Monday, June 26, 2006

Victorian Ladies' Outerwear

I've already talked about what men of the 1860s wore over their clothing in cold or inclement weather, but what did the ladies wear?
Women's outerwear consisted of capes, cloaks and coats, as well as shawls and scarves.
Capes were cut full to drape over the dress. They could be as short as hip length or extend to about six inches from the hem of the dress. Some had arm slits. Capes were constructed of solid wool fabrics. Some had hoods.
Cloaks also had no sleeves, but because they were cut shorter at the sides, they allowed for full movement of the arms. They paralleled the line of the dress and were often trimmed, sometimes with fringe if it was a fashionable cloak. Cloaks were constructed much like a poncho, and made of warm woolen fabrics that buttoned down the front. Cloaks could also have a hood. Fashion cloaks could be made of fabric or silk and were left unbuttoned to expose the dress beneath.
Unlike capes and cloaks, coats had sleeves. They also followed the line of the dress being cut full on the bottom. Like capes, they could be anywhere from hip length to six inches above the dress hem. Most coats were made of wool. Some had exaggerated sleeves.
All of these garments could also be constructed of fur for extra warmth.
Shawls and scarves could be worn inside or out, depending on the weather. Scarves would also be worn with coats. Although scarves weren't especially popular during the period, they were still worn. Shawls, though, were widely popular.
Scarves were made of a variety of fabrics. Shawls could be knitted of wool yarn or made from large squares of fabric. They could be fringed or not. Lace shawls were also popular. These were worn as accessories to fashionable dresses.
Source: Who Wore What? Women's Wear 1861-1865 by Juanita Leisch
Thomas Publications 1995 ISBN 0-939631-81-4

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Gypsy Troupes, Part II: A Royal’s Entertainment

One of the strongest influencers of Victorian trends and fashion was Eugenie, the Empress of France. What does a French empress have to do with popularizing Gypsy entertainment? Quite a bit.

The Spanish Eugenie was a lesser member of Spanish royalty (, which afforded her time to spend with her adoring father - the Grandee Don Cipriano - on wild excursions. Riding horseback into Gypsy encampments for lengthy stays in the outlying countryside, Eugenie became comfortably familiar with the troupes’ customs and culture.

Eugenie learned the music and dances of the Gitanos, which were the Spanish gypsies, and even the fortune-telling skills that she later used when traveling incognito. Historically, Spaniard aristocracy traveled in disguise, especially disguised as gypsies. A number of modern societies can be found which are preserving the history of gypsies; one which describes the various groupings and American settlements is located at

In the book Crowned In A Far Country by Princess Michael of Kent (ISBN 0954327217), an incident of Eugenie’s youthful adventures is told masterfully by this seasoned storyteller. Eugenie and another female friend (no name given) were traveling in Seville, Spain, posing as a pair of wild gypsy women. They were staying in their own tent, having a grand adventure, entertaining passing gentlemen with gypsy dances and tossing wantonly flirtatious glances. The two ingĂ©nues eventually revealed their identity to two smitten British gentlemen, as the story goes.

As the influential Empress of France, Eugenie notably favored traditional Spanish and Gypsy music. (She was even described at times as hopeless when it came to classical music.) Even as her tastes in fashionable attire and her reddish-gold hair color started major trends that swept more than one continent, her tastes in musical choices and entertainment were also being copied and even decried by wagging tongues.

Scandalously, Eugenie often appeared in wild costumes for entertainment, including gypsy-derived styles. Until Eugenie became the focal point of blame for the failure of the “Mexican Adventure” and until the execution of the Archduke Maximilian of Austria Emperor of Mexico, Eugenie ran a lively and exciting court. Upon the death of the Archduke, she and other members of the court went into official mourning. After 1867, therefore, more somber styles of music and fashion and entertainment permeated the French court, ending an era of wilder fashion and entertainment as inspired by Eugenie's love of the Spanish and Gitanos. Eugenie even stopped purchasing extravagant gowns from the House of Worth dressing less frivolously and extravagently. Until 1867, then, Eugenie’s Spanish heritage and gypsy flair had created some exciting trends during in the Victorian era.

By Kristin-Marie

Monday, June 19, 2006

Modern Innovation

“Built to reduce pedestrian traffic jams, its construction in the 'seventies was considered as a miracle of engineering.”

The 1870s, of course.

The Tower Pedestrian Subway under the Thames, built by Peter W. Barlow and James Henry Greathead took only about a year to complete. This wasn’t the first subway tunnel, that was the Thames Tunnel at Wapping completed in 1843 meant for the future London Underground. However, it was only the second due to problems encountered by that tunnel’s creator, Marc Brunel. Yet at 34, Greathead “tendered for the construction of the shafts and tunnel for £9400, devising a cylindrical wrought iron shield forced forward by 6 powerful screws as the material was excavated in front of it.”

According to Nicholas Bentley in The Victorian Scene: 1837-1901, “it runs a quarter of a mile beneath the Thames between Tower Hill and Bermondsley.”

(Go here to view pictures of the tunnel:

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Victorian Birth Control

One of the most popular forms of birth control during the Victorian Period is still popular today—the condom—originally invented to protect men from the transfer of syphilis from prostitutes.

By the early 19th century they were being used by the upper-classes of England and France as contraceptives and were available as early as the middle of the 18th century at Mrs. Phillips store on Half Moon street in London. In the U.S. sea captains kept ships stocked up to protect their sailors from disease. In the early 19th century they were advertised in newspapers and available through the mail in the U.S.

Condoms, known by various names such as skins or safes, were originally created using animal membranes. The method used to make the better ones made them thin, strong, and also expensive—as much as 1$ per condom. Because of the cost, early condoms were washed out and reused. By mid-century were being made using vulcanized rubber. The prices dropped significantly, $3-$6 a dozen. They were readily available at druggists and through the mail.

The rubber condoms weren’t always effective however. Without our modern controls rubber condoms could be weak in spots which would cause them to break, and some might even have holes. They had seams running down the middle and were so thick as to seriously reduce sensation. Still, they were better than nothing.

In 1873, with the help of crusader Anthony Comstock, advertisement for birth control was outlawed under the obscenity laws. It was also illegal to send obscenity through the mail, which included condoms. However, there is anecdotal evidence through diaries and records that condoms were still available if a person knew where to find them.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Louisa May Alcott

Another real-life heroine I based my fictional heroine, Cassidy Stuart, on in my novel, Under the Guns, was Louisa May Alcott, author of Little Women. Although my fictional character didn't aspire to be a writer, like Alcott, she was raised in a middle-class family in the North and longed to break the conventions of the ideal of Victorian womanhood.
Like Alcott, Cassidy became a nurse volunteer during the Civil War.
Louisa May Alcott was born in Germantown, Pennsylvania on November 29, 1832. While she was still young her family relocated to Boston, Massachusetts. She obtained most of her education from her father, who was a teacher. The family later moved to Concord where author and friend, Ralph Waldo Emerson, helped them set up residence.
Louisa received guidance from him as well as Theodore Parker and was also instructed by Henry David Thoreau.
She began writing at an early age and penned her first book by age sixteen. Louisa also helped her family make ends meet by taking in sewing, and working as a teacher and domestic servant. She tried acting at age seventeen, but preferred to write plays, rather than perform in them.
At age 30, she entered the nursing sevice at the Union Hospital in Georgetown in 1862. While there, she contracted typhoid fever. She recovered, but suffered the effects of mercury poisoning the rest of her life. At the time calomel (a drug laden with mercury) was used by doctors as a cure for typhoid.
While in Washington, Louisa wrote Hospital Sketches, published in 1863, followed by Moods in 1864.
She next produced the novel, Little Women, published September 30, 1868. She based the book on her own experience growing up. The book sold more than 2,000 copies. She next wrote a second volume that sold more than 13,000 copies.
Sources: In Hospital and Camp by Harold Elk Straubing, Stockpole Books 1993
ISBN 0-8117-1631-7