Saturday, February 23, 2013

Book Review - Victorian Fashions for Women and Children: Society's Impact on Dress

I recently had the opportunity to review Victorian Costume for Ladies 1860-1900 by Linda Setnik, a fascinating look at fashion through photographs from the era.  I am pleased to say that the author has followed up with another wonderful resource - Victorian Fashions for Women and Children: Society’s Impact on Dress.  This new book covers the same years, 1860-1900, but looks more closely at children’s fashions, and how society influenced styles for both women and children. 

What I found particularly interesting is the way fashion magazines criticized the contemporary woman of the day for sticking to impractical styles, yet continued to feature them in their pages.  Saying we are slaves to fashion was never more prevalent than in the Victorian Era.  Women wore layers and layers (sometimes as many as ten) no matter what the weather.  Tight lacing and corsets forced organs into places they shouldn’t be.  There are amazing examples of abnormally small waistlines in the photos accompanying the text.

Sadly, women not only followed these fashions, but inflicted the same upon their daughters at a young age.  Children dressed like small adults except for shorter skirts and less ornamentation.  I was surprised to learn that boys dressed identical to girls for longer than I thought.  They normally wore dresses until the age of five or six, and sometimes even until their teenage years.  Their hair, while usually short, was parted on the side, while girls parted their hair in the center, which is sometime the only distinguishable feature in a photo.  The wealthier classes kept boys in dresses longer.  There were no gender distinctions, as a result.  All were simply children whose mothers didn’t want them to grow up. 

In addition to fashion trends, Ms. Setnik covers leisure wear, which would hardly be considered ‘leisurely’ by our standards, since it allowed for little movement.  Also covered are hairstyles and accessories like jewelry, stocking and sashes. 

Each chapter covers several years, explaining the sometimes subtle changes from season to season.  Waistlines dropped or rose, went from straight to pointed, hemlines of overskirts rose and fell, skirt and bustle sizes changed shape and size, sleeves puffed, and silhouettes slimmed.  The photographs can be dated by identifying these changes.

Some additional features are an extensive bibliography to continue your research, and a price guide for valuing the clothing. 

This book shows that Ms. Setnik thoroughly researched the topic, and is an expert in the field.  I enjoyed seeing the photographs of contemporary women, rather than perfect models, and learned many new facts and details from this fascinating era.

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