Is Victorian dress etiquette still relevant?

photo by Aveda

Paris Fashion Week, Haider Ackermann show – Fall/Winter 2015

Recently I was reading a post from my friend Barbara Schwartz of TruFaux Jewels and it reminded me how much influence vintage fashion has in the modern world. Her article points out the distinguished role Aquamarine is going to play in our ensembles for this year. (Pantone named it the lead color for the upcoming season, but popularity isn’t new for this hue. There are great pieces from the 1920s and 1950s that can make any outfit pop.)

As we all know, fashion trends find inspiration from a multitude of sources and the past is definitely rich with illuminating ideas. But is there a limit to artists’ desire to draw from this wealth of designs? Are some retro concepts just too dated to strike a chord with future generations? When I think about contrasting time periods perhaps there isn’t a divide as great as the Victorian era versus our modern times. The reign of Queen Victoria brought with it constrictions – lots of them. From how people interacted to how they presented themselves in their attire – you have a context, they got a rule for it! Now we’re lucky to get college kids refraining from emoticons and text lingo in their essays. All in all, we’ve enjoyed more personal freedoms which has been awesome (for example: ladies, we can wear skirts above the knee and go places without constant chaperons – definite bonus), but that’s also made us pretty relaxed on rules of conduct. Is that a good thing? Overall, I’d lean yes, but in certain cases I’d say it’s up to debate.

With all the buzz around the recent Fashion Weeks, it got me thinking: is Victorian dress etiquette still relevant? To answer this I consulted my handy dandy reference guide, Manners, Culture, & Dress of the Best American Society by Richard A. Wells, A.M. My grandmother gifted this book to me last year and I have had so much fun digging into all the different chapters. This guide to all things society was published in 1891 and covers a variety of topics, but I was most interested in Chapter 27, “Harmony of Color in Dress.”

Victorian Dress Etiquette 101

So what were the guiding rules of fashion during this time? According to Mr. Wells, the first item a lady should consider is color. There are a few major considerations to help decide your color scheme: age, hair color, and harmony theories.

A lady’s age restricted her from the get-go: bright colors were only for little ones and matronly ladies leaned toward rich, autumnal hues. Blacks and neutrals were typically reserved for the older members of society. Wells does go on to say that black complements nearly every complexion and figure, so the seed for “black is a great basic” was planted in the Victorian era. However the LBD for this time was definitely different than what we have now! Once a woman identified the appropriate use of color intensity based on her age, the next consideration was hair color. Funny story, with the exception of gals with auburn or black hair, ladies were directed to wear blue. Seems blue was definitely in favor at this time (which makes sense because blue was considered the most feminine and delicate of the colors).

Chapter 27 - let's dig in

The Harmony of Color in Dress

I’m sure you’re familiar with the famous Coco Chanel lines, “before you leave the house, look in the mirror and take one thing off” or “it is always better to be under-dressed.” These two quotes capture a lot of the Victorian spirit (a bit surprising since Chanel’s designs seem so anti-Victorian by empowering women as individuals). The art of Victorian dressing involved the foundation of color harmony, but also two core concepts: less is more (that meant wearing fewer colors and not burdening yourself with too many accessories) & dress for the occasion (don’t overdress because that reduced your stature in society).

In terms of color harmony, here are the biggest concepts from the Victorian era: don’t wear two contrasting colors in equal quantities on an outfit (you need one to step back into more of a neutral stance); if you use more than one color in an ensemble, one should clearly dominate; if you wear a large pattern, use gentle hues; if you wear a small pattern, employ bolder tones; and harmonies of contrast (wearing two dissimilar colors that play well together – like a blue and orange) are more pleasing than wearing similar colors (in tone or intensity level).

Two last tidbits before we set our time travel machine to 2015: lighting was a big consideration in Victorian times and special events called for particular fashions. For example, there are guidelines for what to wear during carriage rides, attending social parties versus a soiree, playing croquet, going to the opera, or traveling to Europe. As I said earlier, you got a context – they’ve made a rule for that. (I keep wanting to type “there’s an app for that.”) But as we look toward modern day Fashion Weeks, lighting is still a huge part of the runway show. So it’s true, some things never change…

How “Victorian” were the Fashion Week presentations from 2015?

The big five cities for Fashion Week are: London, Paris, Milan, New York, and Berlin. Our major factors are use of color harmony rules and the concept of less is more. I’ll start with London. I’d say the London replays showed us a pretty even split on Victorian/non-Victorian. And I would dare to say the difference leans in the favor of pro-Victorian. Designer Holly Fulton’s debut piece shows us layered cream colors and brooches (brooches are back everyone – although us vintage fashionistas never “lost” them to begin with).

From the Cause A Frockus collection

Get your brooch on!

Her collection goes on to show pastels, simple lines, and limited palettes – which are all very proper and Victorian. However, some of her patterns are too bold in scale, the collection lacks blue tones, and there isn’t a large degree of color contrasts. The Central Saint Martins collection is definitely not in line with Victorian dress etiquette, but Emily Wickstead offers us another collection that has some Victorian roots. Unlike Fulton, we see a lot of blues and smaller print patterns. The only “no-no” is the plaid piece. (According to Wells, plaids and stripes were not fashionable.)

I encourage you to take a peek at the other fashion week replays here and here. What are your thoughts? Do you see some hints of Victorian influence in these other areas and collections?

Cause A Frockus would like to thank TruFaux Jewels for the inspiration, the people who post their imagery to the public domain, and the amazing designers out there making fashion what it is today!

For our readers: check out this article about the gender neutrality of New York’s Fashion week.

Replies for “Is Victorian dress etiquette still relevant?

  • Ellen Dial

    Oh yes, the Victorians! Their influence is everywhere – there seems to be a plethora of color + neutrality. Great color combos and the use of “harder” type colors, blues, reds, purples – all intercombined and partnered – some really work, some that make you go “hmm”, ie: red + marsala joined, just didn’t work for this girl… In contrast, the pastel/neutral monochromatic are gorgeous in their simplicity and speak to the Victorian sensibility of dressing for ones age. With the menswear/military nods too….. There are really some exceptional examples of how fashion really has NOT changed significantly. Plus the details in haute couture! Delicious.

    Love, love Coco! Of course, what we consider underdress and what SHE considered underdressed, one could argue mean two different things!


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