How to Look Like a Proper Victorian Lady in 11 Easy Steps

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Earlier this month, we showed 21st-century lads how to gentrify their wardrobes Victorian-style. Today, it’s the fairer sex’s turn. So ladies, if you’d like to shake things up with a bit of old-fashioned elegance, here are 11 handy tips.

1. Start “Stocking Up” on Hosiery.

In polite company, bare legs were passionately frowned-upon, so hosiery was non-negotiable.

2. When it Comes to Footwear, Black is Beautiful.

From the 1860s to the 1890s, dark shoes and boots (especially black ones) were the norm. Apart from coloration, however, ladies’ footwear was reasonably diverse. Boots had exceeded shoes in popularity until the late 1860s, when several models of the latter group (pointed-toed, round-toed, etc.) started cropping up.

3. Learn to Speak Glove.

GWTW Scrapbook

Evening gloves weren’t just classy. They also helped women (and men) send nonverbal messages. For example, if a clueless would-be suitor came over to make small talk, tapping your chin said “I love another.” Here’s a delightful crash-course on Victorian gesturing.

4. Get Yourself a Fan Collection.

“The fan’s novel feature,” writes historian Anna Gray Bennett, “was its ability to open and close ‘at a touch,’ thereby providing that essential element of fashion—surprise.” Any self-respecting lady owned several fans; ornate models were broken out at parties and conservative varieties taken to church on Sundays.

5. Dresses Evolved Quite a Bit, So Pick Your Favorite Decade.

Stretching from 1837 to 1901, the Victorian period was a rather lengthy one. Naturally, ladies’ dresses changed significantly during this era. Between the 1830s and 1860s, skirts were predominantly large and bell-like. However, as women began to enjoy more active lives later on, dresses began to exchange extravagance for mobility.

6. Loose Hair Is Kids’ Stuff.

Updos reigned supreme. Additionally, with the rise of hot irons, wavy hair was en vogue, and curls and braids also enjoyed a bit of a renaissance. Straight, flowing hair, on the other hand, was seen as immature and reserved exclusively for children.

7. Nix the Tanning Bed.

Oh, how standards can change! Tan skin might be all the rage now, but in Victorian times, paler complexions signified nobility.

8. Use Cosmetics Sparingly.

Only actresses and prostitutes wore excessive makeup, though not all of them cared for the stuff. “If Satan has ever had any direct agency in inducing woman to spoil or deform her own beauty,” wrote one prominent courtesan, “it must have been in tempting her to use [facial] paints and enameling.” Well-to-do women, meanwhile, lightly powdered their faces for whitening purposes. Rosy cheeks were prized, so pink blushers saw widespread application as well, along with lipstick and eye shadow (in moderation, of course).

9. Going Out? Cover That Head.

Regardless of gender, you didn’t want to be caught outdoors without some form of headgear! Trimmed with such ornaments as ostrich feathers and flowers, outside hats could get quite lavish. Bonnets and indoor hats were popular early on, but became associated with the elderly after the 1870s.

10. Borrow Some of Her Highness’ Jewelry Pointers.

It’s good to be the queen. The public strained to copy Victoria’s every whim in the jewelry department. She almost single-handedly popularized charm bracelets, charm necklaces, and a slew of other adornments throughout the U.K. After Prince Albert passed away in 1861, she mourned his death until the end of her days. During this time, Victoria predominantly wore darker jewels, and her subjects followed suit.

11. Corsets Are Unavoidable, But PROCEED WITH CAUTION!

Corsets can—and did—seriously restrict breathing or even cause rib disfigurement if bound too tightly. “Hourglass figures” were very much in vogue at the time. In keeping with the trend, expectant mothers even began donning special “pregnancy corsets.” More outrageous still was the “wasp waist” look, which involved grown women squeezing their midsections down to a scant 14 inches! But, contrary to popular belief, most Victorian corset-wearers thankfully didn’t take the practice to such frightening extremes.

So, are they safe for modern usage? Well, corsets are seeing a present-day revival of sorts at weddings and formal gatherings. Dr. Sara Gottfried claims that, although there’s (usually) no danger in putting one on periodically, “wearing a corset 24/7… can do a couple [nasty] things to your body. You may want to consult your physician to make sure that your lungs and liver are healthy,” she said, adding, “and ideally, don’t wear a corset until after the age of 21”.

All images courtesy of Getty Images unless otherwise stated.

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April 17, 2014 - 8:00am
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