Perspectives on Australian History
Victorian Costume - Fashions
© Cathy Dunn
How did dress in the Victorian era reflected the inequalities between and different role expections for men and women both within the family and in public life.
During the Victorian era of 1837 - 1901 there were many changes in fashion styles and the social and economic structure of Australia. There was the end of the convict era, pastoral expansion of the 1840s, the influx of free settlers due to the gold rush of the 1850s along with the growth of urbanisation in all states. By 1890 approximately two-thirds of Australians lived in areas which, for census purposes, were classified as urban. Clothing has always been the ever apparent symbol of personality and for recognition amongst fellows. Victorian fashions revealed the distinction between men and women, as well as between the classes, subculture,occupational, moral and regional structure of the Australian society.
In the leisure and upper classes, men and women dwelled in luxuriously appointed houses, overdressed,entertained to excess, kept dressmakers and tailors and gardeners on hand. The gentry demanded appropriate recognition and respect from the lower orders and the more humble people of the working and poorer classes. There were endless ways in which a person could advertise to the world that he or she belonged to a superior class. Both men and women wore entirely different clothes from the working class, making it obvious on sight to which group they belonged.
The most vogue fashions were seen in the cities as urban fashions were essentially the same as those in any part of the developed world. The only clothing that could be described as typically Australia was worn by country people. Both men and women made known their status and role in society by the style of their clothing. This was a continuing and constantly shifting aspect of colonial life. There was more contrast between everyday dress of the upper classes and some subcultures than that of the working class.
Womens role was that of wife, mother and homemaker. Some women were involved in the traditional areas of nursing, domestic servants, teaching and volunteer work for charity. Those in rural areas and the bush worked the farm as well as attending to child rearing. During the Victorian era the role of women was defined largely on the basis of their appearance, and not on intellectual or occupational grounds. The ideal Victorian women was expected to be childlike, pale and indeterminate, passive, submissive, mindless, genteel and nice. One testimonial from the Victorian press reflects this same attitude and view towards women, if you want a girl to grow up gentle and womanly in her ways and her feelings, lace her tight (!).
Clothing was an impression of status reflecting societys attitude to different classes both social and sexual divisions and the anticipated etiquette of the person.When visiting Melbourne in 1886, Mark Kershaw wrote on his dismay of seeing nice - looking, stylishly dressed creatures, talking and walking with ill-dressed young larrikins. The social and cultural structure of the Victorian society did not approve of socialising with other classes. Does Kershaws comments labelling women as creatures reflects his and many other attitudes towards women? Girls of the more noble classes dressed themselves in the exaggerated fashions of the day, attending suitable functions, and prattling to any eligible men without restraint.
Dressing in modern styles and attending social functions was a indication and display of a new phase of their life, as they now were available to be courted and suitable to be wives, mothers and homemakers. It was expected of women to present themselves as blissful, especially on social occasions, both in fashion and composure. Victorian modesty expressed itself in the multiplicity of petticoats. The style of womens clothing during the Victorian era began with the crinoline skirt, next the impracticality of the bustle, which was eventually replaced by the corsets of wasp waist and the S-bend silhouette. Girls as young as three and four years of age were also made to wear crinolines skirt and petticoats. The women of the lower and working classes followed the same trends in fashions but wore toned-down versions, showing their ability to be resourceful. They distended the (crinoline) skirts with plain unwired petticoats, whilst for bustle they inserted a horsehair pad into a pocket which was concealed in the folds of the gown at the back.
Towards the late 1890s women began to realise the problems of dressing in the extremity of the days fashions: Corset are just as unnecessary as they are injurious, at any rate to the average stamina, and of an average symmetry...On the contrary, if any honest reasoning women sincerely believes that it is better to reduce the breathing capacity of her lungs, to crowd her internal organs into unnatural and often dangerous positions...let her do so. Women of Sydneys upper class had been wearing tight corsets since the early years of the Victorian Age (1837 - 1860).18 Many believed and took for granted that they lacked the ability and the right to be treated as equals thus: When we reflect that women has constricted her body for centuries we believe that to this fashion alone is due much to her failure to realise her best opportunities for development, and through natural heritage, to advance the mental and physical progress of the race.
Still women continually wearing figure distorting corsets, unpractical skirt hoops and the magnitude of petticoats or risk being considered unworthy of their class. In the late Victorian era there was a change in the social life of women as they became involved with some active sports, such as cycling and tennis. This increased the desire for garments suitable for participation in sports and the need for modification of clothing to allow easier movement. But still for everyday wear many women still wore the traditional styles, which even though they now had fewer petticoats, the heavily boned corsets for the wasp waist and S-bend silhouettes were still being worn.
Mens dress during the Victorian era settled into the stereotype from which the prototypes of today have evolved, especially those of the late Victorian era (1880 - 1891).22 Middle class men especially in the cities were easily identified as they always dressed formally in the emblems of their rank - top hats and morning suits in line with their place in society. The working man in contrast to women took no notice of city fashions and choose clothes more practical to his occupation and life style. Even though Australia men did lose their image as a bushranger frontier and evolved into a predominately urban society, rural clothing and lifestyle still exhibited the bushranger image. Men too like women had to adapt the trends and influences of dress to be more suitable for the Australian climate, considering: How is it that Englishman can be so stupid as to wear, in a climate where the glass is commonly at 90 in the shade, and sometimes even as high as 120, the black cloth frock and dress coat of the home country (England) the heavy boots, the misshapen, unbecomming [sic] waistcoats, and trowsers [sic] ...?
One subculture of the Victorian era was the Larrikins who had a language, manners and dress peculiarly his own.... The Larrakins were easily recognised by the short jackets, short and tight bell bottom trousers worn with high-heeled pointed boots. The activities, dress sense and life styles of the Larrikins and their girlfriends (donah) earned them the anger and disgust of all respectable folk. The donah was described as gaudily dressed wearing boots, violent coloured dresses and flaunting their feather boas. Maybe gaudy could be also used to describe their presumed and display of character.
During the Victorian era both men and women made known their or desired status and role in society by the style choice of their clothing, the rules regarding appearance and etiquette were clearly defined for both sexes.30 The Victorian cultural and social system of society was very quick to judge people by their apparel and treated each other according to their appearance. When observing the fashions of the Victorian era in Australia, in line with sexual differences one must also take into account the contrast between the classes, social, subculture, occupational, moral and regional structure of the Australian society.
References & Bibliography
Gould, Nat. Town and Bush, George Routledge and Sons Ltd., London, 1896.
Kershaw, Mark. Readings in Melbourne, London, 1879.
Lawson, Louisa. Spurious Women in The Dawn, July 1889. Scibners Magazine.
Snodgrass, John. New South Wales as it is: or The Adventures and Experiences of John Snodgrass, Dublin 1864.
Secondary Sources. Books:
Australia Post Philatelic Group. The Women of Oz: The Changing Role of Women in Australia, Australia Post, Melbourne, 1994.
Book of Australia Facts, Readers Digest, Surry Hills, 1992.
Cannon, Michael. Life in the Cities: Australia in the Victorian Ages:3, Thomas Nelson Pty Ltd, West Melbourne, limp edition, 1978.
Denholm, David. The Colonial Australians, Penguin Books, Ringwood Melbourne, 1979.
Department of Technical Education New South Wales. History of Costume, School of Fashion, East Sydney Technical College, n.d., most likely published in the early 1970s.
Dixson, Miriam. The Real Matilda: Women and Identity in Australia 1788 to the present, 3rd edn, Penguin Books, Ringwood Victoria, 1994.
Glynn, Sean. Urbanisation in Australia History: 1788 - 1900, Thomas Nelson, Melbourne, 1970.
Horne, Donald. The Story of Australian People, Readers Digest, Surry Hills,1985.
Lawson, Olive. The First Voice of Australian Feminism: Excerpts from Louisa Lawsons The Dawn 1888 - 1895, Simon & Schuster in association with New Endeavour Press, Brookvale & St Peters Sydney, 1990.
Maynard, Margaret. Fashioned from Penury: Dress as Cultural Practice in Colonial Australia, Cambridge University Press, 1994.
Wilson, Barbara Vance. The Colonial Experience: from First Fleet to Federation, Oxford University Press, South Melbourne, 1990.
Cochrane, Peter. Herbert Brookes, British - Australian: a biographical sketch, A Harold Fellowship Essay, http://widow.nla.gov.au:80/collect/cochrane.html, 1998.
Lazo, Rhonda. 19th Century Fashions, One of the many male testimonials to the corset in the late Victorian press, http://englishwww.humnet.ucla.edu/individuals/eng188/lazo/19thfashion.html, 1996.
Wenger, Adam. Aggressive Masculinity in Australia, English 34 1991, http://www.stg.brown.edu/projects/hypertext/landow/victorian/australia/austmasc.html, 1992.
Dunn, Cathy. Late Victorian Fashions: 1880 - 1901, student notes, Fashion Certificate - History of Costume, taken at St George Technical College Sydney, 1975.
© Written by Cathy Dunn as part of the Graduate Diploma in Applied and Local History, UNE 1998
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