Monday, 26 June 2017


Last week, many of us in the UK were sweltering in temperatures of more than 30 degrees C - very unusual for a British summer! In our house, we coped by throwing open all the windows, staying out of the sun at the hottest time of the day, and eating copious amounts of ice cream. In the 21st century, we're lucky to have technology like air-conditioning and electric fans, and to be able to wear fewer clothes when it's hot.

But spare a thought for the Victorians, especially women and young girls, for whom removing layers in hot weather just wasn't an option. One of my favourite Victorian periodicals is the Cassell's Family Magazine which is full of interesting articles on subjects as random as the benefits of Turkish bathing, how to cook potatoes and what should be in the family medicine chest. A regular column was 'Chit-Chat on Dress by Our Paris Correspondent' which advised young ladies and women how to dress fashionably, month by month. 'What to Wear in June' certainly doesn't mention dressing in fewer layers.

She describes June as "that delightful time of year when nature is seen at its very best, there is every encouragement to dress well. The sun shows up all defects, and you must don your freshest attire." This was in the days before deodorant and easy-to-wash clothes, although the readers of Cassell's Family Magazine would probably have had a maid to do their washing or it would have been sent out to a laundry to be cleaned.

The following illustration shows the stylish indoor costumes suitable for June:

Indoor Costumes - What to Wear in June (Cassell's Family Magazine, 1885)

The women are wearing polonaises (the dresses themselves) made with paniers (side hoops). The Paris correspondent noted that they were as popular as walking dresses because "they are both convenient and economical wear, for it is not imperative they should always match the skirt the accompany." They were worn "drawn away below the waist in front, curtain fashion, while at the back the drapery is arranged to look as bouffant as possible." It was important that the flounced skirt had either ruche or kilting at the edge. No concessions to possible heat here!

Outdoor costumes involved even more items of clothing, including gloves, hats and parasols:

Outdoor Costumes - What to Wear in June (Cassell's Family Magazine, 1885)

These elegant dresses were 'washing costumes' made of sateens and cambrics that were easier to wash than fabrics like silk. The dresses had "demi-long sleeves sewn in high at the shoulders, bunchy paniers, and rich embroideries". The two dresses for adults on the right were "equipped for travelling in soft, light woollens, of which there is an ample choice this summer in both Paris and London."

The column did offer a small amount of warm weather advice: "Some wonderful parasols are now keeping off the slow-coming summer sun; some have row upon row of red lace, some have stripes of moire and satin, some are of crocheted straw, but the prettiest are large and entirely white, with fall upon fall of lace."

The writer also advised that for country wear, "small-spotted gauze veils are very much in vogue, and for travelling we could not do better than copy our American cousins, who tie a gauze veil entirely over the hat or bonnet, so that all dust is excluded."

You can see beautiful Victorian dresses like this at the Fashion Museum in Bath and the V & A in London.

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