Category: Fashion

Victorian Sewing: A Brief History of Plain and Fancy Work

“Light or fancy needlework often forms a portion of the evening’s recreation for the ladies of the household…”  Beeton’s Book of Household Management, 1861.

Portraits in the Countryside by Gustave Caillebotte, 1876.
Portraits in the Countryside by Gustave Caillebotte, 1876.

During the 19th century, women were rarely idle in their spare moments.  Many preferred instead to occupy themselves with a bit of sewing.  This sewing generally fell into two broad categories: plain work and fancy work.  Plain work was used to make or mend simple articles of clothing.  While fancy work—which included knitting, crochet, and embroidery—was used in a more decorative sense.  A young lady skilled at both plain and fancy work could not only repair her current clothing, she could design and sew stylish new pieces to supplement her wardrobe.  As an 1873 issue of Harper’s Bazaar explains:[…]Continue Reading

On Bluestockings and Beauty: 19th Century Advice for Educated Women

“Blue-stocking or not, every woman ought to make the best of herself inside and out.  To be healthy, handsome, and cheerful, is no disadvantage even in a learned professor.”
The Art of Beauty, 1883.

Portrait of a Woman by Henry Inman, 1825.(Brooklyn Museum)
Portrait of a Woman by Henry Inman, 1825.
(Brooklyn Museum)

Unlike the clever, witty bluestockings that populated the fashionable salons of the 18th and early 19th centuries, the Victorian bluestocking was considered to be, as one 1876 publication puts it, “a stiff, stilted, queer literary woman of a dubious age.”  This unfortunate stereotype was so firmly entrenched that it even made its way into an 1883 edition of the Popular Encyclopedia, wherein a bluestocking is defined as a “pedantic female” who has sacrificed the “excellencies of her sex” to education and learning.[…]Continue Reading

The Evolution of the 19th Century Gown: A Visual Guide

Individual Images of Gowns via Met Museum
Individual Images of Gowns via Met Museum

The silhouette of women’s gowns changed a great deal over the course of the 19th century. Most of us can easily identify the lines of an early Regency gown or the shape of a late-Victorian dress with a bustle.  But what about those transitional years?  The 1820s, 1830s, and 1870s, for example.  Sometimes styles of these decades are harder to pinpoint.  With that in mind, I present you with a decade-by-decade visual guide to silk gowns of the 19th century.[…]Continue Reading

The Beauty Rituals of 19th Century Empress Elisabeth of Austria

Empress Elisabeth of Austria by Georg Raab, 1867.
Empress Elisabeth of Austria by Georg Raab, 1867.

Born in Munich on December 24, 1837, Her Royal Highness Duchess Elisabeth Amalie Eugenie became Empress of Austria when she married Emperor Franz Joseph at the age of sixteen.  Though now widely acknowledged as one of the most beautiful women of 19th century Europe, Sisi, as she was known to her intimates, was not considered a great beauty in her youth.  Some biographers have even referred to her as sturdy and boyish with a “round peasant face.”  Highly sensitive to any perceived deficiencies in her appearance, Sisi embarked on a lifetime of starvation diets and extreme beauty rituals which have since become the stuff of legend. […]Continue Reading

Shawls and Wraps in 19th Century Art, Literature, and Fashion History

(Portrait of Olimpia Łosiowa, 1818-1820.)
Portrait of Olimpia Losiowa, 1818-1820.

From the Regency era to the end of the 1860s, there was no fashion accessory as versatile and ubiquitous as the shawl.  Available in all weights of fabrics, including silk, lace, muslin, and cashmere wool, and priced for all budgets, shawls graced the shoulders of women in every strata of society.  They were no less well-represented in art and literature of the day.  Shawls were referenced in the novels of such literary luminaries as Elizabeth Gaskell and William Makepeace Thackeray.  They were also featured in countless portrait paintings, draping the figures of fashionable 19th century ladies of every age.[…]Continue Reading

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