Portraying the Victorian Woman - Image 1

Portraying the Victorian Woman

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 Image 1

Do you portray a working class woman?  What do you use as inspiration for dressing yourself appropriately?  If your answer is a CDVs or Godey's you have much to learn about how you would have dressed for every day wear.  
Nineteenth century women were no different from us.  When they had work to do they dressed the part.  Just as I don't clean house today in a suit they didn't wear the finery we see in CDVs in going about their daily routine.

On the other hand I wouldn't go to have my photograph taken in the sweats or old clothes I normally wear while doing housework and neither did our 19th century counterparts.  

If we can't see the common working woman in a CDV where must we go to see what she wore?  One of the best sources is illustrations in books or periodicals.  The image above came from my personal collection of American Sunday School Union books and papers.  It is dated April l2, l862.    

What do we see in this image that tells us what the average rural woman wore?

On the left is a slovenly young woman who takes no pride in her appearance, her work habits, or her surroundings.  The article refers to her as a "sluggard", stating real ladies are industrious whereas this young lady is "slothful".  Is she happy?  No.  "Of course she is not happy.  Idle people never are.  She frets, and worries and makes herself more disagreeable than a door with rusty creaking hinges."    
"She makes nobody happy.  She is a thorn in her mother's side, a thistle under her little brother's feet, a teazle to her father's heart."
 
The young lady on the right is referred to as Industrious.  "Everybody loves her", says her father.  Alice has no time to fret, but she has pride enough in her appearance to make herself presentable and is shown as the epitome of a working woman.  Compared to most CDVs or Godey's fashion plates she is homely and humble, yet she is what the reader was told a young woman in her daily routine looked like.  She is authentic to her surroundings and to her place and time.
 
Alice wears a basic one piece dress with what appears to be a gauged skirt.  She wears simple flat shoes which allow her to go about her work with comfort.  Her dress has a basic white collar.  Her sleeves are pushed up above the elbow allowing her to work without soiling the sleeves.  She wears a kerchief on her head to keep her hair free of dirt and dust as she cleans, yet her hair is immaculately done with obligatory center part.  She wears a full apron which is approximately three quarters the length of her skirt to prevent soiling of the dress.  She is obviously not wearing a hoop but does have skirt support the sort which may be achieved with a corded petticoat.   She wears no jewelry but does appear to have a simple ribbon tie at the collar.

In the second image we see another woman going about her daily routine.  She is dressed simply, but well.  She wears a one piece dress with gathered bodice.  Her shoes are simple flats allowing for comfort and easy mobility.  Her dress has simple coat sleeves.  She wears an apron of striped fabric, and were she standing it appears to have been about knee length or perhaps two thirds the length of the skirt.  Her hair is carefully styled though she is obviously at home and going about the work of keeping house.  Even though she is sitting we can see that she has skirt support, probably a corded petticoat, but not hoops. She does not appear to be wearing jewelry of any kind.

Her daughter is dressed very much as is her mother except that she has the boat neckline of youth on her dress.  The dress is striped fabric, and she wears an apron very much like her mother's.  Her hair is parted in the middle, and carefully combed back behind the ear.  She wears stockings and simple flat shoes.  

In this final image of a woman at home going about her daily routine we note she is wearing a sacque and petticoat.  The skirt is short enough to allow for easy mobility either indoors or out.  She can tend to various chores outdoors without fear of a muddy wet skirt.  Her shoes are simple flats.  The image appears that she is wearing the sacque over a basic one-piece dress.  The sacque shows a hint of bodice underneath, and sleeves of the same color and look of the skirt.  There is also a white collar which appears to be attached to the dress and turned down over the sacque at the neck.  The sacque is made in typical fashion - fitted closer about the bodice before flaring out over the hips.  If the woman were standing straight the sacque would strike her at approximately mid-thigh length.  Again, there is no sign of jewelry or even trim to hint at anything but a basic every day dress for working around the home.  She is no doubt wearing skirt support, again, most likely in the form of a corded petticoat as the silhouette is not that of a cage.  Just as we saw in the previous two illustrations her hair is carefully dressed with center part, and the hair is covered to keep it clean as she goes about her work.  None of these illustrations show slovenly loose hair falling about the face or stuffed loosely into a net indicating that even at home while going about their daily routine they took pride in dressing the hair.  

The second image is dated June 8, 1861, and the third is dated Nov. 9, 1861.  All three images are from the Sunday School Advocate, and are part of my collection of 19th Century Sunday School books and papers.  

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