Wool Fashion in Victorian Society

Historic apparel sheds light on 19th century fashion


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Fashion mirrors its time and in the Victorian era dressing for the occasion was of utmost importance for a lady of wealth and good social standing. From 1838 to 1901 when Queen Victoria reigned, changing up to six times a day was part of a fashionable, Victorian lady’s routine. This required an enormous wardrobe of garments that had to adapt to the changing fashion silhouette – from the crinoline or bell shape in the mid-1800s to the dramatic bustle shape towards the end and variations in between.

Silk faille (a heavy weight and subtly ribbed silk), cotton and wool fabrics were used for outerwear and underwear, day and eveningwear, and ‘sportswear’, the new, popular pastime for a Victorian lady.

Silk came from Europe, China and Japan. Cotton was imported from India, Britain and America and wool was woven in mills dotted in all corners of the world, from Moray, Scotland to Bendigo, Victoria, from Charlottesville, Virginia to Biella, Italy, among other places.

The Darnell Collection boasts many fine, rare and unique garments from the mid- 1800s with a focus on garments made from wool. Many of these historic items have documented provenances that shed a fascinating light on how wool featured in 19th century fashion.

Wool Mourning Dress

Mourning played a large part in Victorian life. Many Victorians followed Queen Victoria’s example who dressed in black for 40 years (the rest of her life) following the death of Prince Albert in 1861.

Mourning had its own strict dress code. Because the mortality rate for adults and especially children was high, many women wore black most of their lives. If the deceased was an immediate family member women would mourn for two years. The first year they wore only black. The fabric, called crepe, had no lustre and there was little decoration in the way of beadwork or embroidery. (The Courtauld family in England made their fortune by producing crepe in the 19th century!) Their jewellery was black too, made from Whitby and French jet.

The second year had two stages during which time wearing only black was eased. In the first half of the second year, an additional colour could be added in small amounts to the black outfit. For instance, a cream yoke or collar, a touch of white lace, or a lavender ribbon could be added. During the last stages of mourning, an outfit could be made from a sombre colour like charcoal, brown and even pale lavender as long as a black band, detailing or bow was also included.


Side-saddle ensemble

By the end of the century, benefits of exercise were promoted and leisure activities for middle and upper class women became popular. Of course, outfits in which to participate in activities that included fencing, croquette, tennis, archery, promenading and, especially, horse riding, became a new addition to a lady’s wardrobe.

The Victorian era saw the introduction of masculine dressing for women in both daywear and sportswear. The elegantly tailored wool, riding ensemble is a fine example. The double-breasted buttoning down the front is reminiscent of a man’s suit as is the pin stripe weave of the wool.

The outfit comprises a fitted jacket and a specially shaped, long skirt to cater for the wearer to sit in the saddle sideways with the skirt’s train covering her legs for modesty. The ingenuity of Victorian dressmakers and their skill at satisfying not only the practical side of dressing, but also their ability to accommodate social convention, meant that the skirt was cut to allow the wearer to walk when off her horse.  When the rider dismounted, she wrapped the wide skirt flap around her at the front and hooked the skirt to a button on the side waistband. As soon as she was ready to remount, she would unbutton the skirt herself, without the help of a maid, and ride off.


Red plaid child’s dress

Tartan became all the rage when Prince Albert bought Balmoral Castle in Scotland in 1852 for Queen Victoria. The Royals enjoyed their stays in the castle and established a pattern of Highland life including commissioning artists to record their Scottish life in paintings as well as decorators to fill the interiors with Highland tartans. The Americans particularly took to this craze for plaids (as the American’s refer to them) and dressed themselves and their children in it.

One special dress in the collection is a simple red, plaid bustle dress worn by a child. The skirt is lined with polished cotton to give extra warmth and strength to the fine wool. The only embellishment is the simple bow at the neckline, probably copied from a dress illustration seen in the weekly ladies fashion publication, Godey’s.

Children in the Victorian era, boys and girls, were dressed like miniature adults. In the mid-1800s, a young girl would either wear, just like her mother, layers of petticoats (middle class) to create the crinoline shape or a miniature sized crinoline wire petticoat (upper class) to replicate the fashionable bell or dome shaped silhouette. Later, in the 1880s, they were encumbered with miniature bustles (another cage structured petticoat) to create the required fashion statement.


Maternity Peignoir

Victorian ‘at-home’ clothes, only worn in the company of immediate family and servants, are hard to find and maternity clothes are fairly rare. The beautiful and lavish maternity robe made from expensive wool and complemented with unusual, textured silk panels is a wonderful example of how stylish well-to-do women were in the sanctuary of their own home. Although many Victorian women had nine or more children, many lower and middle class women altered their everyday clothes during their pregnancy rather than having garments made specifically for pregnancy.

In accordance with Victorian rules for modesty, once a woman began to show she was expecting she was confined to her own home until after the baby was born. At-home garments were far more relaxed than those worn in public and were worn without restrictive corsets and cage petticoats. As this example illustrates, the fashionable silhouette was discarded in preference for comfort. And, by using a luxurious wool fabric, the mother-to-be was protected from chills in her draughty Victorian mansion.



Without the luxury of central heating or the convenience of a heated car in which to travel, keeping warm was essential when dressing in Victorian times. Before the crinoline cage petticoat was introduced, women layered up to seven petticoats under their dresses to create the desired bell shape in the mid-1880s. In summer, the layers consisted of cotton and silk petticoats and in winter at least one petticoat, usually the one worn closest to the body, was made of soft wool flannel.

A young woman living on the East Coast of America wore this  wool petticoat. The vibrant red colour and the quality of the wool fabric suggests the dress was worn for special occasions by a wealthy, young woman.


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