Queen Victoria was an only child, born in London on May 24 1819. Her father died when she was only eight months old, she was brought up by nannies, overseen by a very dominant mother. Victoria was declared Queen at the age of 18 on the death of her uncle King William IV, who died without any surviving heirs.
In 1840 Victoria married her first cousin Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, they had nine children over a 17 year period (5 girls, and 4 boys).
The years of Victoria’s reign 1837-1901, saw many changes in fashion. Just as the 20th century saw rapid changes in styles often in a single year, so did the Victorian era. There were a variety of changes with no one Victorian style dress. However due to the Queen’s mourning for Albert’s death in 1861 of typhus fever, black, half mourning of purple and grey dominated the later years of her reign.
In her early years the Queen was seen as an attractive young woman and whilst there was not the mass magazine and fashion press that we have today, she was seen as a leader of fashion. This was a role she continued to play for many years of her life even when she grew old and rotund – hence her influence of wearing black. Allied to that the advances in the chemical industry in the 1840s and 50s meant that there was a riot of colour brought about through artificial dyes. Today such dyes are a curse because the very dye eats away at the silk and cotton making them very fragile, but that is our concern, not the ladies of the time.
The Victorian era also saw the influence of other countries particularly in fashion. Recent research has shown how the Indian textile producers were ruined by English textile manufacturers, who copied their Mogul inspired “paisley” design, produced it in bulk in Paisley and then sold it back to the Indian people.
The British Empire became producers of raw material such as cotton and silk. British mills converted them into textiles and garments and sold these finished articles back to the Empire leading to chronic poverty abroad and prosperity at home.
At the same time, the fall in the price of paper and stamp duty combined with the rise of education and literacy meant that there was a proliferation in magazines and particularly those aimed at middle class women who had time on their hands. The magazines would illustrate the next seasons colours and fashions. The more expensive the magazine, the fashion plate were hand coloured, the cheaper version a detailed black and white engraving – both explaining the cut, the look and the accessories. As wealth increased so did the rules of society leading to a culture of formality, decorum and cult of good manners. So it would not be uncommon to change outfits two or even three times a day with maids assisting.
However before we get carried away with romantic images of Downton Abbey, millions of people wore the same clothing until they fell apart, they were then were sold on to the rag and bone man or remodelled into children’s clothes. That is why so few working class clothing survives –better to reuse or get a few pence than keep in a drawer.
On a very basic level white cotton clothes were kept white by washing in stale, human urine which acted as bleach! When artificial soap became available people complained about the pleasant smell.
Men’s fashion also changed through the Victorian period, but very gradually.