from the bottom up
Anyone familiar with David O. Selznick’s classic Gone With the Wind will remember Scarlett O’Hara clutching her bedpost while her maid, Mammy, tugs at the strings of her corset. Later, after the birth of her daughter, Scarlett revives the tactic, trying in vain to fit into an old gown. She pouts when Mammy insists about her waist measurement, “You ain’t never gonna be no 18 and a half inches again!” That’s a common impression of dressing in the Victorian era: women piled on layer after layer with restrictive garments, adapting their bodies to fit their clothes rather than the other way around, all in the name of fashion.
For this and other reasons, the Victorian era sometimes gets a bad rap. The term “Victorian” itself is often considered synonymous with prudishness and sexual repression. Legend has it that during the reign of Queen Victoria, even piano and table legs were deemed racy and had to be covered with miniature pantalets. The corset — one of the most controversial garments in the history of fashion— was at the time considered by some to be “good for the morals.” The practice of tightlacing— cinching the corset to achieve an exaggeratedly small waistline— was popular and widespread, despite the fact that doctors often decried it as being detrimental to women’s health, claiming it led to such conditions as curvature of the spine, rib and organ displacement, hunchback, melancholy, hysteria, and even cancer.
Victorian women clearly did suffer for the sake of style, but so do many of us today, step-sistering our feet into sky-high Manolos and the like. “Different things are attractive in different eras,” says Sharon Guli, a Colorado-based expert on clothing of the Victorian era. “But women are women.” Even in the 1800s, she says, “They wanted curves in all the right places, and they had tricks of the trade to get them.”
In conjunction with the New Mexico History Museum/Palace of the Governor’s Fashioning New Mexico exhibit, Guli presents “Victorian Dressing From the Inside Out,” a demonstration during which she reveals the numerous steps a Victorian woman endured to become “properly and decently dressed.” For “a lady who lives in town and has enough means,” that would require more than a dozen layers and multiple accessories. But, Guli adds, the proper look always required the proper foundation. Just as a woman today might need a particular bra or slip for a certain outfit, in Victorian-era dressing, “you can’t just put on the top layer without the proper underpinnings and think it’ll look right.”
Guli’s demonstration begins with her donning seven layers of undergarments, including drawers, chemise, petticoat, bustle, and, yes, the dreaded corset— that’s a far cry from the lacy nothings of Victoria’s Secret. As she dresses, she offers historical anecdotes and answers questions about the clothing of the period. After the demonstration, attendees can take a guided tour of Fashioning New Mexico with a “special focus on underwear through the decades.”
Guli, a longtime fan of the theater, first developed an interest in Victorian dressing when she started attending historical reenactments with a co-worker. “As I started getting more involved with that, I discovered I couldn’t find [the vintage clothing] I wanted, so I learned to sew historical items for myself.” She now makes many of the garments she wears in her presentations. She focuses mostly on American fashion of the era, and although she knows that styles on either side of the Atlantic differed, she concentrates on the similarities.
Asked if she wishes a particular piece of Victorian clothing would make a comeback, Guli says she’d rather revive “the aspect of elegance” in general, noting that “you don’t get that nowadays unless you’re watching the Grammies” or other awards shows. “People ask me, ‘Don’t you wish you lived back then?’ I say ‘Absolutely not!’ Would I visit? Sure.” But when we reenact the Victorian era, she insists, “We pull the glory, the glamour, the charm” and not the hot, heavy, stiff reality.
What exactly did it mean to be “properly and decently dressed” in the Victorian era? “Most women wore corsets— just like today most women wear bras.” She adds, “You don’t want to show up looking like a loose woman because you forgot your corset,” implying that a lack of tightness in a woman’s corset suggested a certain laxity of morals. “Look at it this way. You might go to the gym and hang around the house in your sweats, but that’s not what you’re going to wear out to dinner. A lady wore what was proper and decent for the occasion.”
But strict adherence to the period’s oppressive styles may not have been completely pervasive. “Yes, you did have women who had 18-inch waists,” admits Guli. “Did everyone? No. I’ve seen plenty of pictures of women from that era with normal waists and good posture.” And some women may have laced their corsets more loosely depending on the occasion— for dancing or walking, for example.
“I never personally associated Victorian fashion with bondage and repression,” Guli insists. “Yes, it was there. But think about the farmer’s wife in Wyoming. What a strong woman she had to be! Was she sexually repressed? Not necessarily. And cowgirls— they were doing everything men did and were still feminine. I think that’s why they were such heroes. They were Victorian women, too!”
Waiting to exhale: Vivien Leigh and Hattie McDaniel in Gone With the Wind