The Role of Clothes in the Making of the Victorian Woman

The Role of Clothes in the Making of the Victorian Woman
© Photograph by Lucie Kout

For Thomas Carlyle in Sartor Resartus, clothes were a mere aesthetic ornament, but emblems of society’s hierarchy and symbols of the spirit.

“Man’s earthly interests,” he observes, “are hooked buttoned together and held up by clothes.” Not only could clothing transform a person’s appearance, it could influence the actions and attitudes of both the wearer and the viewer.

As Thackeray demonstrates his Paris Sketch Book of 1840, it is Louis XIV’s dress that transforms “little lean, shrivelled, paunchy old man, of five feet two” into magnificent, imposing Sun King. With shrewd insight into the influence of dress, Thackeray notes that Louis’s sartorial splendour both enhanced his own self-image and impressed his viewers.

Garments, in other words, signal to the world the role the wearer may be expected to and remind the wearer of the responsibilities of that role, its constraints and limitations. That dress acts as a means of communication is a view supported by the Quarterly Review of 1847: “Dress becomes a sort of symbolic language — a kind of personal glossary-a species of body phrenology, the study of which it would be madness to neglect,” the magazine warned.

Indeed, to those who are “proficient in the science, every woman walks about with a placard on which her leading qualities are advertised.” The nineteenth-century thus recognized, to use a phrase of the sociologist Erving Goffman, that dress performed the function of an “identity kit”.

Sex roles are one of the apparent definitions made by a dress. In societies such as nineteenth-century England and America, which differentiated significantly between the role of men and women, the clothing of the two sexes also diverged widely.

Clothed bodies enormously exaggerated the rather minimal differences between the physical anatomy of men and women. Samuel Butler describes two children looking at a picture of Adam and Eve in an illustrated Bible: “Which is Adam and which is Eve?” asks one child. “I do not know,” answers the other, “but I could tell if they had their clothes on.”

More than identifying each sex, clothing defined the role of each sex. Men were serious (they wore dark colours and little ornamentation), women were frivolous (they wore light pastel colours, ribbons, lace, and bows); men were active (their clothes allowed them movement), women inactive (their clothes inhibited movement); men were strong (their clothes emphasized broad chests and shoulders), women delicate (their clothing accentuated tiny waists, sloping shoulders, and a softly rounded silhouette); men were aggressive (their clothing had sharp definite lines and a clearly defined silhouette), women were submissive (their silhouette was indefinite, their clothing constricting).

The feminine characteristics that are projected by women’s dress -frivolity, delicacy, inactivity, and submissiveness-were embodied in the heroines of literature and praised by writers and journalists.

John Keats’s ideal woman is like “a milk-white lamb that bleats for man’s protection.” Coventry Patmore, in his long and sentimental poem on ideal marriage, The Angel in the House, depicts the betrothed woman in abject subservience to her fiance, her own self and identity eradicated: “A rapture of submission lifts her life into celestial rest; There is nothing left of what she was; Back to the babe the woman dies, and all the wisdom that she has Is to love him for being wise.”

Of Amelia, Thackeray writes in Vanity Fair: “I think it was her weakness which was her principal charm; a kind of sweet submission and which seemed to appeal to each man she met for his sympathy and protection.” And Lady Dorothy Nevill, echoing Rousseau, considered “softness, dignity and compliance” the true role of women.

More than compliance, the willingness to bear suffering, either physical or mental, was intrinsic to the notion of the ideal woman. For Mrs Ellis, a woman’s “highest duty is so often to suffer and be still.”

Thackeray, in Vanity Fair, emphasized the appeal of a woman willing to bear mental suffering: “I know few things more affecting than that timorous debasement and self-humiliation of a woman. How she owns that it is she and not the man who is guilty: how she takes all the faults on her side: how she courts in a manner punishment for the wrongs she has not committed and persists in shielding the real culprit.” Although Thackeray’s amiable advisor in “Mr Brown’s Letters to His Nephew” avows that he himself had a much higher opinion of female capabilities, he describes the model woman to be found in the novels of Scott and other writers as “an exquisite slave.”

This phrase, “exquisite slave,” like “suffer and be still,” “sweet submission,” and “debasement and self-humiliation,” suggests an underlying masochism, that is, the experience of sexual pleasure in being abused.

As psychoanalyst Anthony Storr points out, the purpose of abuse is not to inflict pain or to experience it, but to establish relations dominance and submission. The pain involved is the most convenient and believable sign that one is willing to be truly submissive, that the other will be accorded total dominance.

Havelock Ellis, an observer of Victorian sexual habits, even argues that pain by itself afforded the erotic satisfactions normally associated with the sexual act: “While men it is possible to trace a tendency to inflict pain on the women they love, it is still easier to trace in women a delight in experiencing physical pain when inflicted by a lover, and an eagerness to accept subjection his will.

Such a tendency is certainly normal.” Normal or not, Victorian women had been taught that submissiveness and pain were related, and that they were women’s lot. From childhood, they had read in the Old Testament of the expulsion of Eve from Eden and of the curse “I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children and thy desire shall be to thy husband and he shall rule over thee.”

The clothing of the Victorian woman clearly projected the message of a willingness to conform to the submissive-masochistic pattern, but dress also helped mould female behaviour to the role of the “exquisite slave.”

The sleeves of the late 1830s and 1840s were set so low over the shoulder and so tightly encased the arm that it was virtually impossible to raise the arm to shoulder height or make an aggressive or threatening gesture.

Skirts also inhibited movement. “No one but a woman,” Mrs Oliphant wrote in her book on Dress, “knows how her dress twists about her knees, doubles her fatigue, and arrests her locomotive powers.”

In the 1850s, the floor-long petticoats that were worn to inflate the floor-sweeping skirt made the rapid movement of legs difficult. By the mid-1850s and through most of the 1860s the crinoline, or cage, as it actually was sometimes called, replaced the numerous petticoats.

A helpful invention that eliminated the need for numerous heavy petticoats, the crinoline and its complicated paraphernalia also literally transformed women into caged birds surrounded by hoops of steel.

The difficulties and inconveniences of moving with a crinoline (its circumference sometimes exceeding five yards) were well documented in cartoons and caricatures. More seriously, the light material of the crinoline posed the very real danger of inflammability. “Take what precautions we may against fire, so long as the hoop is worn, life is never safe,” warned the Illustrated News of the World in 1863; “all are living under a sentence of death which may occur unexpectedly in the most appalling form.” The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine of 1867 reported 3,000 women were burned to death annually and another 20,000 injured because they wore the crinoline.

Despite its hazardous flammability, the crinoline was worn by the majority of women in England, Europe, and America from the mid-1850s until the late 1860s, when it was replaced by the tied-back skirt and train.

The new fashion gave ample assurance of immobile submission, a reminder to men of their own superior mobility and to women of the restraint and passivity supposedly inherent in their sex. Mrs Oliphant, writing in the 1870s, deplores “the painful spectacle of the whole female race more or less tied into narrow bags,” but doubts that women will overturn the tyranny of fashion.

Women call attention to their “bondage,” she notes, by a propensity “to embroider our bandages with wreaths of primroses and daffodils.” She disapproves of “the stiff lines of embroidery which show where the narrow bag of the skirt is drawn most closely round the confined limbs, or the limbs which appear to be confined whether they are so or not.”

She describes a skirt with a band of contrasting colour below the knees which had “a perplexing air of having been tied round the legs expressly to confine […] movements.” This dress and many others in the 1870s, Margaret Oliphant confides, “was artfully contrived to look like the instrument of torture which it was not in reality.”

Beyond the incommodious encumbrances of crinolines and trains, the restraining fetters of tight skirts and sleeves, the item of clothing that directly and graphically disciplined women to their submissive-masochist role was the corset.

The wearing of the laced corset was almost universal in England and America throughout the nineteenth-century. It was designed to change the configuration of the body to accord more closely with the feminine ideal of the small waist which haunted the period.

It exaggerated the differences in male and female anatomy by constricting the waist and enlarging the hips and bust. It also constricted the diaphragm, forcing women to breathe from the upper part of the chest; from this resulted the peculiarly feminine heaving of bosoms so lovingly described in popular novels.

The degree of physical debility caused by the corset depended on the tightness to which it was laced. And this varied throughout the century according to the changing proportions of waist size, sleeves, and skirt that defined the fashionable silhouette.

The crinoline, for example, being of such large dimensions, tended to dwarf the waist by comparison and required less tight-lacing, while dresses of a straighter cut demanded more to achieve the contrast of a small waist. Styles with short waists placed less reliance on the compression exerted by stays than those with long waists.

Moreover, women may have varied the tightness of lacing depending on the social occasion, their age, and marital status.

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