What were Victorian fashion colors? The Victorian era having spanned 5 decades and nearly 100 years had a variety of fashionable colors women wore. Victorian color trends were influenced by art, geography, social class and available dyes and fabrics.
In an effort to compare one Victorian decade to the next I looked at surviving antique Victorian dresses and color matched them into the following color charts. No modern technology can capture the full range of colors, so do take these as a suggestion or a big picture look at the decade’s most common colors found in women’s dress fashions.
Looking at color is only part of the answer to understanding Victorian fashion. A study of the fabrics is also relevant. Here I tuned to ladies fashion magazines and historical costuming books to gather fabrics for both daywear and evening gowns plus trim and some outerwear.
1840s Fabric Colors
Starting with the 1840s, Victorian fashion colors were muted tones, mostly of gold-tan-ivory shades, without trim.
Some printed fabrics went in the opposite direction combining clashing bright tones – orange, purple, and white into one striking fabric that seemed to belong on sofa instead of dress.
Fabrics too were heavy tapestries instead of the sheer gauze draping of the 1830s.
- Daytime Fabrics: Heavy twilled silks, scotch plaid velvet, oriental velvets, embroidered India muslins, stripe satin double, levantines, cashmere, shot or glace silk, wool
- Evening Fabrics: Crepe, organdie, satin, lace, shot or glace silk
- Trim: Lace, fringe, flounces, scallops, frogging, buttons, bows, flowers, drapes
The most characteristic of all the silks of the 1840s was “changeable” shot or glace silk, plain or patterned, with delicate and subtle shadings of color into color. They have a slight iridescent quality.
This silk was used for day dresses as well as evening wear. Silks were becoming more generally worn in day dresses by 1840, taking the place of the printed muslins of the 1820s and early 1830s.
- Daytime colors: Dark blue, soft blue, black, grass green, teal blue-green, deep purple, brown, many shades of cream/tan/bronze/gold
- Evening Colors: Light pink, blue, gold hues, soft yellow, greenish-gold or deep black, bronze, purple, blue or dark green but especially white /ivory/ cream tones. Late 40s saw stripes, plaid and brilliant shades of blue, green, red and yellow.
- Patterns: Large plaid, small figures on dark or light ground, sprays of flowers, widely spaced stripes
- Trim Colors: Minimal, if any. Matching or similar shades of trim. White lace collars.
- Outerwear Colors: Black, deep blue, dark green, white, cream/tan, purple
The colorings of the 1840s are generally less rich and exuberant, except in the printed woolen fabrics and the shawls, but the contrast of black lace and light satins for evening gowns was still fashionable in the 1840s.
Unlike the shot silks with their soft, luminous colorings, the printed wool fabrics of the time often showed bright and richly mixed colors such as cream with blue and deep pink or purple, orange and white.
Black satin aprons and black mantles were worn over bright dresses, and black was fashionable for bonnet veils and mittens.
1850s Fashion Colors
1850s Victorian colors were still dull but by combining them with contrasting olive green, burnt red, and purple colors they created a new dynamic color pallet. Blue was the latest color which was not dull, but a vibrant royal-blue or China blue-grey.
- Daytime Fabrics: Velvet, striped/plaid/waved silks, Indian silks, silk plush, cashmere. Blouses/undersleeves: white lace, muslin, cambric
- Evening Fabrics: Tulle, organdy, taffeta, silk
- Trim Fabrics: lace, tulle, fringe, velvet ribbon, stamped lace, black lace, passementerie, galon, marabou feathers, flowers, gold or silver embroidery
- Outerwear: Warm tones of dark red, brown or fawn and white for evenings.
A fabric of great richness which was fashionable in the 1850s was velvet-figured silk.
- Daytime colors: Pale violet, blue, deep green, dark olive, deep brown, severes blue, rose pink, cream, blush, light yellow, maroon, gray, golden-tan. After 1858 aniline dye created bright purple, red, blue and yellow
- Evening Colors: Ruby red, green, bright violet. Light grey, cream, golds and white.
- Patterns: Large plaid, flowered brocaded silks, flower print muslins
- Trim Colors: Bright contrasting colors- cherry, blue, green, plaids
Although light and delicate shades of silk still continued to be used all through the 1850s and early 1860s, there was a general increase in richness and depth of color, although the combination of more than two colors in the woven designs was not usual.
The combination of black with a single dark, rich color is often found in silks of the 1850s. Floral patterns were figured against a checkered ground.
1860s Fashion Colors
The 1860s, which included the Civil War years, experienced the benefit of Aniline dyes but also the struggle to produce or import fabrics. Natural fabrics replaced many imported silks and handmade lace became the most popular trim.
Light and dark colors were found equally at any gathering. Fabric designers seemed to enjoy producing new colors on basic fabrics to keep women buying new dresses.
- Daytime Fabrics: Cotton, linen, silk, merino wool, flannel, muslin de lane, printed cambric, foulard, pique, terry velvet, poplin
- Evening Fabrics: Crepe, gauze, tarleton, stripe silks, moire silk, brocade silk
- Trim Fabrics: Self-fabrics Evenings: Lace, ostrich plumes, swanswodwn, garlands
Silks, warp-printed with a single flower design, in deeper shades of the ground color were used in the 1860s. Silks with small woven sprig patterns, checks and stripes were popular daywear patterns.
For evening wear, lighter silks, silk muslin, gauze and crepe were used.
(Up to the 1860s the two forms crape and crepe both appear for fabrics, usually transparent silk, which have a crinkled surface. From this time crape began to refer to the black and white mourning fabrics only and all other fabrics of this kind were referred to as crepe.)
- Daytime colors: Mauve, magenta, dark purple, deep brown, rich green, bright blue, red, purple, pink, white, buff, “tea” colored
- Evening Colors: Delicate white, sky blue, gray, lilac, pink and pale gold-brown. Rich royal blue, emerald green, crimson for married women.
- Trim Colors: Dark over light fabrics, pastel colors over white, and neighboring tones such as blue over green
- Patterns: Small floral patterns, thin stripes, small checks
The silk, usually a dark silk—purple, brown or green —was figured in cut and uncut velvet in black, giving a fabric of great richness. The heavier, plainer silks, corded or watered, were favored in the early 1860s.
By 1860 the first successful aniline dyes were coloring the fabrics of Victorian dress. The early colors, magenta and solferino (purple-red), appeared in fabrics of the early 1860s, often in combination with black or white, and sometimes in unexpected places.
Another color of the 1860s was a bright blue which was often used with white trim. Scarlet and black, or scarlet, black and white, were also popular for the more informal wear and for outdoor wear.
Dresses of two colors and two textiles were typical. Plain or shot silks, or small neat patterns or stripes were popular in the sixties.
1870s Fashion Colors
The 1870s favored bright colors and contrasting combinations. Bold, bold, bold! Any color dress was mixed with either white or black trim as well as tonal shades for a less dramatic look.
- Daytime Fabrics: Cotton, twilled wool, corded silk, corded poplin or silk, serge, cashmere, muslin, batiste, lawn, linen
- Evening Fabrics: Satin, velvet, silk and light muslin, gauze, tulle, lace, net for draping, overskirts and flounces
- Trim Fabrics: Flowers, roses, garlands of leaves with flower buds
- Patterns: Medium width vertical stripes, buffalo plaid, windowpane, large checks, floral figures widely spaced
Fabrics needed to pleat, drape, fold and bustle to create the volumeus gowns. A heavy under skirt was topped with lighter fabrics to add volume without weight.
- Daytime colors: Green (dark and light), mauves, golden fawn, pale blue, blue purple, light purple, brown, slate grey, red and black
- Evening Colors: Pink, maroon, yellow-gold, violet, mid blue, light green. White with jewel colored trim.
- Trim Colors: Red, orange, yellow-green, white, black, fawn, grey. Contrasting colors of same material as body (green and gold, red and green, blue and orange, lilac with red)
The fashion of wearing a white bodice and colored skirt continued from the early 1860s.
“One color should predominate in the dress ; and if another is adopted, it should be in a limited quantity and only by way of contrast or harmony. Some colors may never, under any circumstances, be worn together, because they produce positive discord to the eye.
If the dress be blue, red should never be introduced by way of trimming, or vice versa. Red and blue, red and yellow, blue and yellow, and scarlet and crimson may never be united in the same costume.
When two colors are worn in any quantity, one must approach a neutral tint, such as gray or drab. Black may be worn with any color, though it looks best with the lighter shades of the different colors.
White may also be worn with any color, though it looks best with the darker tones. Thus white and crimson, black and pink, each contrast better and have a richer effect than though the black were united with the crimson and the white with the pink.
Drab, being a shade of no color between black and white, may be worn with equal effect with all.”
– COLORS IN DRESS. Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1872
1880s Fashion Colors
1880s fashions returned to pastel colors for warm seasons and rich jewel tones for winter. Less fabric was used but more trim was added to make gowns appear rich and luxurious.
- Daytime Fabrics: Wool, wool/silk stripes, satin, cotton, mohair, watered silks, velvet, velveteen, India muslin embroidered with silver or gold thread, brocades, cashmere, sateen, striped flannel, plaid wool, jersey
- Evening Fabrics: Silk, brocade, satin, lace and crepe de chine. Sashes of crepe, chiffon or silk gauze
- Trim Fabrics: Lace, jet beads, crystal beads, pearls, flowers, thread, passementerie of steel, tassels, cords, fringe, bows, ribbon
- Patterns: plaid, dots of all sizes, stripes, plaid
Natural colored canvas, often embroidered in another color, was a particularly characteristic fabric for summer dresses in the mid- 1880s. Colored cottons with white embroidery and embroidered tissue silk, a wild silk in natural color, were also fashionable.
- Daytime colors: Blue, sapphire, maize, apricot, pearl grey, violet, black, brown, green, pink, crimson red, ruby red, claret red, plum,
- Evening Colors: White, ivory, blush rose, shrimp pink, black (trimmed in black or steel grey)
- Trim Colors: Dark grey, bronze, gold, cream, black, coffee brown
It was generally a period of rich and varied color, sometimes rather harsh color and garish combinations, but there are from the 1880s an almost equal number of dresses in very light shades.
Many shades of blue were worn, and rich browns, chartreuse and olive green; but red, in rich wine and jewel-like shades, was perhaps the dominant color of the whole period.
“The lighter the tint, the more elegant the gown. The skirts of plain colour are worn with bodice and wide-spreading coat tails of flowered material to match” (Queen, 1883).
1890s Fashion Colors
The end of the Victorian era, the 1890s, saw two tone color combinations lead the fashion parade. Separates of blouses, jacket, skirts or two piece dresses made it easy to mix up dramatic colors and patterns.
Patterns of checks, plaid, stripes, polka dots and florals took women’s fashion into the new decade with more whimsey.
- Daytime Fabrics: Velvet, silk, flannel, wool, tweed, percale, seersucker, serge wool, lawn, seersucker, cambric, batiste, challis, serge, bengaline, cashmere, flannel, calico cotton, camels hair, cheviot, hopsacking, moire, crepe, mohair, satin, Henrietta, taffeta, cambric, muslin
- Evening Fabrics: Velvet, lace, silk, gemmed lace, satin, moire, chiffon over silk
- Trim Fabrics: Embroidery, jet beads, glass beads, braid, lace, rhinestones, jewels, sequins, iridescent steel spangles, roses, daisies, leaves
- Patterns: Gingham checks, calico, large florals, narrow stripes, windowpane, plaid
- Daytime colors: Yellow, purple (all shades), mauve, light green, heliotrope, chartreuse, black, brown, slate grey, navy blue, dark green, light blue, orange, pink
- Outerwear: Black, purple, green, deep red, grey, wheat
- Evening Colors: Red, emerald green, magenta, violet, yellow, cream, black
- Trim Colors: White, black or neighboring shade
The fashions of the last years of the century were the beginnings of a new form which did not reach its climax until the next reign and the next century.
Read next, 1900s colors and fabrics.
Debbie Sessions has been teaching fashion history and helping people dress for vintage themed events since 2009. She has turned a hobby into VintageDancer.com with hundreds of well researched articles and hand picked links to vintage inspired clothing online. She aims to make dressing accurately (or not) an affordable option for all. Oh, and she dances too.