The V&A’s Victorian dress collection represents the fashions worn by the wealthy in the 19th century, and reflects their lives and aspirations. The clothing featured here also showcases the high level of skill in dressmaking and design carried out by dressmakers and tailors in Victorian times. The degree of workmanship involved in making these clothes meant that they were expensive to make -they were high fashion comparable to today’s haute couture. Very few examples of men’s clothing have survived from this period – generally men’s fashions changed slowly and darker colours were often worn for business and on formal occasions. This meant that even expensive garments could be worn longer and were worn out with day-to-day wear.
The middle classes generally would not wear such high value items such as these. However, the style of these clothes would have spread further than the small social group for whom they were made, much the same as adapted catwalk fashions can be found in high street retailers today. The middle classes could afford to have high fashion copied by local dressmakers and tailors, or made their own new clothes.
The poor would rely on the huge second-hand clothes trade prevalent during the period, spending hours altering old clothes for themselves and their families to make them fit or to make them more fashionable. Clothes could be dyed and the good parts of a garment made into children’s clothes or accessories, and areas of wear could be patched. There was even a market for ragged clothes that had been through several owners – these were still worn by the destitute.
Women’s clothes 1830s-1860s
Women’s skirts swelled between 1840 and 1860. At first the skirts were supported by several petticoats, one of which was of a stiffened silk or of a silk and horsehair fabric, known as crinoline. When the frame of pliable steel hoops was invented in 1856, it was known as the cage crinoline. It would have been very heavy and cumbersome to wear a full-length coat over a crinoline skirt, so mantles, shawls or short jackets were more convenient for outdoor wear. Fibres used were all natural ones such as cotton, wool and silk. Making the very tight bodices and sleeves of women’s dresses required far more skill than the straight-seamed skirt