Originally Published June 16, 2012
Our media is full of preconceptions about what proper Victorian dress was. Older television shows like “Gunsmoke” and “Wild Wild West” often portrayed women as fully corseted, bustled, and wearing the standard evening gown as common everyday dress. As we got into the 21st century, research was stepped up and movies and television began to portray a more accurate view of how women would dress in a common workday environment. “Cold Mountain” is an excellent example of this – the large crinolines and hoops were not worn while working in the field, doing chores, caring for animals. These clothing items were reserved for the upper classes who did not do much in the way of domestic work, or for church, holidays and other special occasions.
The common dress style, while the cut and design changed in the details, a great deal of it stayed pretty much the same – a button down top of cotton, a separate skirt, or even more commonly, the house wrapper or house dress. The house wrapper is an all around work dress, made of inexpensive cotton calicos, tied at the waist. No bustle is worn with this outfit; sometimes, a corset and all the other layers extraneous layers of undergarments were foregone as well. This style of dress was so common and practical, it lasted as a specific item well into the 1970s. My grandmother wore a house dress to work around the house in.
Now a house dress was NEVER to be worn outside the home or home yard, and this aspect of it never went away. Even a quick run to the store required – for my ancestors as well as my grandmother – a complete change of clothing. In the Victorian era, that mean corsets, corset covers, underwear, petticoats, bustles, blouse, skirt, overskirt, and of course, hats and gloves. Even the shoes and stocking you had worn for home and yard work were changed – cottons for silks, wooden clogs or boots for a high top buttoned ladies boot, and for evening, often a dancing slipper.
Now how did we come by these preconceptions? When we look at the magazines of the era, such as Godey’s Lady’s Book, the common everyday wear is not touted as something grand – it wasn’t. Instead, just like the fashion magazines of today, the silks and satins, the latest of Paris and English fashions are shown. Bustle sizes and dress styles are dictated by those fashion magazines, and in many cases, these are the only sources available.
Museums have the same problem. While a museum may have a house dress in its acquisitions, most are not of a condition to be displayed. A house dress was a work dress – it was worn and worn out. When the dress material was unable to be reused in any other way, the common house dress became cleaning rags.
On the other hand, the fancy clothes survived. Extreme care was taken to keep the dress in pristine condition, especially in climates where heat and humidity could damage delicate silks. In many cases, this was the one and only fancy dress a woman may have for years. It was worn infrequently, and often removed immediately upon returning home to help preserve it. Because these items were so well cared for, excellent examples of dressy dress were still in excellent condition when acquired by museums. So the museum displays these dresses so that we can see at least a few examples of the clothing our ancestors wore.
So how did they do it in mining towns? The same way they did it in the cities, the plains, all across the country – the best dresses stayed hung up or secure in a trunk, while the old standby, the good old cotton house dress did all the work but got little of the acclaim.
But even then, this was not acceptable to some people and dress reform of several kinds was in action.