A Closer Look: The Natural Form

When you're a historical author, you do a lot of research. Pair all of the book-specific research with a degree in Victorian British History with a focus on gender and sexuality, and I've got more random facts kicking around in my head than I know what to do with. Today I'm taking a closer look at one of the defining fashion trends of the Victorian era.

"The ideal at present is the greatest possible flatness and straightness: a woman is a pencil covered in raiment."

(Harper's Bazar, October 23, 1875)

I've spent quite a bit of time writing about Britain in the early 1880s. It's a really interesting time in history, and it marks a very visible change in women's fashion as well. The silhouette of the typical dress completely changes from the "natural form" of the 1875-1882 to the bustles that dominated fashion plates from 1883 to 1890. Today I'm looking at those natural form dresses, and trust me when I say that it was anything but natural.

Courtesy Emily Hudson - Costume Construction http://emilyjanehudson.blogspot.com/2011/04/research-undergarments-from-period.html

Starting in 1875, women's clothing goes through a transformation. The dresses of the previous era were characterized by larger skirts held out from the body first by crinolines (example A) and then by bustles (example B). I've seen the style of dress popular in the 1860s and early 1870s described as festooned and confection-like, and it's not a bad description. If you can put lace or a ribbon on it, you better believe that evening dress is going to be covered in lace and ribbon.

Evening dress, 1865 (Courtesy Royal Armory and Hallwyl Museum) If that's not a confection-like dress, I don't know what is.

Example A: Day dress and vest circa 1860 Look at that crinoline!

    Example B: Seaside ensemble in cotton, circa 1870 (Courtesy LACMA). Note the soft bustle at the back of the skirt that holds the dress away from the hips.

Starting in 1875, the silhouette of women's clothing in Britain and America began to change. Skirts slimmed way down and that crinoline that we associate with much of mid-Victorian fashion went away. Now, rather than emphasizing the waist, skirts clung to the hips and the thighs. This shows off the body in a new way.

Toilette by Jules James Rougeron, 1877

Fashion plate, 1882. Here you can see good examples of some of the biggest trends of the era including the slim skirts, the long, ruffled trains, and asymmetry in draping.

It's no surprise that the natural form was achieved by completely artificial means. Long corsets that ran from the upper torso down over the hips were needed to achieve the right line for the long-waisted cuirass bodices* and slender princess cut dresses.


Petticoats made trains fall correctly, and you often see gathers of fabric at the back of women's undergarments or pads to give a little bit of support to those heavy skirts.

Ball gown, circa 1880 (Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

If you think that slender fashion makes women's clothing in any way more practical than the mid-Victorian styles, you're sorely mistaken. The line of women's dresses became so slim that it greatly restricted their ability to move (sometimes skirts only allowed for a six-inch step when walking).** Also, that large train was heavy and got in the way of pretty much all movement. All of this adds up to clothing that is highly impractical for any women who has to move during her day. Like many of the beautiful fashions that we love in historical romances, we are talking about the clothing of a select few who could afford both the clothing and the lifestyle that went along with this sort of fashion.

Women's tan open-weave linen dress, circa 1880 (Courtesy Charleston Museum)

Some other trends that went along with the natural form include asymmetry in trimming and draping, full-length outerwear with Eastern European and Siberian touches (think fur, fringe, and braid), decorative pockets on dresses, and the lawn tennis apron.

Mourning dress from Mme Roger, 1878

One of the reasons I chose to write about the 1880s is because I adore the natural form. I love the silhouette of these dresses. The very finest dresses from this era are works of art. Researching them is a real pleasure, so much so that I actually created a Tumblr dedicated to historical fashion. It's called Really Old Frocks, and I update it with some regularity.

If you'd like to do some reading and looking on your own, I highly recommend Victorian Fashion and Costumes from Harper's Bazar, 1867-1898 edited by Stella Blum. It's an incredible resource with full, original descriptions of the fashion plates including fabrics.


*The cuirass bodice is form-fitting, often boned, and ends below the hips. It didn't make sense to me until I realized that the name comes from the long piece of armor that covers a knight from chest to hip.

**I'm reading over my notes right now and laughing because I actually wrote, "greatly restricted the ability to run." Who the hell is running in one of these dresses?