When it comes to Victorian fashion, it is often difficult to choose a favourite year—or even a favourite decade. The romantic gowns of the 1830s vie with the enormous crinolines of the 1860s which, in turn, rival the sleek, bustled skirts of the 1870s. As someone who researches and writes extensively on historical fashion, choosing the year in which to set my new romance novel, The Lost Letter, had as much to do with the style of dress as it did with other considerations. In today’s post, we take a brief look at some of the styles which were popular in 1860, the year in which The Lost Letter begins.
At the beginning of my novel, the heroine, Sylvia Stafford, is a governess. As such, she is not able to afford fashionable dresses, nor would it be appropriate for her to wear them in her position. Instead, much of the women’s fashion shown in the early part of The Lost Letter is expressed through the hero’s sister, Julia, Viscountess Harker. When Julia first appears, she is wearing a visiting dress with flounced skirts worn over a wire crinoline of “truly magnificent proportions.”
How magnificent? During 1860, ladies’ skirts reached their maximum size of the century. Skirts stood out from the body over wire crinolines, the hemlines sometimes reaching as much as 10-15 feet in circumference. Adding to their impressive size, many fashionable dresses featured skirts with rows of puffs, pleats, and anywhere from one to as many as ten flounces. One or two rows of puffs or flounces, like those shown on the dress at right in the fashion plate below, could be quite lovely and were often seen on both day and evening dresses.
More heavily flounced skirts could also be quite pretty. In the 1860 fashion plate below, the lady at the far right is wearing a taffeta walking dress with ten flounces, each one bordered by a row of velvet.
The enormous skirts of 1860 were coupled with equally impressive pagoda sleeves. Worn narrow at the shoulder, they widened as they descended toward the wrist and were generally paired with false undersleeves made of muslin or lace. You can see examples of pagoda sleeves in the fashion plates above, as well as a more detailed image below.
Sleeves with wide, decorative cuffs were also quite popular, especially in riding habits. In The Lost Letter, Sylvia borrows a riding costume from Julia which features a fitted jacket bodice and stylish mousquetaire cuffs. Inspired by styles worn by seventeenth and eighteenth century musketeers, cuffs à la mousquetaire were fashionable in both the 1850s and early 1860s. They opened at the side, forming a sharp point. A similar style of sleeve can be seen on the riding costume shown in the fashion plate below.
Plain dresses, like the dark-coloured silks and woolens worn by Sylvia throughout much of the novel, were not the sort that one might find in fashion magazines of the day. Fortunately, artists of the Victorian era often depicted women in more humble garments in their paintings. It was to these which I turned for inspiration in writing descriptions of Sylvia’s clothing. No paintings were precisely exact, but you should be able to get the basic idea of Sylvia’s dresses from the ones I’ve included below.
Keep in mind that governesses, and other Victorian women on a tight budget, would not be wearing the latest fashions. Instead, they would often wear older gowns which were made up to look like new. Old fabrics could be dyed and trimmings could be replaced. Detachable collars and cuffs were another inexpensive way to spruce up a drab gown, as well as a practical one. When soiled, they could easily be removed and washed..
In the coming weeks I plan to have a few more posts on fashion, etiquette, and other historical topics specific to the setting of my upcoming novel. I’m a terrible saleswoman, so I’ll just say that, if you haven’t yet pre-ordered your copy of The Lost Letter, I very much hope you will do so! It’s my debut historical romance and I can’t wait to share it with you all.