Archive for the ‘fashion’ Category

With today’s hygiene standards, some people are shocked to hear that it was very common in the 19th century to only bathe once a week. But it was!

So why? Well, for a multitude of reasons. First of all, it was simply tradition. From the middle ages on, it was thought that bathing too often would make you sick or sickly, and bathing once a week was enough. Some people or some cultures started to bathe more often (an example is Marie Antoinette at Versailles, who bathed every day) but this was definitely not common practise by the 19th century. 52549420dbfa3f2cb501051a._w.309_h.316_s.fit_

Also, bathing means full-on taking a bath. Many people were spot cleaning: washing face and hands every day, and maybe their feet as well. The same thing happened to clothes, by the way. It was very common to wear the same dress all week but to switch out collars and cuffs more often.

Water had to be drawn from wells for a large part, and heated on stoves. And with families as large as in the 19th century, there really was no way they could have washed themselves or their clothes more than they did! Homes with dedicated bathrooms that resemble our modern bathrooms started appearing in the late 19th century, but homes in rural areas often didn’t have plumbed bathrooms even well into the 20th.

Eww, that’s gross, you say? Well, the notion of what is clean vs what is dirty has varied a lot across the ages, and very, very few populations ever have had the economical means to apply our standards of washing everyday and changing clothes often. Currently, we’re a very clean culture, scrubbing and using lots of detergents to get everything spotless and desinfected. The 19th century was, for a large part, really more about not appearing to be muddy.


Bathing was a pretty big deal. There’s a scene in Ingalls Wilder’s Farmer Boy where Almanzo has to take a bath and he hates it very much, because he doesn’t like just sitting there and getting wet, and also it’s cold and he has to wear clean clothes that are very stiff. So it was really a different outlook back then.

Clothes were changed about once a week (these school regulations from the 19th century show that students had to bathe on Saturdays and change their clothes once a week.)

This had to do with cleanliness but also very much with the fact that clothes were very expensive in the 19th century. Basically, clothing was vastly more expensive to produce prior to the advent of mass production, which is really only possible once the sewing machine has come into use. As late as the American Civil War, the vast majority of clothing was being hand sewn, and much of it, especially coats and trousers, were tailor made. So, people generally owned far fewer sets of clothing, but they were comparatively better quality than what most of us wear today.


Definitely didn’t buy rights to this picture DX

As an historical example, Abraham Lincoln’s first proper suit of clothes (a frock coat, trousers, and a vest), made during the 1830s or 40s, cost $60. This is at a time when a private in the US Army made about $10 per month.

So, should you bathe more often than once a week? You shouldn’t if you lived in the 19th century, only maybe take some care to keep your hands and face clean. And change out your cuffs, if they get dirty. Otherwise, once a week is plenty.


Some academic sources for you:

  • Georges Vigarello, Le Propre et le Sale : L’hygiène du corps depuis le Moyen Âge, Paris, Éditions du Seuil, coll. « L’univers historique », 1987, 288 p. (ISBN 978-2-02-008634-9)
  • In english: Concepts of Cleanliness: Changing Attitudes in France since the Middle Ages, Cambridge University Press, 2008




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Victorian Fashion bookRecently I read Victorian Fashion by Jayne Shrimpton, a small but very informative book! Read on for my review.

I’ve read a lot of books on Victorian fashion, and I’ve looked at many artworks and fashion plates. So I would say I’m a pretty tough customer to satisfy when it comes to fashion books. I loved this book by Jayne Shrimpton!

This book is fairly thin at 93 pages, but gives a really great oversight over the fashions between 1837 and 1901. While some of the bigger books go into detail more, this book really gives you the overview of fashion and how fashion depended on changes in society or inventions of the time. The book is specifically meant to be an introduction that will inspire further research. To do so, lots of sources and places to visit are included in the end, which is a really nice touch.

Victorian Fashion examines the principal fashions for women, men and children, talks about how clothes were acquired, and touches upon some special themes like eveningwear, sports wear, bridal clothes and mourning clothes.

The book is very rich in pictures, some well-known fashion plates but also lots of lesser-known advertisements and photographs. This really makes the book stand out and give it a very well-researched feeling. Also, I just love looking at images of great Victorian outfits :)

There is a lot of attention for how certain fashions emerged, and how they are tied to events or happenings at the time. For example: the book talks about how a newly discovered way of pleating, where more fabric could be gathered into a pleat than before, gave way to a trend of pointed bodices and dome-shaped skirts. Or how the prevailing idea of the woman as a demure, shy and perfect angel resulted in constricting and restrained fashions like large shawls, dainty boots that covered the foot very well, and funnel-shaped poke-bonnets. It tells how the first use of sprung steel, starting in 1857, gave rise to a big fashion of hoop skirts.

I would really consider this book as a great starter book, to get into Victorian fashion in general and start your research with, or if you’re just interested and want to read a little bit more. It would definitely make a great gift, as the book is good-looking, very informative, and light enough to be a very pleasant read for everyone! For real history-buffs, it might offer little new information, but it would still be a very nice book to read and brush up on your knowledge.

Here’s some fun news! Until May 31st 2016, you can get a 20% discount upon purchasing this book! Go here: http://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/victorian-fashion-9780747815082/ and use the code:  VFASHION20 

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I’m very happy to introduce to you our first monthly sponsor! This month, I’m teaming up with Christie Stratos who wrote this awesome guest post for you! This post also answers some questions about the language of fans and flowers from an earlier post.


Symbolism in the Victorian Era

Symbolism was the lifeblood of the Victorian Era. Everything meant something to Victorians, so you had to be careful what you said in a letter, what you wore on any occasion, how you held your fan…you get the idea. Give the wrong signal and it wasn’t so easy to take it back. You couldn’t just walk up to a man and say, “I made a mistake with how fast I fanned myself just a moment ago. I’m not actually engaged, I just fanned too quickly!” Yes, it was that exacting! Communication back then was limited. Period dramas and novels depict it well – a lady wants to tell the man she has a crush on that she didn’t mean to do something, or that she really does care for him, but she can’t just say it. She has to wait patiently to prove it or to give him a signal. How frustrating!

1800s fan

Fans were far from the only things that sent messages to those around you. Did you just embroider your delicate handkerchief with a frog? Well that means sin, so you might want to replace it with a dog, which means loyalty. Gentlemen, thinking of giving your betrothed a gift? Send the right message by gifting a brooch with acrostic meaning. “Love” might mean a brooch with these gems place horizontally: lapis lazuli followed by opal, then vesuvianite, and finally emerald. Think carefully on the framing of the brooch too. An ivy design might not go over so well with a lover since it represents friendship.

One of the most common forms of expressing feelings in the Victorian Era was through flowers. You’ve probably heard the phrase “the language of flowers”, and that couldn’t be more accurate in reference to the 19th century. Every single flower had a particular meaning, and beyond that, many variations in color of that specific flower had meaning. Whew, that’s a lot to keep in mind before sending a bouquet!


There is a good example of flower meanings in my novel Anatomy of a Darkened Heart, book one of the Dark Victoriana Collection. Abigail receives a bouquet from Conrad, a man who is interested in courting her. Here’s what it looked like, taken straight from the book:

“The central flowers were a vibrant red, some with bright yellow at the base of their petals. Surrounding them were smaller multi-layered flowers, some of white, some of cornflower blue, and some of pink.”

The first flowers described are red kennedia, which stood for intellect, and the second flowers portrayed are love-in-a-mist flowers, meaning curiosity. He explains this delicately in his card to her. But why did he send these flowers? A couple of scenes before, Conrad and Abigail had a conversation which spawned his sending this bouquet and in which flowers were mentioned again:


“What’s your favorite flower, Miss Whitestone?” Mr. Scott asked. 

“Violets,” she answered quickly, then immediately felt insecure about it. She should have said something more grand, more widely appreciated. More normal.

“Violets?” he asked, surprised, his voice higher. “I’ve never heard a lady say that before.”

She felt like a fool.

“What makes you pick them over roses? Aren’t roses what every lady wants from a gentleman?” he asked.

“You didn’t ask what I wanted from a gentleman, you asked what I like,” she said before she could stop herself. She felt brutal but she also felt more like herself with an honest answer.

“For many ladies, those are one and the same,” he said, “but not always for good reasons. Violets are common, but I agree that there is something fascinating about their vivid color and their ability to survive even when they look fragile.”

Abigail was surprised Mr. Scott was having a real conversation with her, not just something superficial anymore. He had shared an opinion on “most ladies” and what he thought of them. She must have shocked him into speaking to her as if he knew her better, maybe even as if she were a man. Did that mean a lack of respect? What did that mean? Anxiety twisted at her stomach. This was starting to feel like home. She didn’t want the gardens to feel like home. That was the whole point of the gardens: to escape.

“It was very nice meeting you, Mr. Scott. I hope the rest of your day is pleasant,” Abigail said quickly before walking away. She didn’t wait for his reply.


This excerpt not only shows meanings behind flowers, it also gives you an idea of how much people in Victorian times read into each other’s words. It was necessary since they couldn’t express themselves outright most of the time.

The next time you send flowers to someone or give jewelry as a gift, think, “What would the Victorians do?” and you’ll have a gift that means more than the recipient thinks.



Thank you so much Christie Stratos for this very interesting post! Christie reached out to me because she is an author of historical fiction, writing mostly dark psychological historical fiction. Her latest book is Anatomy of a Darkened Heart (Book 1 in the Dark Victoriana Collection). If you liked the excerpt, you can buy the book Anatomy of a Darkened Heart on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Smashwords, or buy a signed version from the author herself (cool!)

Interested to read more about Christie, or see what she’s up to? You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, YouTube, Pinterest, and Google+

Thank you so much for your contribution Christie!

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By accident I caught the second episode of BBC’s recent adaption of Jane Austen’s Emma this weekend. It’s beautiful! I didn’t catch the story at all but sat for an hour, fascinated by the beautiful costumes, settings, and filming.

Apparently, almost all clothes were recycled from other movies and tv shows! You can read the list here.

I got so excited, I wanted to read the novel as well, which you can find here: Project Gutenberg

And if you like screenshots and icons, or you missed the first two episodes and would like to see them on your computer, go here: Livejournal’s BBC Costume Drama community.

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A book I’m really fond of right now is Fashioning the Bourgeoisie:A History of Clothing in the Nineteenth Century by Philippe Perrot, translated by Richard Bienvenu.

When department stores like Le Bon Marché first opened their doors in mid-nineteenth-century Paris, shoppers were offered more than racks of ready-made frock coats and crinolines. They were given the chance to acquire a lifestyle as well–that of the bourgeoisie. Wearing proper clothing encouraged proper behavior, went the prevailing belief.

As opposed to many fashion history books, this one offers not just timelines on when skirts became wider, but tries to explain the meaning of it, the meaning of fashion both in the nineteenth century as well as in contemporary society, and researches issues such as the lack of colour in mens suits since the 1790s. It’s quite academic, (actually, I found it in the university library) and it’s great to see a more serious, scientific approach to Victorian fashion history.

The book contains a lot of interesting images and fun anecdotes, which I will post about soon. Did you know for example that buying secondhand clothes was already in use in the eighteenth century? And buying something, wearing it to a party, and returning it to the warehouse the next morning was a known occurence in the nineteenth century, as well as people who stole things compulsively, and men who visited warehouses in order to sniff women’s clothes and steal their handkerchiefs?

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Last time I gave a link to some great mustaches. But it was not easy to maintain such an accessory for the face. In the movie ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ (highly recommended!) you can see Hercule Poirot wearing a special mustache-protecting device when he goes to sleep, in order to keep the ‘stache in the right shape. But, more drastic measures were taken. Fellow blogger Rob Campbell from Dumpdiggers told me:

We sometimes find ‘mustache cups’ when we are digging in century old dumps here in Toronto.

A mustache cup was no different than a regular tea cup (or coffee cup) except it contained a flap of porcelain on the top of the ceramic cylinder that would protect a man’s moustache from becoming soaked with beverage whilst he was sipping the brew. Of course, ladies suffer for beauty, also. Here is how one puts on a hoop skirt:

Found on the great site engelfriet.net, which is sadly all in Dutch. He also mentions that, at the ultimate width of hoopskirts, ladies carried little dogs on them…I so wish this was true, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen any picture evidence.

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I first saw this kind of trousers at my job, sorting costumes, and I thought it was pretty smart. They are called ‘fall front trousers,’
‘drop front trousers,’ or sometimes ‘flap pants.’ Zippers were not in use in the nineteenth century, and having a button front closure on trousers might have been seen as uncomfortable or not elegant enough, the trousers were closed with a ‘flap’ which buttons on the sides or top. Under the flap, the waistband has a front closure so you can open the flap without dropping trou (convenient, convenient.) The pockets are also located under the flap. Trousers like this were worn from the French Revolution onwards (1790s), around 1840 the centered trouser closure was introduced but for a long time the two styles existed simultaneously.

Picture credit to vintagetextiles.com

My very favourite emperor Napoleon Bonaparte was a big fan.

Now you might think, I want one of those! Luckily, Marc Jacobs thinks they’re very sexy too:

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