What was un­der the Vic­to­rian woman’s skirt?


STOCK­INGS, split pan­taloons, up to 10 pet­ti­coats and wire hoops made pop­u­lar in the 18th cen­tury are the foun­da­tions of con­tem­po­rary fash­ion.

It was the women of more than 200 years ago who were re­spon­si­ble for tri­alling shape wear, seam­less lin­gerie, corsets and even the pe­plum – ba­sics on the mod­ern woman’s wardrobe for cen­turies.

His­to­rian Dorothy Walsh has had her foot in the Vic­to­rian woman’s wardrobe long enough to know what women wear now was pi­o­neered by their an­ces­tors. Dorothy, a prom­i­nent fig­ure in the Queens­land Colo­nial As­so­ci­a­tion, isn’t afraid of ty­ing her­self into the fash­ions of the 18th Cen­tury.

“Quite a num­ber of years ago I did a show for a school and I was dressed in my 1860s clothes and, when I walked down the aisle way, all th­ese boys lay down to see what was un­der my skirt and so the idea, Un­der the Vic­to­rian Woman’s Skirt, was born,” she said.

“Peo­ple are fas­ci­nated by the lay­ers of cloth­ing that were un­der a Vic­to­rian woman’s skirt and that peo­ple wore at the time.

“I love to wear it and what in­ter­est me per­son­ally is the ed­u­ca­tional side.

Dorothy said, like those in the 21st cen­tury, women were ob­sessed with keep­ing up with fash­ions, how­ever dan­ger­ous.

“It re­ally was fol­low­ing fash­ion. From roy­alty right down, they were try­ing to en­cour­age women not to wear the corsets, peo­ple died be­cause they had gone too close to an open flame,” she said. “Corsets were worn for a re­ally long time but peo­ple tried to make their waists much smaller and would pull them so tight they could punc­ture a lung with a rib. Their or­gans were pushed into re­ally odd shapes, it wasn’t good.

“Corsets and dresses were made with whale bone, you had to sit up straight and you couldn’t bend over. This held you in the right po­si­tion.”

18th cen­tury fash­ions were made with ma­te­rial im­ported from the UK and In­dia. Colours faded quickly so were washed rarely. They were silk, cot­ton, linen and wool.

Mod­ern women had plenty to thank their an­ces­tors for when they took pe­plums, frills and lin­gerie from their wardrobe.

“A bus­tle at the back was con­structed with tim­ber and had an au­to­matic fold so when you sat down in a car­riage or on a horse it col­lapsed and 1860s blouses had a pe­plum at the back,” she said.

Stock­ings were held up with elas­tic or a sus­pender at the thigh, made of silk, wool or cot­ton and worn un­der leather shoes.

“Vic­to­rian women had pan­taloons that were split, the first split undies or crotch­less knick­ers. They went down to the knees.

“Up un­til this time they wore a lot of pet­ti­coats, from the 1820s and 1830s there were up to 10 pet­ti­coats un­der a skirt so you didn’t wear un­der­wear.”

A crino­line was worn to hold the pet­ti­coats out at their widest and it had six bands of watch spring steel in it. Then there was the long cot­ton chemise gar­ment that went over the head and some­times it had sleeves.

A corset could be laced at the back, side, or hook and eye at the front and a pet­ti­coat went over the top to hide the lay­ers.

Hair was worn in a par­tic­u­lar way, in the 1860s it was a part down the cen­tre, worn over the ears and with a bun at back. A hat, gloves, purse and um­brella fin­ished the look.

A sam­ple of Vic­to­rian women’s cloth­ing can be found at Ip­swich His­tor­i­cal So­ci­ety, 1041 Red­bank Plains Rd, Black­stone.


Fash­ion in Ip­swich early years was heavy and or­nate. Maria Cather­ine Leith-Hay is pic­tured wear­ing a large, ruf­fled skirt and short-waisted jacket some­time in the 1860s. She was the daugh­ter of Ip­swich's po­lice mag­is­trate.

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