted another of your excellent pieces, this one was incredible, as usual!

Mimi Matthews
Guest

Thank you so much for your very kind words :) I’m so glad you enjoy my articles!

JoHawkTheWriter
Guest

I would like to place my order for one each of the magnificent dresses pictured above. The order should also include the appropriate accessories and jewels the selection of which I shall leave in your ever capable hands.
LOL
If only. I enjoyed your post immensely.

Mimi Matthews
Guest

I’m so glad you enjoyed it, Jo :) If only we could order one of these gowns with all the accessories & jewels! Though, I’m afraid it would cost a fortune.

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woostersauce2014
Guest

Blue is my favourite colour and I love how the shades in these dresses are so vibrant. It’s a shame that many of these shades aren’t really available in today’s clothes.

Mimi Matthews
Guest

It’s hard to find certain shades of blue today! Whenever I find a piece of clothing in a shade of blue I love, I buy extra because I know I’ll wear it to pieces.

woostersauce2014
Guest

Agree. I tend to stick to a few brands now when it comes to clothes because they do stuff in the shades of blue that I love.

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