The Ladies' Page - The Fashions

Fashion for the Masses

Fashion was an essential ingredient of most Victorian women's magazines, apart from the religious and feminist ones, though they, too, would on occasion feature articles about dress. Sam Beeton's Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine played a crucial part in bringing fashion within the reach of the middle classes. In his preface (April 1858) to the sixth volume he promised that 'The Work-Table, Fashion and Practical Dress Instructor, will receive especial care during the course of the next volume." This regular article offered, in addition to commentary on Paris fashions, a detailed engraving of a dress, jacket or pardessus (a loose, sleeved cloak) with a description of its key features, as in the short extracts below this illustration taken from an issue of 1859.

'Our illustration offers a style of dress extremely becoming to the figure... The peculiarity of the style consists in the arrangement of the body, which is a novelty partaking of the nature of the berthe [a style of wide collar], which is now much worn, and of the trimming composed of folds.'
[The placing of the four narrow bands of black velvet near the trimming, the lace and the ornamental tassels is then described in some detail.]
'The sleeve is also the latest fashion. The wide turned-up gauntlet has an air of distinction.'
The detailed description may not have been riveting fashion copy, but it was important because the magazine also included a pattern. The relevant diagram was for the bodice, collar and sleeves, the measurements (in inches) being given along the lines of each piece so it could be scaled up, and with the key points to be joined marked A,B,C etc. This is one of the more complicated designs; a mantle might require only three basic pieces, though elaborate trimmings were a consistent feature.

A Fashion Innovation - Paper Patterns
Though at sixpence the monthly paper was comfortably within the reach of middle-class women, and good value, the following year Sam Beeton decided to make major changes. He would introduce coloured fashion illustrations and needlework patterns. With his wife Isabella, now playing a vital editorial role in the magazine, they travelled to Paris to negotiate a contract with Adolphe Goubaud,  publisher of Le Moniteur de la Mode, a high-class journal with international sales, to obtain a supply of fashion-plates by the leading illustrator, Jules David. Mme Goubaud was to send accompanying fashion notes, which Isabella then wrote up. Hand colouring was still the norm for engravings and Isabella supervised her team of colourists to ensure accuracy.
But the greatest innovation was the arrangement to furnish Victorian readers with full-sized paper patterns for the gowns illustrated. New regulations reducing the cost of importing plates made this financially viable. Even so, the coloured plates and needlework diagrams were published as a supplement for an additional sixpence, and the patterns as a separately costed service to readers, or occasionally included in the supplement.
Paper dress patterns were a complete novelty for an English magazine and - despite some problems apparently encountered by the less expert readers - were a great success.

The naturalistic images and detailed background of David's fashion drawings are evident, even when considerably reduced as here. (Original plate from spring 1862, above)* The central figure is described as wearing a "walking dress" of braided violet silk with black silk flounces, and a mantle 'called the Hungarian pardessus'. The 'full-sized paper pattern .. tacked together and trimmed' for this mantle cost 3s. 6d. from Mme. Goubaud whose address was given as Beeton's  office in The Strand.
Following Isabella's early death in 1865 Matilda Browne, the Beeton's friend, became responsible for the fashion section. By 1872, the date of the fashion plate below, in  the new large format series of the magazine, now published by Ward Lock and Tyler and lavishly illustrated with black and white fashion engravings, patterns were regularly included with the magazine, but were no longer directly linked to the coloured plate. Mme Goubaud, however, appears to have continued her pattern business as occasional full-page illustrations offer to supply the pattern from a Covent Garden address (separate from the publisher.)

By the end of the century patterns were a regular feature of many women's magazines. In the cheap weeklies such as Home Notes  and Home Chat the fashion columns, rejoicing in titles like "Our Paris Letter" or "Fashions from Paris", typically revolved round the line illustrations of clothes for which patterns could be purchased. Home Notes not only produced a catalogue for its patterns, but encouraged readers living in the London area to call at its offices to see and buy them.

"Hélène's" chatty fashion column for the paper includes the sketch above of a "Morning gown" (1894) described as one worn by a French friend of hers who "understands how to dress herself to perfection"; a dress "so charming indeed , that I begged to be allowed to sketch it, thinking that you might be glad to copy the design." Though described as "simply made, in Princess form" of "pale china blue French merino, of the very softest description", it also  boasted  an accordion-pleated  cape of matching silk and  similar ruchings on the sleeves below the bands of lace which finished the gathers. Readers might have been relieved that
Hélène, regardless of her friend's "calling this a morning gown" thought it "quite pretty enough for a simple home tea-gown" and recommended it as such. The paper pattern could be bought  for 10d., and the Accordion Pleating Company's regular advertisement running at the bottom of the page, promising to permanently pleat "without injury" any material up to 82 inches wide, must have seemed particularly welcome to those "glad to copy the design."

Despite the implications of offering patterns to follow and descriptions to guide her readers,
Hélène elsewhere argues that they should develop their own personal style:

Every lady should, if possible, design her dresses, and not leave them entirely to her dressmaker. Dress should be entirely in character, and seem part of the wearer, and when the arrangement of the costume is deputed to the modiste a great chance is run of being dressed like fifty other ladies whose gowns are manufactured by the same firm. (Home Notes 1895)

Here, it seems, the reader is assumed to take her patterns and - if she truly has a cultivated dress sense - her suggested adaptations, to her dressmaker to have them made up. Yet the paper, like its rival Home Chat,  also carried articles aimed at the amateur dressmaker. Pearson's evidently considered the market for paper patterns so buoyant that at the end of 1894 they had launched a dedicated monthly The Home Dressmaker* which, readers of Home Notes  were informed, would give away a pattern with every copy.

 *The new Crinoline page has another and larger scale photograph of a David plate of this period.

Rational Dress for Sport

By the end of the century "rational" dress for women was no longer merely good material for the cartoonists. Mrs Bloomer may once have been mocked, but when the "knickerbocker" was patronised by society ladies and promoted as practical clothing for ladies' sporting activities, the argument for rational dress was effectively won. There were even suggestions that bicycling might revolutionise women's dress - at least in France. The editor of Home Notes in one of the "Fireside Talks" (1894) reported that
    During these bright autumn afternoons the Bois is full of lady cyclists. and among  the crowds of the boulevards, and in the various cafés, it is by no means unusual to see members of the gentler sex in thoroughly masculine garments.
   Many women who never mounted a cycle in their lives have now taken advantage     of the popular craze to go about the streets in knickers, as Georges Sand formerly     did, and as Rosa Bonheur and Madame Dieulafoy sometimes do now.

Back in England the revolution was less dramatic, though working women, and others of modest means, for whom the bicycle provided an inexpensive means of transport, apparently found knickerbockers so sensible that the cheap women's papers began providing patterns for the home dressmaker.

'Personally, I regard knickerbockers at all times as the perfection of comfort, either with or without the outer light petticoat' wrote the author of Home Chat's "A Lesson in Home Dressmaking" (1895), claiming that she had already planned 'a lesson on these comfortable dual garments' when several readers wrote asking for a pattern for cycling. This particular pattern 'after some severe tests and trials' came out best. As the author delicately put it: 'The reason of the back view is obvious, and the advantage of the buttoned flap here depicted will be grasped at once.'

This flat diagram to show the layout of the pattern  which has ' been worked out with both a forty-four and twenty-two inch material in view' is also inserted in the text. (The original image is small - less than 2 inches in width and less than 1 and a half inches in depth.) The article not only comments on the design, but describes how the pattern should be laid out and gives, for instance, alternative methods of making the leg bands, and dealing with "the fulness at the back'. The addition of small darts is suggested as worth considering particularly by 'the possessors of large hips'. In common with other writers on fashion and dressmaking, alternative fabrics are suggested. 'The pattern I need scarcely mention is equally adaptable to tweed or serge, but where expense is no object the ideal knickers** are of black satin with removable Lanura linings.'

(The image on the Journalism Feature page is adapted from an illustration for a bicycling pattern from another cheap magazine of the same year. There it is clear that the costume is meant to be worn without the wrap-around overskirt which would be necessary with satin breeches.)

The idea of adapting knickerbockers to other sports was already being practised. Elsewhere in Home Chat that year, in the gossip column "Society Small Talk" by "Lady B.", a cousin of the German Emperor, Countess Fritz Hohenau, is credited with introducing knickerbockers into the 'becoming and comfortable dress' worn in her fashionable riding club for ladies who wished to ride 'a horse astride like a man'. The club was part of her campaign against what she regarded as "the dangerous and inconvenient side-saddle." The habit is described in some detail. 'A shirt, or well-fitting cloth coat, forms the bodice, with corduroy knickers, with tan leggings, tan boots, and round the waist is a tan leather girdle; a jockey cap, or silk hat, is worn on the head.' The coat had 'a long and ample skirt, like the frock coat of a man' and was made of a soft, clinging, light and elastic fabric that fully protected the legs; and 'a clever arrangement at the back' prevented the divided skirt from flapping in the wind.

Three years later in her Graphic column Lady Violet Greville went much further. Arguing that the time had come for women to wear sensible dress for sporting activities since  their  normal clothes proved such a handicap, she referred in complimentary fashion to a fencing display by the American Miss Toupie Lowther ‘in the neatest of white coats and knickerbockers’, and speculated that

the modern girl must repudiate the trammels of petticoats and other   accessories     women’s costume – at least in their youth…We are already obliged to wear special     clothes for almost everything we do in the way of exercise, for riding, skating,  bicycling, golfing, lawn tennis and  fencing. Will not the necessity of an  universally  comfortable dress soon make itself felt?

Not all American repudiators of "the trammels of petticoats" etc. received such warm admiration from English commentators. In 1895 The Happy Home's "Woman's Gossip" column made fun of a recent project by Dr. Mary Walker, the outspoken, pioneering and controversial doctor and feminist, who was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for her work in the Civil War, and claimed to have worn pants even before bloomers came on the scene in the 1840s  and in the 1870s  decided to wear men's clothes.  

* The title was soon changed to Dressmaking at Home  because 'there was already another journal of that name in existence.'
** The term "knickers" was then used as a short form of "knickerbockers" and could refer to an outer garment, as well as one worn under a skirt.

For a brief account of the development of nineteenth century women's magazines see The Ladies' Page, which also contains some information about Violet Greville's column. The Editor's Mailbag includes more material from Beeton's Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine.The new Editor's Jottings page has more about editorials like "Fireside Talks".

For important information on Copyright, Citations, Images and References please see my Home Page. There you will also find an explanation of the aims of Victorian Page, and  a note about me.

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©  Barbara Onslow 2007     This page published March 20th 2008  Last updated September 4th 2010