Anyone who says modern-day women must suffer to be beautiful should spend a day in an authentic Victorian Era dress. During the reign of England's Queen Victoria, from 1837 to 1901, women dressed in gorgeous gowns that gave the appearance of demure beauty. The elements that made up that genteel appearance, however, could be painful and suffocating. By the end of the era, women's fashions had changed to allow more movement and comfort.
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Undergarments and Corsets
First, a Victorian woman put on undergarments. She began with drawers that buttoned in back and came to mid-calf. They were plain and roomy, often made of cotton or muslin. Over these she pulled on a simple and shapeless chemise. This was cut like a thin cotton, cap-sleeved nightgown and came to the knee. It had a drawstring around an open neckline to adjust it beneath dresses. Over the chemise she placed her corset. A corset laced in the back and was pulled tight to create full breasts and a tiny waist.
Next, the Victorian woman donned her petticoats, or crinolines. First came the plain under petticoat, which was simple and not intended to be seen beneath her skirt. She wore as many as six of these for warmth and to add volume beneath her skirt. By the 1840s, the cage hoop came along, a metal framed hoop skirt that replaced the need for many layers of petticoats. On top of her under petticoat and cage hoop she placed her over petticoat, which came down to the ankles and often had attractive embroidery around the hem in case it was seen when she sat down.
Bodices and Sleeves
Over all of these garments a lady wore her dress. Victorian dresses could be somber or bright in color, or even a pattern such as plaid. They were often made of silk. They often had high, modest necklines, although party dresses and ball gowns often had lower necklines. Bodices were quite snug with a "V" shape below the waist for a slimming effect. Sleeves changed several times during the Victorian era. In the 1840s they were narrow all the way down the arm. They widened to a bell sleeve in the 1850s and then became puffy at the shoulder and narrow at the wrist by the end of the century.
Skirts and Bustles
The skirts of early Victorian dresses were made full and round by hoop cages. They sometimes had pleats or tiers, which provided flow and movement when a woman walked or danced. By the 1860s, the bustle came into vogue. Skirts flattened out in front and fell straight down. A bustle was tied around the waist and worn instead of a hoop cage. It was made from fabric over a wire frame and it made a woman's backside stand out in her dress. Women wore soft bustles in the early years, which created a more subtle silhouette. Hard bustles came into vogue by the 1880s and stood out quite far.