Va-Va-Voom Victorians: Historical Costuming in the XL

Beauty Comes in More Sizes than Zero

Photograph of a Group of Sisters, circa 1900 from VintageJunkDrawerToo on Etsy

I had a student ask me yesterday about my Victorian costume obsession. I explained to her the basics, the ins-and-outs of the eras, the various delights of fabric and forms, and the events to attend to display your creations/acquisitions. She seemed intensely interested and expressed her growing love of costuming, “But,” she said, “only thin people can really wear those kinds of things.”

Photograph of Victorian Couple, circa 1880 from  NiepceGallery on Etsy
A very classic Victorian couple.

At first, I was a little taken aback, but I can see where her skepticism about Victorian costuming might spring from. Thanks to plenty of myth and media, we associate the Victorian era with one major thing: itty-bitty waists. When you say Victorian to anyone, they picture big skirts and corsets that will kill you if you so much as pick one up. It’s like one of those campy horror stories, only instead of a giant snake strangling our scantily-clad damsel in distress, it’s a giant, vise-like corset hell-bent on squeezing the ever-living daylights out of the poor girl.

Illustrated Police News, June 25, 1870

To put it frankly, yes. Victorians were thinner on average than we are now, but they were also shorter and smaller all around. “On average” is the key term. Just because there’s a perceived average does not mean everyone meets it. On the contraire! An average is made up of a multitude of factors (in this case dress sizes) that are all added together and divided into one number near-ish the middle of the lot. All that measuring and math adds up to a gross generalization about society.

“The Diamond Sisters,” circa 1900-1910 from thecedarchest on Etsy

Time for a word problem!

There are five friends—Nanette, Sybil, Gabrielle, Mary, and Florence. One of the friends, Nanette, was a tad late to the photoshoot and didn’t get her picture taken. Of the remaining four, the youngest, Sybil, is the smallest of the bunch with a 22 inch corseted waist (it’s important to note whether the measurement is with or without their corset which I will explain in a moment). Gabrielle and Mary both measure 24 inches in their corsets. Florence measures in at a lady-like 26 inches, corseted. Now, judging by her friends, what size is Nanette?

We can add all the known measurements together: 22 + 24 + 24 + 26 = 96 inches
Then divide the total by the number of present factors, in this case, the four pictured ladies: 94 ÷ 4 = 24 inches

So, if we are judging Nanette’s waist size by that of her friends’, she should have about a 24 inch waist, corseted. But that doesn’t really work in real life. Humans come in all shapes and sizes—even within a single family—and to narrow expectations with an “average” is unfair to everyone. Even in this particular scenario, the only limiting factor is that Sybil has the tiniest corseted waist at 22 inches. Maybe Nanette has a 22.1 inch waist or a 26 inch waist like Florence or perhaps she is perfectly average at 23.5 or nicely rounded at 34 inches…we may never know. Humans just don’t average out well on an individual scale, especially when it comes to measurements (which is why one-size-fits-all never really fits anyone). Size is determined by so many factors like undergarments, diet, genetics, and medical conditions like thyroid imbalances. These sort of factors are not new, modern additions to life. Even if unrecognized, these factors have always created variety in society, Victorians included.

Maison Léoty Corset, circa 1891

But what about those terribly terrifying corsets? Wasn’t everyone squeezing themselves down to 15 inch waists? Well, first of all, you should not be buying a corset to squeeze yourself down to an “acceptable” size. A corset’s main function is split between shaping and support. The goal is to mold the figure into the right proportions, rather than the right size. That distinction is key to understanding the Victorian aesthetic. Even the skinniest of gals will look strangely disheveled in any Victorian style if the proportions aren’t right. Victorian fashions from corsets, crinolines, and bustles to Mutton sleeves and Edwardian pigeon-fronts all shared a common goal: to make the waist look as small as possible no matter what the actual waist size.

Charles Worth Fashion Sketch, circa 1870
The wide, dropped neckline, puff sleeves, and enormous skirt all contrast with the carefully fitted, unadorned waist to make it appear even tinier. Top-heavy gals like me may want to avoid too much sleeve-poof, but wide or V necklines, plain bodices, and ornate skirts all help make the waist look smaller.

Since clothing was not bought completely “off the rack” until the 20th century, seamstresses and designers could mix and match elements to best suit each individual’s body proportions. The circumference of your waist, bust, bottom, or thighs is important only to make sure your dress fits you in the most flattering, proportional way possible! There were some pretty bodacious ladies back in the day, all looking fab in their Victorian (and Edwardian) gowns. Here’s just a small sampling:

Photograph of Couple, circa 1890 from EphemeraObscura on Etsy

1860s Ebay

Photograph of a Woman, circa 1860-1870

Cabinet Photo, circa 1885-90 from NiepceGallery on Etsy

Cabinet Photo, circa 1890 from  AlaskaVintage on Etsy

Cabinet Card, late 19th Century from PainterPoetMuse on Etsy

Wedding Photograph, circa 1889 from AlaskaVintage on Etsy

They all look just as Victorian as the next lady! They wore the same styles as everyone else with little tweaks to balance proportions out: most are wearing carefully fitted tops with minimal decoration, plus the era’s heavy skirts make a booty an asset, not a setback! Even larger Victorian ladies appear to have tiny, roll-free waists thanks to their corsets, which everyone, regardless of size, wore. In fact, a larger woman with a softer body could achieve comparatively more of a reduction than a muscular or skinny woman because a corset more easily molds softer bodies. Many of the gals in the previous photo montage would be modern US size 16-20+ without their corsets on. Corsets push up the bust and push the belly down to the hips, making for an exceptionally pronounced, attractive hourglass shape. In spite of their corsets, you’ll notice each woman has her own shape–some very rounded, others straight with minimal waist reduction. It’s all a matter of comfort and taste. That same rule applies to modern gals who love to costume: do what feels right to you!

Good Sense Corset Ad, circa 1886
While women wore corsets everyday, they didn’t all tightlace. In fact, tightlacing had been discouraged since the 1860s and wasn’t practiced by most women. Children did wear support garments at a young age and young girls were put into their first corsets in their early teens. Properly worn, corsets help ease back pain by improving posture and supporting heavy breasts. Health corsets like these became popular after 1890 as sports and exercise became popular pastimes.

However, there is one major argument about Victorian sizing that often gets overlooked: we are not Victorians. We are the products of the 20th and 21st centuries, not the 19th. Our lives and bodies are different and it’s not our duty to hold ourselves to norms that are over 100 years behind us. I can barely hope to match my own grandmother’s 23 inch waist from 1955, much less a young, high-society model’s 19 inch waist from 1895. There was a time when I tried—and golly, I may still wish I could—but my body is two generations different from my grandmother’s, with a different mix of genes, diet, and cultural norms. I enjoy corseting and girdles both as occasional and daily support, but any girdles or corsets I wear are relatively new to my life. Most earlier generations were introduced to shapewear much earlier in life and wore it much more frequently, training their waists since their teenage years. That experience is something we can’t and aren’t obligated to share.
However, historical shaping is something we can all take an interest in an explore without feeling societal pressure to do so (another big change from other eras where shaping garments were considered necessary for any decent public appearances).

And example for a modern Black Underbust Corset, from Hellmade Corsets on Etsy Corsets and cinchers, when carefully chosen and worn, can transport you from everyday to yesterday! Feel a little nervous about trying a corset? There is plenty of information on the internet about how to achieve the right look with or without a corset. Here’s my eBay corset buying experience and what really happens when you slip into a corset for the first time.

The point of costuming is to express something within yourself. Lots of us have “born in the wrong era” syndrome, so a hoop skirt here and a button boot there makes us giddy. Size doesn’t matter if you are a painter, wood carver, perfumer, knitter, or any other type of craftsman. Why should size matter in the costuming community? It’s an art just like anything else–an especially grand and fun one at that! Sure, body measurements matter when it comes to making patterns, but clothes should fit bodies, not vice versa.
So if you are a big woman with big dreams, don’t think you have to squeeze your hopes (or yourself!) down to size just because you don’t match the “normal” historical stereotype. It’s the 21st century! Resolve to costume bravely!

As with all of my articles, the pictures are linked to larger versions, helpful websites, and other informative resources, so feel free to click on them and explore!
For more info on costuming for a full figure, check out these amazing websites:

“Supporting a Large Bust” by Isabelle Mekel – How to corset for DD and larger

“Dress Culture in Late Victorian Women’s Fiction” by Christine Bayles Kortsch – Delves deeper into perception vs. reality (I also linked to it earlier in this article)


Not Your Average 18th Century

What’s Old is New is Strange Again!

Darejan, wife of Erekle II of Georgia, 18th Century

As years pass, memories get a little fuzzy, facts get a bit muddled up, and stereotypes take over. We gloss over eras and simplify them for good reason; after all, if we kept track of every tiny piece, we’d never have enough time to learn it all (imagine having to take every single course a university has ever offered in order to earn a degree). Plus, it make finding something a little different than “normal” exceptionally exciting! Fashion trends get skipped, everyday items become obsolete, and whole countries get ignored. Here are a few 18th century items with uses, tweaks, tricks, or origins that make them unique:

Jet Shoe Buckles, circa 1735

There are plenty of shoe buckles out there from the 18th century. They were made of many different materials–brass, pewter, silver, gold– and were often decorated. Many have sparkly cut paste stones made of clear glass backed with silver or colored foil. What makes this pair unusual is that it’s made from jet, an organic gemstone. Jet is usually associated with the 19th century because of its use in Victorian mourning jewelry. Jet actually became exceptionally popular earlier, around 1730, and even before that during the Roman period. The warm black stone was used to fashion all sorts of jewelry like bracelets, rings, and pins. It fell out of fashion as softer color pallets began to come into favor during the mid 1760s, but jet’s popularity would soar again in the 1830s.

Pink Silk Gown, circa 1770-80

I love this dress not just for the color, but for its unique front. I love the crossing straps across the bodice! Auction pictures aren’t always accurate in their posing of garments, but the long front straps on this one baffle even if they weren’t made to make that fantastic criss-cross. This dress is from the Tasha Tudor collection which contained hundreds of beautiful gowns that spanned 3 centuries and all classes. The collection has lots of pieces that show the ingenuity and creativity of seamstresses throughout history.

Stays or Bodice, circa 1700-1720 (according to Augusta Auctions)

Okay. So there’s this. I will profess that I cannot tell if it is a set of stays or a bodice. It’s boned like stays, but the shape is beyond unusual. In fact, I might dare to suggest that these might date earlier than 1725, perhaps even as early as 1680 when mantuas with long, conical bodices were in fashion. This peculiar set of stays is actually quite similar to 17th century stays in the V&A Museum. Gowns from the 17th and 18th centuries both shared similar features, however, including stomachers, which became a major part of fashion in the 18th century. These stays are missing a stomacher, but that doesn’t distract too much. The most fascinating feature of this piece is the back. Those two wide seams are actually jointed with laces threaded through a series of tiny metal rings.

Lacing Detail showing the Metal Rings

So these may actually be from the mid-to-late 17th century rather than the 18th century, but I’m leaving there here because they are so fascinating!

Man’s Indian Court Costume, 18th century

It’s hard to look past the European side of fashion. Sometimes it takes European adoption of an exotic trend to open up the fashion vacuum a bit. For example, by the 18th century, India had been colonized by Europeans for its rich resources like gemstones and spices. Thanks to colonists and merchants, Indian textiles became highly fashionable throughout Europe. Beautifully embroidered and woven robes, like this Indian man’s court costume, became influential during the 18th century. This cotton chintz gown was imported from India to Holland in the first quarter of the century:

Painted and Dyed Cotton Chintz Gown, early 18th century

The elegant, sweeping line and open robe front are very similar to Indian court robes. Dresses made from Indian chintz called “wentke” became popular throughout northern Europe. This gown’s somber color pallet suggests it may be a mourning gown. Most textiles from India were bright and colorful, famed for their prints and patterns. The most famous of these patterns is no doubt the paisley, which would rise to dizzying fame during the Victorian era. Indian textiles melded with other trends to produce unique dresses, like this very late 18th century Empire gown that boasts a trendy high waist inspired by Classical Greek and Roman style mixed with a bold Indian floral print:

Cotton Dress, circa 1795-1799

This late 18th century woman’s dress is quite similar to the early 18th century man’s robe. One has to wonder if later generations looked back at grandma’s and grandpa’s old clothes and adopted, re-imagined, and revamped the styles in unorthodox ways, much like we are doing today with early-to-mid 20th century clothes.

Ivory Flea Catcher, 18th-19th century century

There’s a reason why Marie Antoinette’s purported favorite color of purple was called “puce.” Puce is the French word for flea. The color is said to be the color of the bloodstains remaining on linen or bedsheets, even after being laundered, from a flea’s droppings or after a flea has been killed (Wikipedia). And there were fleas everywhere in 18th century Europe. Before fumigators and our modern era of obsessive cleanliness, pest and parasites were a common daily occurrence. Fleas were especially widespread. Have you ever had to deal with a flea-covered cat or dog? Trying to get all those nasty little critters off your pet is a nightmare. Now we have monthly drops, repellant collars, carpet sprays, bug bombs, and other chemical solutions to the problem, but in the 18th century, there wasn’t too much you could do. Enter the flea catcher!

Flea Catcher, 19th century

Flea catchers worked like decorative fly paper. The trap would be filled with a sticky substance like honey and the fleas would crawl in and get stuck. For the trap to be extra effective, a few drops of blood could be added to a little slip of paper or fabric strip that was subsequently placed inside the trap. What flea can resist such temptation? Quite a few, I imagine, but it probably felt exceptionally satisfying to open the little catcher up to see a few fleas that weren’t biting you! Flea traps were popular gifts and were worn on a cord, held in a pocket, or placed in clothing chests.

Silk Dress Fabric, circa 1760

Leopard print is historically accurate. My life is now complete.

As with all my articles, all of the images in this article are either linked to larger versions, articles explaining them, or other fact-filled sites to help you explore, so please feel free to check them out!

Update on the Sew Fortnightly: The wool fabric I ordered is now out of stock, so I’m scrambling to re-calibrate my plans and I only have 9 days left! Cross your fingers, light candles, say prayers, or do whatever it is you do to make heaven smile a little bit more favorably on my endeavors next go-round!