From Conventions to Curators: Historical Gothic Victorian Fashion

June 18, 2012

A.K.A. My Museum Shopping List!

Gothic Victorian (sometimes called neo-Victorian) is a modern fashion movement that reinterprets certain aspects and fashion facets of Victorian culture, putting a twist on the old style. Seeing beautiful fashions revived in new ways makes me excited, both as a historian and as an avid fan of dressing up! I am, however, terribly picky and pragmatic and if I’m going to invest in a dress, I want to be able to wear it as much as possible: museum-wise and convention-wise.

In my years of costume research, I’ve discovered that there are plenty of extant, real Victorian gowns that would work just as beautifully in a Victorian parlor as they would in Dracula’s castle!

Gothic Victorian

Gothic Victorian,a sub-genre of goth or gothic style, flirts with the darker side of life. It dwells on tragic romance, the mysteries of the human mind, and the fantasy world of nightmares. The most mainstream examples can be found in Edgar Allen Poe’s tales, almost everything Tim Burton has created over the years, and the unique poetry of Emily Dickinson. Everything may seem black, grey, and red all over, but Gothic Victorian embraces the beauty of the sad and the fun of antique fetishes. It takes inspiration from the Victorian period, but doesn’t adhere very strictly to it, mixing in modern necklines with puffed crinoline skirts. Not all Gothic Vicotiran fashion is dark. Clothing is sometimes white, pink, or soft blue to display a ghostly or innocent soul. Gothic Victorian lets you explore the two sides of you personality you usually have to hide– your romantic side and your wicked side– all while looking amazing!

The hallmarks of Gothic Victorian fashion are:

Favorite time period: 1850 onwards (and some medieval, renaissance, and baroque influences)
Bustles, hobbles, and full skirts
Corsets and cinchers
Trench coats, boleros, and military jackets
Hats, especially top hats (often tiny)
Tall boots and high heels
Bones, roses, spiders, crystals, and blood
Stripes and plaid
Parasols, gauntlets, and gloves
Curiosities and mementos mori
Heavy ornamentation and layers
Often used colors include black, red, and jewel tones
Often used materials include satin, beads, velvet, and lace


Period Fashions and Accessories with Gothic Style

American Silk Dress, circa 1870

Dinner Dress, circa 1880

Parasol with Ivory Handle, circa 1870

Day Dress, circa 1885

Gold Brooch, circa 1890

Evening Dress, circa 1885

American Silk Dress, circa 1879

Fetish Boots, circa 1900

Silk Dress, circa 1869

Mme. Uoll Gross Ensemble, circa 1885

Evening Hat, circa 1888

Evening Dress, circa 1881

Ball Gown, circa 1875

Gothic Victorianism is known for it’s fascination with love and death. Victorians had symbols for nearly everything, including snakes for eternal love and anchors for loyalty and hope. They also had elaborate mourning procedures that involved symbolic items such as veils and mourning jewelry. Sentimental and mourning jewelry hold a special place in my heart. Pieces are often made from human hair woven into brooches, necklaces, bracelets and more. The tradition of weaving hair into jewelry began in the 17th century with Stuart Crystals and grew throughout the 18th and 19th centuries until the Edwardian era. Mementos mori (“Remember your mortality”) have been around since ancient times, but became especially popular during the 15th century. Gothic Victorians still employ updated versions of mementos mori, including skulls, angels, crosses, and relics.

Mementos Mori and Sentimental Jewelry

Rosary Bead, circa 16th or 19th century

Stuart Crystal Ring, circa 1728

Hair brooch, circa 1842

Jet Necklace, circa 1875

Hair Comb, circa 1851

Stuart Crystal Ring, circa 1686

Stock/Stick Pin, early 19th century
(this pin is rumored to have belonged to Napoleon I)

Bracelet, circa 1886

Snake bracelet, circa 1870

Mourning Ring, circa 1661

The “gothic” part of Gothic Victorian refers to it’s use of what I like to call the “harmonious grotesque.” There’s always something a little unsettling about gothic fashion, but that little twinge of dystopic strangeness really enhances the allure! I love Gothic Victorian style, especially how dark, yet appealing it is. It’s perfect for those of us who love being romantic, but can’t stand being saccharine. It’s bittersweet and beautiful!



Corset, circa 1890

Sexy, hot-pink satin corset…and it’s historical! :)

2 Responses to “From Conventions to Curators: Historical Gothic Victorian Fashion”

  1. Paula Akin Says:

    beautifully written; perfectly expresses my own Gothic sensibilities. the photos are breathtaking; well, all except the ‘fetish boots, 1900,’ which did not appear. too shy, perhaps. :-) thank you.

    • Liz Says:

      Thank you for pointing out the missing image! I have convinced the boots to reappear. :)

      They are in the collections at LACMA (Los Angeles County Museum of Art), so if they ever disappear again, just check their collections online.

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