Ever since I discovered the Great Dickens Christmas Fair in San Francisco, attending (or working) the fair has been an annual Christmas tradition. Nothing sets me up for the Christmas spirit like wandering the streets of London in 1840s-1850s clothing, admiring handmade gifts, sampling meat pies, drinking hot buttered rum, singing carols, dancing at Fezziwig’s Ball, or watching a naughty Victorian postcards show. Oh, and the smell! The glorious smell of spice roasted almonds. It…Is… Heavenly.
For new Dickens Fair workers and attendees or anyone needing an early Victorian era costume (i.e. Christmas caroler, civil war, Queen Victoria), this guide is for you. At the fair, you will see a wide variety of costumes from DIY basics to elaborate custom gowns. I remember when I first started at the fair, I didn’t know much about Victorian clothing (this was pre- VintageDancer days). While the fair’s website does have some good info, I was still lost, especially on where to find patterns or buy shoes and accessories critical to the look.
The following should help any new Victorian costumer dress for the 1840s to 1850s in a manner and budget that works for you. Included are links to patterns, tutorials, ready made clothing, and tips and tricks I have picked up over my 10 plus years attending the fair.
1840s to 1850s Fashion for Women
The upper class fashionable Victorian women was a picture of warmth and perfection in her five or (sometimes more) layers of clothing. Even in summer London was always cool, and the winters were very cold. A women’s outfit began with underwear: a corset, chemise, bloomers, stockings, petticoats, and a crinoline or hoop skirt. Then came the outer clothes: dress, shoes, shawl, bonnet, and gloves. Depending on the activity (managing home, shopping, visiting, dinner, theater), she would change clothes several times a day.
The silhouette was dramatic with a full skirt (getting bigger and bigger to the 1860s), a tight waist, and broad rounded shoulders. The width at the top and bottom made the waist look smaller. Women were only 5 feet tall at this time, so a small 22 inch waist seems tiny today but was actually in proportion back then. A corset helped create a smaller waist, but was by no means suffocating as the myth says.
Middle-class women still had multiple layers of clothing, but perhaps less ornamentation and smaller hoops. The servant classes had only one dress with sleeves that rolled up, one petticoat, a bare-bones corset (except for the very poor), long underwear in cold weather and an apron, cap, and shawl. Most clothing for lower middle and poor classes were old cast offs from upper classes, already several years old and void of reusable trim.
Before choosing a costume, you should decide what class of person you want to be. Most women want to dress upper class, but the lower classes often have more fun and an easier time creating a costume.
Victorian 1840s-1850s Blouses
Blouses, called chemisette or canezou, were white button-ups worn under dress bodices and jackets. They were seldom seen until the mid-1840s when wearing blouse and skirt separates became common.
Blouses were high-neck and long sleeved with a small round collar. The sleeves ballooned out around the forearm before coming to a tight cuff at the wrist. Gradually, the fullness of the lower sleeve reduced in the 1860s. The additional of lace trim and pintucks were common on blouses that were seen. Simple plain blouses with pretty collars were worn under dress bodices.
A wide belt between blouse and skirt was worn as well. Adding a jacket, bolero, or warm shawl completes this simple daytime look.
While there are plenty of blouse patterns available, finding a ready made blouse is a little trickier. Pay attention to the fabric. They should be light, not too heavy or stiff. Cotton is the best. Poly-anything will be miserable. Avoid see-through materials and exposed lace insets. My favorite blouses have been newer vintage and thrift store finds, although they lack the full sleeves. Shop Victorian inspired blouses.
Skirts grew in fullness from 1840 to 1860, using 4-6 yards of fabric for day looks and more for evening gowns. There were three primary methods for making a skirt, each providing a slightly different silhouette.
Gathered skirt – The easiest skirt to make is a simple gathered or pleated skirt made of 4-5 panels of square fabric. This is the best skirt for day looks. When you need to make a skirt fast, use a very wide elastic for the skirt belt. It will save you a lot of time, even though it is not historically accurate. If the dress bodice hangs over the skirt, no one will see it anyways. A large belt can be worn over it, too.
Gored Skirt– Triangle shape panels are sewn together, making the thickness at the waist small and the hem very full and flared out in the shape of a bell. This is the best style for dancing.
Flounced Skirt– Adds layers, like ruffles, to the above skirts. Six flounces or more will be needed for taller women. It is a very fun skirt to whirl around in! Here are some tips on adding flounces.
If sewing isn’t your thing, you can pick up a simple gathered skirt for around $40-100. A drawstring waistband will make the dress fit a variety of body types. Shop Victorian dresses and skirts.
Victorian Dress Bodices
Dress bodices (tops) were made of the same fabric as the skirt, and came in day or evening styles. Women often made two bodices for each skirt so that they could be used for all hours of the day without changing the skirt, too.
The 1840s day dress bodice fit high on the neck with a dropped arm and long slender sleeves. Day blouses had sleeves that ballooned a little at the forearm and tightened in at the wrist, just like blouses. The bodice bottom came to a long sharp point at the waist. By 1850, the waist shortened up and loosened up a little more. In the voluminous 1850s, the bell, bishop, and pagoda sleeve gave women much more arm freedom than before and exposed the blouse arms underneath. Necklines were a shallow V-shape in the 1840s and round high neck in the 1950s, often with a small round collar.
Evening bodices exposed the neck and top of the shoulders with short sleeves (cleavage is still a no-no. Be modest at all times). Vertical gathers or pleats, long horizontal pleats, or a combination of them both created variety in the bodice tops. The short sleeves puffed out below the neckline and were often layered with more pleats or gathers. It was a doll-like look designed to restrict arm movement and add to the illusion of a small waist by exaggerating the width at the top. Bows and flowers accented the bustline. Lace trim and even fringe adorned some fancy styles.
Some details placed over the basic bodice helped create the illusion of a narrow waist. The fan front pleated at the shoulders, narrowing down to the waist point. Pelerine lapels were similar to a shawl, wrapping around the shoulders and down to the waist point. This was another style with pretty trim sewn on the edges.
Tips: Up to this point, sewing your own clothes is fairly easy. The dress bodice is the hardest part because it requires the most fit adjustments. Bodices were also interlined and boned to maintain the smooth shape and rigid fit.
Jackets and jacket-type bodices were popular in the 1850s. They usually had bell or pagoda shaped sleeves with a V- shape opening, exposing the blouse underneath. Some had collars and closed with a tie, frog clasp, or hook at the front. Some also had an attached skirt that fit over the waist (AKA a peplum).
Another jacket style was the zouave jacket or bolero. It was short with no attached skirt. The sleeves were long and cone shaped. The front of the jacket was cut away in a round shape and lacked a front closure. Red and white wool trimmed in braid were the most common. These didn’t become in fashion until the end of the 1850s.
I highly recommend wearing a jacket over a blouse instead of creating a bodice. Having three kids in 4 years meant my body was always changing size, yet I could always fit into my blouse and jacket.
Shop Victorian Jackets here.
Most new Victorian costumers forgo proper corset and undergarments. While this is OK, the look is MUCH better if you have full under layers. The corset shapes the waist and supports the chest up into the proper place. Busty women especially need the support.
Chemise – A sleeveless or short sleeve cotton scoop-neck blouse (similar to a peasant blouse). It is put on first with the corset over the blouse to help prevent rubbing and irritating the skin. As a cheat, you can wear a thin spaghetti strap top with the straps removed.
Drawers – Also known as bloomers, drawers were long below the knee pants with gathered or ruffled legs, a button or drawstring waist, and an open crotch (to make visiting the loo easier. Seriously, it is a life saver not having to fight with layers of clothing and modern underwear). A cheat here is to wear biker shorts – the best all day solution for thigh rub).
Corset – Made of strong cotton or linen in white or black, they laced up the back. The shape provided a shelf for the bust, a curved waist, and tapered over the hip. I prefer simple white corsets rather than colorful satin ones (which didn’t come around till later) but by all means, wear what makes you feel pretty.
A custom made corset will fit the best. A mass produced steel boned corset is the next best solution (read fitting directions carefully and measure twice!) A “costume/sexy corset” will lack the support and may make you more uncomfortable with long term wear. If you can’t buy/make a good corset, don’t wear one.
If you choose not to wear a corset, be sure to choose a bra that lifts and flattens. Protruding busts are not period correct, despite that I see this faux pas frequently. Consider wearing a longline bra or body shaper that smooths bumps but is also comfortable to wear.
Petticoats – Petticoats were made in almost the exact same pattern as the dress skirt. They were made of cotton or linen in summer and flannel in winter. They had a ruffle at the bottom, which created more fullness without more layers. Upper-class ladies wore at least six petticoats to achieve the fullness the silhouette required. Lower classes wore less and less layers.
Crinoline or Hoop Skirt– Several layers of petticoat could be replaced by one linen and horsehair woven crinoline. In the mid-1850s, hoop skirts replaced the crinoline as a lighter option. You will hardly see women using a crinoline for costuming, even before 1855.
The hoop poofed outward in a circle that changed shape and dimension throughout the Victorian era. Tip- Wear a petticoat over the hoop skirt. Why? So you don’t get the dreaded hoop lines viable under thin skirt fabrics. Also be sure your hoop skirt is round from the hips to the floor, not a triangle shape. You should be able to glide along, not ring like a bell. If you are short, you can always take off a hoop from a pre-made skirt and hem it. Or if the hoop flares out too much, cut the lowest hoop, tape it, and re-thread it to make it smaller.
Outerwear – more layers!
The bulk of your costume is now done, but we have to remember it is winter and very cold in Victorian London. You need more layers to keep warm.
Shawl (Mantel) – A basic wool, cashmere, knit, or in summer lace shawl provided the next layer. Winter shawls were embellished with embroidery or trimmed in fringe, ruffles, flounces or braid. Plaid tartan was especially popular in the ’40s and ’50s. The shawl was HUGE, draping down the back of the full skirt and up over the shoulders and full arms. Most of the fashion plates on this page depict women draped with a shawl. Make your own with a 72-inch long triangle.
Pelerine – A cape-like top with long lapels hanging down the front. Made of wool or lace with elaborate fussy trim.
Cape – Short capes circled the shoulders and ended at the elbow line. Long capes or cloaks were warmer came down to mid skirt. Add fur trim to a cape and matching fur muff for a very iconic wintry look. To cheat, buy a Christmas tree skirt (I love velvet ones). Otherwise, cut an 18 inch hole into a large circle and one line from the neck circle to the outer edge for the front opening. The length can be however long you want it to hang. This article has more ideas on making capes, muffs, and other accessories.
Muffs – Fur muffs helped protect a lady’s hands from the cold. Lined in quilted silk, they measured 9 inches long and about 12 to 20 inches around. White fur was the most common, but other colors of fur were certainly allowed. A matching set of fur cuffs, called manchettes, is another nice addition. Make a muff.
Bonnets were all the rage in the 1840s and 1850s. In the early ’40s, the bonnet was made of straw or fabric to complement the dress, flared up from the forehead, and curved around the sides, hiding her face from a side view. As the years progressed, the front of the bonnet receded backwards exposed more of the face until it had no use shading her from the sun whatsoever. Flowers, ribbon, and feathers decorated the bonnet. Fabric lined the inside, often with ruffles peeking out the front and a few inches down the neck.
A lady at home or a working-class maid would wear a mop cap. Essentially, it was a circle gathered a few inches from the edge and trimmed in a bit of lace. Simple, yet it covered the hair, protecting it from dust and London smog. Here is another style of cap you can make.
Evening wear used flowers, ribbon, lace, and feathers to decorate the hair at the back of the head and dripping down the sides. The placement created width, not height. A loose knit snood (hair net) did a good job of gathering long hair up off the neck like in the 1939 movie Gone with the Wind, but they were not worn during this period in time.
Victorian Shoes & Accessories
Boots – You are in luck. There are many fabulous button and lace up boots in the Victorian style available for sale. Evening wear slippers can also be made from pointed toe flats with a bow or shoe clip on top for some extra prettiness.
Stockings – Black or white wool, cotton, or silk stockings rose up over the knee. More colors and pretty embroidery was added after 1850. As a cheat, wear pantyhose or tall boot socks for comfort. I highly recommend these stockings by American Duchess.
Gloves – Kid leather, lace, or crochet knit gloves were medium length (to the elbow) for daywear and long over the elbow opera length for evening wear. Fingerless lace mitts were also fashionable and useful for the working classes. Lace often trimmed the edge or with a bow or embroidery on the underside. Shop gloves.
Bag – A lady carried very little with her, but a small bag is essential to hide your modern keys, wallet, and cell phone. A reticule, a decorated drawstring pouch, was carried or hung from the skirt band. They could be made of coordinating fabric or knit so as to blend in with the full skirt. They are easy to make, or you can buy a handmade one with pretty beading or embroidery.
Handkerchief – White silk or linen trimmed or embroidered. An optional accessory to carry in your bag.
Parasol – If your event is outside, a nice lace or fabric parasol will help protect you from the sun (and look great!). Parasols of this time period were small and heavily trimmed. A child parasol or carriage parasol will be more authentic than a full size umbrella parasol. Shop ready made parasols or learn how to recover a carriage parasol to match your costume.
Jewelry – Day dress jewelry was rather plain. Small earrings, rings, brooches and pins carved from stone or shell. Cameos are my favorite style of brooch. Pearls were worn by everyone who could afford them. Avoid black onyx or jet unless you are in mourning.
Evening jewelry was much more ornate with over the top designs and cut stones in all colors (cut glass for middle classes) set in gold, silver, or platinum.
Hand Fan- Even in winter, all those layers can leave you quite warm. A nice lace hand fan will help you keep cool and look very pretty too. Shop Victorian hand fans and read about fan etiquette.
Early Victorian Hairstyles and Makeup
A deep part down the center of the head was then smoothed over the ears and placed in a bun at the back of the neck. Ringlets of curls could also decorate the sides of the head, pinned back with a bow for young ladies. The volume at the side made wearing a tight bonnet possible.
In the 1850s, the side curls were out of fashion, except among the very young or for evening wear. 1850s hair was slightly waved or smoothed to the back bun. A net or snood tamed frizz.
Cheat tip – Look for pre-curled wig hairpieces targeted to cheerleaders and Irish dancers and pin them in under your hat. There are extensions for buns if you have very short hair. You can also buy human hair pieces (or heatable faux hair) and curl your own. There is more variety in human hair colors than wig extensions.
Makeup – Respectable women never admitted to wearing makeup. A little face powder was acceptable. However, if you can make your cheeks a little rosy and your lips a bit pink for a wind chilled look without looking like you are wearing modern makeup, then by all means wear some. Here is a guide to wearing Victorian makeup.
Perfume – Please avoid wearing perfume. Modern scents are too strong. Instead, do as the Victorians did and keep bowls or potpourris of lavender and lemon verbena near your clothing or in sachets in dresser drawers. This will add a touch of feminine fragrance.
As a beginner, gathering all of these items will take time and can be quite expensive. Do what you can and upgrade now and then with something new. Most of all, have fun with your costume.
This year at the Dickens fair, I put a spin on our costumes by dressing to match my daughter’s “Nightmare Before Christmas” dress. Black and white stripes were common at this time, so my costume was mostly period correct for a middle-class woman, yet not too serious. Naturally, Oscar matched too with the striped cravat my father wore at his wedding.
Let us know in the comments what your tips and tricks are for creating a Dickens-era costume.