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Isabella Grace on a Balcony, Clementina, Lady Hawarden. Museum no. PH.457:163-1968. © Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Isabella Grace on a Balcony, Clementina, Lady Hawarden, London, England. Albumen print. Museum no. PH.457:163-1968 © Victoria & Albert Museum, London

The V&A's Victorian dress collection represents the fashions worn by the wealthy in the 19th century, and reflects their lives and aspirations. The clothing featured here also showcases the high level of skill in dressmaking and design carried out by dressmakers and tailors in Victorian times. The degree of workmanship involved in making these clothes meant that they were expensive to make -they were high fashion comparable to today's haute couture. Very few examples of men's clothing have survived from this period - generally men's fashions changed slowly and darker colours were often worn for business and on formal occasions. This meant that even expensive garments could be worn longer and were worn out with day-to-day wear.

The middle classes generally would not wear such high value items such as these. However, the style of these clothes would have spread further than the small social group for whom they were made, much the same as adapted catwalk fashions can be found in high street retailers today. The middle classes could afford to have high fashion copied by local dressmakers and tailors, or made their own new clothes.

The poor would rely on the huge second-hand clothes trade prevalent during the period, spending hours altering old clothes for themselves and their families to make them fit or to make them more fashionable. Clothes could be dyed and the good parts of a garment made into children's clothes or accessories, and areas of wear could be patched. There was even a market for ragged clothes that had been through several owners - these were still worn by the destitute.

Women's clothes 1830s-1860s

Women's skirts swelled between 1840 and 1860. At first the skirts were supported by several petticoats, one of which was of a stiffened silk or of a silk and horsehair fabric, known as crinoline. When the frame of pliable steel hoops was invented in 1856, it was known as the cage crinoline. It would have been very heavy and cumbersome to wear a full-length coat over a crinoline skirt, so mantles, shawls or short jackets were more convenient for outdoor wear. Fibres used were all natural ones such as cotton, wool and silk. Making the very tight bodices and sleeves of women's dresses required far more skill than the straight-seamed skirt.

Women's clothes 1860s-1890s

In the late 1860s the fullness of the very large crinoline was moved to the back of the skirt and trailed behind the wearer. The back of the skirt was swept up into a bustle in the 1870s, held out over a pad or frame and allowed to flow down into a short train. To make this type of skirt requires many hours of skilled work.

In the last decade of Queen Victoria's reign, women's clothes were plainer, and the bustle smaller. Day dresses show that women were leading rather more active lives. However the dresses of the 1890s, with their very small waists and need for tight stays, still restricted movement. Many of the bodices and blouses had high necks stiffened with bones or wire. The chin had to he held up and the hair was puffed out and topped with a large hat, secured with a hat pin. Evening dresses were made from luxurious, heavy silks and had boned bodices and trains.

Aesthetic dress in the 19th century

In the mid nineteenth century, the group of artists known as the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood used medieval and Renaissance-style dress in their paintings. They designed theatrical costumes which were intended to be both historically accurate and graceful. Several of them, actresses and others with artistic leanings, took to wearing such clothes all the time. Gradually the style took a definite form of its own which marked the wearer as being 'artistic'. This style was also known as 'aesthetic' dress.

Members of societies such as the Dress Reform Movement and the Healthy and Artistic Dress Union were critical of heavy restrictive clothing and tight corsets, which they thought unhealthy and lacking in grace. They favoured making garments from washable fabrics and making dress healthier in other ways. Some enthusiastic dress reformers advocated woollen underwear in the belief that it allowed the skin to breathe better than other fabrics.

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