What They Wore: The Governess Was Wicked

I love historical fashion from pantaloons to pelisses, and over the years more and more of it has made its way into my books. Clothing can be a wonderful way to ground a scene in a time and place, and it can also tell you a lot about a character.

Afternoon dress, ca. 1855, French, cotton, from @metmuseum

A photo posted by Really Old Frocks (@reallyoldfrocks) on

When I started writing Elizabeth Porter, the heroine at the center of The Governess Was WickedI knew I'd set myself a particular challenge. Governesses typically wore simple clothing in a limited range of colors (think functional colors like greys and dark blues and greens) and with few embellishments. She would have had a few dresses including her "best" dress that would have been worn to church or on special occasions. Otherwise, her clothing would have had to last as long as possible to maximize on cost.

Dress, ca. 1856, British, from the Metropolitian Museum of Art

Most of what we see in museums are beautiful examples of exquisite — and exquisitely expensive — gowns. The more workman-like dresses weren't necessarily preserved for history. That means that you'll see a lot more of Mrs. Norton's wardrobe when you go to museums than you will Elizabeth's.

While her clothing might not have been as luxurious and fashion-forward as the woman whose children she educated, a governess did share something in common with her mistress: they both wore the same silhouette.

Cabinet photograph, Aug Linde (photographer), 1850-1860, from the Manchester City Galleries

The late 1850s was characterized by large, bell-shaped skirts that flared out from a tightly cinched waist. One big development in undergarments allowed women to achieve these huge skirts: the cage crinoline. Up until this point, ladies would have piled on petticoats to create a full effect. Although they look horribly impractical to us, crinolines of wire covered with cotton actually created a structure for a dress to lay on top of and flare out from the body.

Cage crinoline, ca. 1862, British, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Crinolines were relatively inexpensive, so women of all classes eventually adopted them (although the massive yards of fabric needed for truly huge skirts would be a fashion statement only very wealthy women could afford).

Dinner dress, 1855–59, British from the Metropolitian Museum of Art

The shape crinolines created was so popular that reports were 200 pound of product was lost in the Staffordshire potteries in 1863 due to the wide skirts of working women accidentally sweeping shelves clean.

Cabinet photograph, H J Whitlock (photographer), 1850-1860, from the Manchester City Galleries

If you're interested in fashion history (or just really like all of the pretty pictures of dresses I've shown), join my Facebook group Really Old Frocks and follow my @reallyoldfrocks Instagram for more beautiful old-fashioned fashion.

And last but not least, I'm giving away two huge prize packs to celebrate The Governess Was Wicked thanks to a little help from my author friends. You could win ebooks, signed paperbacks, audiobooks, and an Amazon gift card!. All you have to do is enter here:

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BONUS: I had to include this stereoscopic picture I ran across in doing my research for this article. It's both creepy and flirtatious with the older gentleman kissing the hand of a young woman who is fending him off coquettishly with her fan.

Stereoscopic photograph & stereograph, 1851-1860, from the Manchester City Galleries

A Closer Look: Crinolines in the 1850s

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 we're taking a closer look at a game changing fashion trend in Victorian Britain. Courtesy Emily Hudson - Costume Construction

Of all of the fashions that jump to mind when one says "Victorian England", the crinoline is probably the most distinctive. The massive, bell-shaped skirts of the late 1850s are iconic in both their size and impracticality (sitting in one of those must require great skill and a well-timed prayer that the hoops didn't go flying over your head). They are romantic because nothing we wear now bears much resemblance to the floor-length skirts that ladies adopted during this era.

Fashion plate from Le Monde Elégant, 1859 (from

Skirt Size and the Development of the Artificial Crinoline

Undergarments are what makes much of women's fashion in the 1800s possible. The crinoline is no exception.

Horsehair crinoline, Mid-19th Century (Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

In the first half of the 1850s, women relied upon layers upon layers of petticoats to hold out their skirts. Check out 0:26 of this clip from Gone with the Wind. Scarlet pulls on a petticoat made of layers and layers of flounces.

Often horsehair warp or wool weft was use, but the problem was that these material are both heavy and hot. Women were quite literally weighed down by their undergarments not to mention the yards of fabric required to make up their actual dresses.

The artificial crinoline was a game changer. It's essentially a large cage of wire hoops held together by vertical tapes, and it did away with the need to layer petticoats on in order to fill out a dress. That in turn kept the layers of fabric forming a woman's skirts out of her way, allowing her greater mobility (Cunnington, 188).

Cage Crinoline, Mid-19th Century, American or European (Courtesy The Metropolitian Museum of Art)

There are conflicting stories about who introduced the artificial crinoline into society. Elizabeth Ewing credits the Princess Eugenie, the wife of Napolean III, with both wearing one and bringing a grey one covered in black lace and pink bows as a present for Queen Victoria on a visit to Windsor (Ewing, 47). C. Willet Cunnington disagrees, claiming that it was in use before Princess Eugenie got her hands on the style and that she is simply the most prominent early adopter.

Whoever is responsible for the crinoline, that woman changed the silhouette and undergarments of Western women for decades.

Taken at a recent trip to the Victoria & Albert Museum

A word about typical trends in crinoline-reliant dresses. From 1857-1859, fashion favored dome-shaped skirts. Dressmakers did away with the flounces, tucks, and fussy details of an earlier era (they did not suit the new line of the skirt that thrust out into space on its own). Instead, double and treble-layered skirts with vertical trimmings were commonly seen. Short corsets with a highly defined waist and little hip definitions were also common in this era.

Day Dress, ca. 1860 (Courtesy Christies)

Crinolines, Class, and Gender

First advertised in England in 1856, the crinoline exploded in popularity in a few short years. Looking at the dresses made to accommodate this kind of undergarment, you might think that this would be a fashion exclusively worn by wealthy women. Dresses could reach four or five yards in circumference and required 18 yards of expensive fabric to construct a dress. But as Cunnington writes, "It served as a barrier against the aggression of the Lower Orders, who were kept at arms' length--until even the Lower Orders themselves adopted the fashion" (170).

Women went crazy for crinolines. An often-cited fact to show the popularity of the crinoline is that in 1863, Staffordshire potteries lost 200 pounds worth of product due to the wide skirts of working women accidentally sweeping shelves clear (Willet & Cunnington, 154). That is a lot of smashed pottery, but it didn't persuade workers to leave off their crinolines.

Woman's Dress, 1855, France (Courtesy LACMA)

Aside from the fact that crinolines kept women's skirts clear from their legs and relieved them from the burden of petticoats to hold out their dresses, historians argue that the fashion gains popularity during an era when women were demanding greater recognition in public life. Much of the rhetoric around women's roles at this time talks about the separation of the public (male) and private (female) spheres. A woman was expected to be the Angel in the House and leave things like commerce and politics to her husband. Yet in the 1830s, the men and women behind the early suffrage movement forced British politicians to debate the idea of a woman's right to vote during the Great Reform Act of 1832. Women wouldn't win the right to vote for decades, but they continued to make small but significant strides in the meantime. The Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857 granted women the right to divorce and abolished adultery as a criminal act.*

1857, Blackwood's Lady Magazine

Red Crinoline, Taken at a recent trip to the Victoria & Albert Museum

Some historians of fashion argue that as women asserted themselves in the public sphere, they also asserted themselves through their choice of these massive, crinoline-enabled dresses. The skirts literally take up more space, demanding that people watch out and make way for their wearer. It's impossible to ignore a woman walking down the street or gliding into a ballroom when she has a five-yard circumference. She demands attention.

Dress, ca. 1857, probably American (Courtesy The Metropolitian Museum of Art)

Walking dresses, 1855 France, Journal des Demoiselles

The Fall of the Crinoline

"The notion that ease and comfort must be sacrificed in order to express social rank, had previously governed the design of fashionable clothing. Now, at last, it seemed too great a price to pay." (Willet and Cunnington, 152)

American, cotton, 1873 (Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

As with every fashion, the crinoline had its heyday and then was set aside for another trend. First, the crinoline was reshaped. In the 1860s and 1870s, it starts to push towards the back, putting more emphasis on the fanned back as opposed to the large, domed sides. Then, skirts eventually slim down. The crinoline was simply too big to be practical.**

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More Victorian fashion is available on my Tumblr ReallyOldFrocks.

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*Up until 1857, obtaining a divorce was a difficult, expensive, embarrassing task. It required an Act of Parliament, and few people had the means to pursue a case. Unsurprisingly, it was also doubly difficult for women to successfully petition for divorce. A woman had to prove two complaints against her husband such as adultery, abuse, and neglect. A man? He just had to prove one of those complaints during the proceedings. Making such a case would be embarrassing, but he had the chance to bounce back socially. A divorce case would almost guarantee a woman's ruin whether she was the party at fault or not.

**The physical dangers of the crinoline range from the very real to the ridiculous. There are anecdotes about skirts catching fire and women falling over only to wind up with their skirts over their heads (one story even includes the Duchess of Manchester). Even with quilted petticoats draped over the cages, in the winter the skirts were drafty with nothing hanging around legs legs to keep them warm. There was also a problem of propriety. If you sat down the wrong way in a crinoline, the entire drawing room got a very clear look at your undergarments. This was not an era where anyone got to look at a lady's undergarments. How scandalous!


Cunnington, C. Willett, English Women's Clothing in the Nineteenth Century: A Comprehensive Guide with 1,117 Illustrations, Dover Publications, 1937

Cunnington, C. Willett & Phillis Cunnington, The History of Underclothes, Dover Publications, 1951

Ewing, Elizabeth, Fashion in Underwear: From Babylon to Bikini Briefs, Dover Publications, 1971

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

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?