It is a truism for genealogists attempting to date old photos that one can’t pin down a photo’s date by looking at the attire of the men. On the other hand, women’s clothes changed quickly and definitively so are useful clues to the decade when the photo was taken. The uniform of suits with trousers and jackets became standard dress for men in the Victorian era. There were incremental changes from the frock coat worn at the start of the era to the lounge suit popular in the late 1800s. In the 1890s formal occasions called for morning coats, a style that is still worn for formal occasions today.
Technical advances affected not only the production of fabric but made available new chemical dyes. For the first time a true unfading black was available which was a boon for men’s tailored wear. Black became popular because clothes would not be discoloured by soot in the air, a common complaint in industrial and residential areas heated and run with coal. For the fair sex, the new dyes made brighter colours available. The new colours were popular as women liked to keep up with the times and change was the name of the fashion game.
Change extended to the silhouette. The era started with the nipped in waists that came from corsets and tight lacing and which were emphasized by full crinolined skirts. The skirt’s fullness then moved to the back of the figure and, toward the end of the 1860s, the bustle was born.
Full skirts were pretty and fashionable but not very practical. Hoop skirts were hard to maneuver especially in a wind or when women were trying to work. Full skirts were dangerous around open flames and were the cause of many injuries. Pioneer women in western North America were known to remove the hoops when working in the small rooms of their abodes and there are stories of Native Women making off with the hoops when their owner’s backs were turned as they were fascinated by this strange attire. Women who worked for a living also needed to modify their dress. Instead of wearing crinolines or hoops the fullness in their skirts came from several petticoats. That way they could be in fashion while still being able their work.
Society expected that all its members would follow fashion to the best of their ability. Clothes made the man or woman. You would only be considered one of the deserving poor and potentially employable if you dressed in presentable clothes. Young women of all stripes needed to dress their age in light pastel colours to attract a man in the short window of time available while she was still considered to be of marriageable age. With few outlets besides marriage, women left of the shelf usually led restricted lives.
There were changes in society through the period. Industrialization grew and as people left the land for new employment, the towns grew too. This movement broke down the predominance of agricultural families where elders were useful and, in some cases, looked up to. Now workers who aged out of their allotted tasks were a problem. How were they to support themselves?
The status that was once accorded to the old and wise was now directed towards those who were younger. As the stages of life became more clearly defined, the temptation must have been there to act as young as possible. But, according to some, wearing make-up or enhancing one’s hairdo with false hair to disguise the ravages of time was in bad taste.
Goodman, Ruth. How to be a Victorian, Viking, London, 2013
Lofts, Norah. Domestic Life in England. Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, 1976
Mintz, Steven The Prime of Life: A History of Modern Adulthood. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2015
Thane, Pat. A History of Old Age. Thames and Hudson Ltd, London, 2005