Thornbury Local History and Archaeology Society were recently treated to a visit from members of the West of England Costume Society, one of whom started the evening in her underwear. But this was no ordinary underwear. No, indeed, for this lady was wearing what would have been typical dress for the wife of a middle class gentleman in 1861.
Her foundation garments comprised light coloured stockings and boots with knee-length bloomers. Covering these items a lady would have worn a long chemise with short sleeves. The purpose of this was not only to protect her modesty, but also her outer garments which were of such rich fabrics that they could not be washed.
On top of this ensemble, the Victorian lady added the infamous corset. Made rigid either through the use of bones or metal rods, the corset laced at the back and reduced the size of a lady's waist by several inches. Once laced, body heat made the rods more pliable and a strong lady's maid or husband could pull the strings even tighter to achieve the narrow waist look which Victorians saw as a desirable mark of femininity. Of course, you will not be surprised to learn that the wearing of this type of corset severely restricted a woman's movement and made her prone to fainting. However, you might be surprised to learn that some husbands would tie the corset with a special knot which he would look for in the evening to show that his wife had remained tightly restricted in the garment all day.
With the underwear garments complete, the attention was now turned to the crinoline itself which was a series of hoops diminishing in size held together with vertical tapes, the purpose of which was to give bulk to the skirt part of the dress. The Victorian lady would have stepped into her crinoline and tied it at the front whilst a small bag of horsehair the size of a large pencil case was placed in the small of her back to provide some lift at the rear of the dress.
When it came to crinolines the Victorian view was the larger the better and was seen as an indicator of wealth. Of course, the bulk of such dresses had other implications such as the need to widen doorways and redesign chairs in order to accommodate the skirts. A lady in a crinoline also had to be very careful of flames, windy days and negotiate with great care mounting into a carriage.
On top of the crinoline cage, a lady would wear her petticoat made of plain white cotton but edged with frills.
Only then would she be ready for her outer garments which, although described as a dress, were actually several pieces. The skirt itself was highly starched to give bulk and contained two large pockets which would have been where a lady put the sort of items we carry in handbags today. Ladies' pockets were actually an innovation which had replaced an earlier arrangement where two large bags were strung from a removable waist band and worn on the outside of the dress. It was interesting to note that this gave rise to the rhyme "Lucy Lockett lost her pockets..."
Before the jacket could be put on, two white cotton 'garde jambes' were tied onto the lady's arms at the widest point. The 'garde jambes' were essentially false sleeves with elaborate broderie anglaise cuffs which would be visible under the jacket but could be easily washed.
And finally, a jacket in Spanish style and boned at the front in a fabric matching that of the skirt was fastened with six small covered buttons and a ribbon tie to create an impressive ensemble.
This type of dress would have been worn in the afternoons when a lady would have been available for visiting and would have been the second outfit of the day. Later, Victorian ladies would change again into their evening wear for dinner.
It was not uncommon for each dress to demand up to 20metres of fabric which would have come at a cost equivalent to £2000 by today's values making this type of dress code only accessible on a professional salary or above.
At the beginning of the evening, we were promised a fascinating talk which did not disappoint.
The Thornbury Local History and Archaeology Society always welcomes new and occasional members. Details of our programme can be found on this website, the library or the Town Hall. Our meetings are on the second Tuesday of the month, held at St Mary's Church Hall beginning at 7.30pm. Visitors are always welcome at the society for the small charge of £2.50.