In Victorian times dressing was a fine art. There was no throwing on a skirt and blouse just to make a quick trip to the store. There were many steps and layers to complete before stepping outdoors.
Victorian underclothing was the first step. The chemise was the first undergarment worn and it was a nightgown type of shape usually made of cotton with a rounded neckline. Under the chemise were wide legged drawers called bloomers that came about three-quarters of the way down the legs and usually had some sort of decorations such as embroidery or lace at the hem. The next item, the corset, was one of the most important garments a lady could wear. Usually made of cotton or linen and reinforced with whale bone or steel to keep the wearer’s back completely straight, it encircled the torso and was tightly laced up the back to give the illusion of a tiny waist. It was difficult to move and sometimes to breathe if laced too tight. Long stockings were an imperative to cover the legs.
The under-petticoat was worn over the corset sometimes up to six at a time to give the effect of a large rounded skirt. They were heavily starched and rustled when the wearer walked and if the woman had a hoop skirt or a crinoline, only one petticoat was needed. The crinoline was a stiff petticoat usually made of horsehair and cotton or muslin, also laced with whalebone or steel that caused the skirt to have a bell shaped appearance. Early crinolines were inflatable and could cause the circumference of the skirt to reach as much as six yards.
The final undergarment was the over petticoat. These were made of a variety of materials; satin, silk, muslin or cotton and were elaborately decorated with lace or embroidery at the bottom.
The dress was the final layer and the style depended upon the season, the time of day, and the occasion. In early Victorian days, women’s dresses had narrow sleeves with the shoulder line dropped below the natural shoulder line coming to either a V-neck or rounded neck. Evening dresses had shorter sleeves often with layered flounce skirts and elaborate lace and floral appliqués. Shawls adorned with lace and fringe were worn with evening clothes.
By the 1850s small jackets became popular over skirts and blouses and sleeves widened substantially. The jacket often had wide elbow length sleeves and the blouse sleeve peeked out from under with a pouf at the elbow gathering at the wrist.
Some jackets had a long back extending down over to of the dress often in a V shape.
By the end of the 1860s, the hoop skirt began to go out of style. Dresses had narrower skirts gathered at the back under the waist called a bustle. Day dresses had higher necklines while evening wear had plunging necklines and short puffed sleeves or no sleeves at all and often a short train that extended past floor length.