Women’s clothes have probably always differed from men’s, but never were they more distantly removed from male fashions than in the 19th century.
Women’s clothes were not flamboyant, impractical and non-bifurcated because of anything inherent in women themselves. For example, men have won skirt-like garments such as the sarong or kilt in many societies. No — women’s clothes reflected their separation from the sphere of work and politics. Tight corsets made it hard for women to breathe, and huge, cumbersome skirts impeded women’s legs, restraining women from being physically active. With their wreaths of drapery and lace finishes, women resembled just one more of the furnishings of a man’s home.
Winterhalter’s gorgeous painting of 1855, Empress Eugénie and Her Ladies in Waiting, perfectly conveys the lavish femininity of the well-heeled Victorian lady.
At the upper end of the social scale, the message was two-fold: see how rich my husband is, that I can afford such extravagant clothes! And see how he provides for me — I can dress impractically, because I don’t have to work!
The two primary examples of how women were oppressed and humiliated by their clothes are the corset and the crinoline. As everyday fashion, the corset was worn from the fifteenth century until the Edwardian period, and is basically a mould designed to force the woman’s body into the shape that men thought aesthetically pleasing. Seeing a slim waist as a standard for beauty encouraged the practice of tightlacing, the attempt to cruelly force the body into a wasp waist. The crinoline was fashionable between 1856 and 1878, and freed women from wearing many heavy layers of petticoats. But it was a cumbersome garment, mocked in many cartoons. When a woman sat down, the cage could ride up, and it was so wide that there was a real danger of catching fire when standing next to an unguarded grate.
The corset and crinoline were however just two aspects of a woman’s costume. Only after successive layers of stockings, garters, drawers, corset, crinoline or bustle, camisole, petticoats, dress, gloves, bonnet, reticule and fan would a Victorian lady finally consider herself dressed.
Arabella Maria: "Only to think, Julia dear, that our mothers wore such ridiculous fashions as these!"
Both: "Ha ha ha ha!"
Today we often tend to think of 19th century women’s fashions as stiff, buttoned-up and sexually repressive, designed to hide the least trace of ankle. To an extent this is true, but at the same time they were exaggeratedly sexual. Innovations such as the corset and crinoline served to tuck in the waist and emphasise the female breasts and hips. Fluttering ribbons and lace and flounces tantalised the eye, and tactile materials like taffeta and silk made touching women’s clothes a sensual pleasure. Ballgowns were often cut very low to expose the shoulders and the top of the cleavage. A woman’s clothes helped to turn her into an enticing, passive object: in R. J. Cruikshank’s words, “hidden in the mysteries of petticoats”.
Women’s clothes had a clear social purpose: to turn women into prettified, constrained creatures who could not even get out of a carriage without a man’s support. When women finally overturned male rule and were themselves dominant, they would not forget what men had taught them about the power of clothing.