Over the years, I have received several requests for how to easily make a ladies’ Victorian costume. Usually, the need is for a school play or one-time event such as Halloween, so the budget is very small. The least expensive ready made Victorian dress costumes cost at least $100 or more when you start adding in shoes, hats, and accessories. You don’t have to spend that to get a make a Victorian costume using clothing you may already have, that can be bought at a thrift store, or that you can buy online from cheaper brands. Will it be historically accurate? No, but it will certainly look and feel Victorian.
With some creativity and ability to see clothing for what it can be, a Victorian outfit is a doable DIY project. I will warn you, however, that a homemade project often turns out to be just as expensive as ready-made costumes once you start buying all the pieces and Victorian accessories.
The Victorian era spans almost 100 years, roughly between 1840 and 1900. Over that century, the clothing changed silhouettes several times from huge round skirted dresses to bustle back skirts to lean and curvy gowns. Knowing which decade you need to re-create helps decide how much fullness you will need in your skirt and petticoats.
It also helps know what class of person you need to be. Upper classes, like those shown above, embraced the latest fashions for giant skirts, fancy trim, and rich fabrics. The middle and poor classes didn’t find these fashions practical or affordable. Nor were they followers of current trends. Most Victorian women wore clothing in styles that were 5-15 years old, with minimal trim and in the case of the very poor, in terrible condition. Keep this in mind as you plan your outfit.
Victorian Costume Dress
The simplest Victorian outfit to DIY is a skirt and blouse (or fitted jacket). Women wore this combination for the entire duration of the Victorian years. Tops and skirts usually matched to look like it was a single dress. The 1860s and 1890s decades favored mismatched blouses and skirts, which will be much easier to put together. I collect Victorian-style clothing that is ivory or black, because there is plenty more of it than there are other colors.
The change in silhouette over the years was mainly with the type of skirt. Very large round skirts were signature of the 1860s (Civil War), bustle skirts in the middle years, and narrower A-line skirts of the late 1890s to 1910s carried over in fashion to the Edwardian era.
For the 1840s to 1860s, you will need a very full circle skirt. Sewing a full circle skirt is very easy to do, even for a novice. You can also find a full ballgown skirt attached to prom and wedding dresses and simply cut off the top and sew on a waistband (I use wide elastic). You can also find full circle skirts online that are for boho or hippie fashion and ballroom dance markets. These are usually made of very light and airy materials that can sometimes be too sheer. I prefer heavier materials – shiny taffeta for evening dresses and cotton for daywear.
For the bustle era (1870s and 1880s) you can use the same full skirts above or A-line shaped skirts as a base. Next, add another skirt or two or three on top and use safety pins to gather them up into a bustle effect. Each skirt layer does not need to match. You can combine several colors and patterns. There are also Steampunk or Gothic skirts with bustles already or a hi-low shape skirt or dress that also work very well. Striped patterns are nice for Halloween or as a saloon girl costume. Add a ribbon trim, ruffles, bows, or silk flowers to dress up a plain skirt.
In the last two decades, the skirt narrowed down into a flared A-line for the Gibson girl era. These are the easiest to find new or used in thrift stores. A gathered elastic waist skirt that has good volume will also work for this era. Avoid curve-hugging pencil skirts. Here is a basic gored skirt sewing tutorial.
Next, you need a petticoat to get the right amount of poof for the decade you are portraying. Wearing another skirt or two with volume underneath will give you some fluff. I like Bohemian style skirts made of very light cotton. To get a bit more puff at the bottom, you can sew on a wide ruffle all around the skirt about 8-10 inches above the hem. Add more ruffles for more volume. This will give the outer skirt a flared effect. I have also purchased a tea-length 1950s crinoline or wedding dress petticoat and they work well. Sewing a petticoat is also an easy project.
For the very full 1860s upper-class skirts, you need to invest in a hoop skirt (the higher the quality, the higher the price, the more weight it can hold without deforming the shape.) You could look at old wedding dresses that often have hoops built-in or just find a cheap-ish wedding petticoat in the shape you need. Middle and lower classes don’t need hoops, only as many petticoats you can layer on.
For the bustle era, you will need not only a petticoat but also a bustle pad or bustle cage. You don’t need to buy one. Simply make a small round pillow and strap it around your hips. You can use a cylindrical pillow for larger bustle needs. Pad away until you get the right amount of butt. Draping and bustling fabric can also create a small bustle effect without the padding.
Whatever you use, DO use a petticoat. I know it is an extra expense and layer, but it will make a big difference in turning you in a real Victorian lady!
The Top – Blouse
Victorian Blouse – I take every opportunity I have to pick up a black, white or ivory lace blouse, especially those that button at the back and have a high stand collar. If you can’t find a back-button blouse, you can use a classic front-button blouse. Look for blouses with inset lace, lace trim, pintuck pleats, ruffles or gathers over the bust. The 1860s used a simple round neck Garibaldi blouse with small lace collars. The 1880s and 1890s favored very modest high necks/collars. Puffy shoulders were in vogue during the 1890s so look for those too or use shoulder pads to beef up a regular sleeve blouse. Also, long sleeves are preferred over short. Never sleeveless.
A lightweight jacket or blazer can also be used instead of a blouse. I look for 1980s Victorian-inspired tops and jackets that usually have lace trim and a fitted waistline. Some will need to be layered over a blouse, others will be modest/high neck enough to worn alone. A puff sleeve sweater is in fashion now and these look perfect for the 1890s!
Victorian Jacket – Another layer to add to your outfit is a jacket or coat. Short, tailored blazers or suit jackets can work well for the Victorian era, as well as long overcoats with a full skirt. Most jackets were high-buttoning, so if you find a jacket with lapels you can fold them over and flip the collar up – stitch or pin in place or decorate with an ornate brooch. You can also add small pieces of fur cuffs and collars to give your jacket a winter look.
Another option is to sling a wool, fur, lace or crochet shawl over your shoulders (a great option for the lower class ladies). Bolero style jackets were common in the 1860s. Short capes and capelets were popular in the 1850s Dickens era and again in the 1880s and 1890s. Knit, velvet, or lace Christmas tree skirts make great DIY capes, especially if you need a red, white, green or plaid cape.
Victorian outerwear was usually long winter coats made of wool or large capes. Most coats that you will find in stores will not be wide enough to fit over a full hoop or large skirt but the slimmer styles will work for the later years. You can find some full skirted coats online, usually in the Steampunk or Gothic style. Vintage overcoats from the 70s and 80s are another source for Victorian-inspired outerwear.
Skirt Belt – You don’t have to wear a belt, but I think outfits look better with one. A black leather or fabric belt is all you need. Both thin and wide belts were worn, although wide belts were more common. If the buckle looks too modern, I sometimes will buckle it at the back and add a Victorian brooch pin to the front. For a softer Edwardian style, use a folded or gathered scarf and tie it around your waist. The skirt and belt should sit on the high waist, just under the ribs.
All together now… The Outfits
1840s to 1860s
Starting with the 1840s to 1860s, I made a few outfits with different types of jackets. I started with a hoop skirt and added a circle skirt I had previously made for an 18th-century dress. The blouse is a Garibaldi blouse I purchased on Etsy. The wide belt I found at a thrift store. It is in the shape of a Medici belt which was very popular during the Civil War.
The bustle era, 1870s-1880s, is one of my favorites to DIY. I started with a basic full skirt over a bustle pad and petticoat, then I added another long skirt, hi-low skirt or shorter skirt for an apron effect. A wide piece of fabric was also draped and gathered into a bustle. Feel free to mix up colors and patterns of skirt layers. Using safety pins, I gathered up the fabric on the sides or in the back. It is really fun to play with bustles!
The 1890s is my favorite Victorian decade. It started with small bustles/apron front dresses and moved quickly into the huge mutton sleeves and extreme hourglass shape of the Gibson Girl craze. Real women hardly looked like Gibson drawings, instead, they wore simple skirt and blouse combinations or a two piece walking suits. This is the easiest of the Victorian era costumes to DIY.
Adding some good accessories can transform your simple costume dress into an amazing Victorian outfit.
Necklace – Wearing as much jewelry as possible was a sign of a lady’s wealth. A filigree Y-shape necklace or pearls with a pendant are easy to find and can look very Victorian. Add matching earrings if you wish. More about Victorian era jewelry can be found here.
Shawl – A fur, knit, or crochet shawl wrapped over your shoulders brings you back to the feeling of living in the VERY cold Victorian London. A lighter lace wrap or chiffon shawl is perfect for summer events or indoor teas.
Hat – Victorian hats came in all shapes and sizes, depending on the decade. Bonnets were worn in the 1840s to 1860s. Small straw plate-shaped hats can be curved and bent into cute perch hats. Vintage ’50s small hats decorated with feathers work for the 1870s and 1880s. Large straw brim hats can be decorated with feathers and flowers for the Late Victorian and Edwardian look.
Shoes – Lace up boots in black or brown are the most accurate. Otherwise, black Oxfords, Mary Janes, mules, and simple flats will work too. If you think your legs might show (saloon girls?) then you will want a pair of fun stockings.
Gloves – A lady’s hands were always covered when not at home. Silk or leather long gloves covered arms. In winter, knit gloves and mittens kept hands warm. A fur muff was carried by many wealthy ladies in winter. Learn about and shop Victorian gloves.
Purse – Ladies rarely needed a purse, but a small pouch bag or square embroidered bag on a ribbon or chain handle is enough to hide your cell phone. A straw basket was used by the poor. Learn more about Victorian handbags.
Hair Wigs and Pieces – We are not all blessed with long hair that was required for Victorian hairstyles. There are many wigs you can use instead of styling real hair, or you can use small wig pieces such as braided buns and ringlet curls to help create the illusion, especially under a hat. Hair accessories are also a nice touch for eveningwear. Shop hair wigs and accessories.
Makeup – The use of makeup, or not, is one every Victorian woman had to decide. Read this article on the history of Victorian makeup and how to apply it for a natural era Victorian look.
More Costumes ideas:
Read the 1840s-1950s “Dickens Era” clothing and costumes guide for more Victorian costume tips. Also see the Bustle Era costume guide for 1860s-1880s costumes.
This article on DIY Victorian dressmaking will give you ideas on how to make an evening ballgown dress, without sewing.
Shop Victorian Costumes