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Fashion marked the Victorian Era

She had no surname, but Alexandrina Victoria of the House of Hanover, granddaughter of King George III, was 18 years old when she ascended the throne, on June 20, 1837, to become Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. She reigned for the next 63 years, until her death on Jan. 22, 1901, and that time is referred to as the Victorian Era, or the Victorian Age.

In both Great Britain and the United States, the Victorian Age was marked by many social, industrial, technological, medical, and other changes and advancements. While Great Britain’s Industrial Revolution actually began in the century before Victoria was born, she witnessed its peak, as well as that of the U.S. Industrial Revolution. They were closely linked for the same reasons: The invention of steam power and boiler technology in Cornwall.

There were strange ironies, though. While the steam engine was invented as a mechanical means of pumping water from deep Cornish mines, the new technology was quickly adapted to cotton mills of the textile industry that made the U.K. a world-class economic power. In the U.S., it was just the opposite: New steam technology was adapted to textile mills by a man named Samuel Slater, who “borrowed heavily” from British technology of cotton mills, and greatly increased the speed with which cotton thread could be spun into yarn. It was not until the development of the Lake Superior Copper Mining District in 1843, however, that the United States made a major effort to adopt steam power in mining technology.

Steam provided unparalleled power and speed to production, which, according to historians, greatly increased production, and therefore, profits, as well as wages. But there were unintended changes, both in economic growth, and social change. In both the U.K. and the U.S., the Industrial Revolution created a shift from an agrarian-based market economy, to a city-based consumer economy, and the drastic rise of the wage-earning class.

As has always been the case in capitalistic societies, income and wealth were not evenly distributed. And while the revolution transformed America to a consumer economy. Factory owners and managers exploited wage earners to such an extent that, in Great Britain, authors, such as Charles Dickens, began to publish books and stories on the corruption and exploitation of the systems; “Oliver Twist” is just one example of the works that set out to expose the exploitation of the factory system, as well as its contribution to abject poverty in cities like London and Birmingham. In the United States, the first strike among textile workers who protested wage and factory conditions, occurred in 1824. Supposedly, the textile mills of Lowell, Massachusetts were model mills, but like British mills, they frequently employed children as young as eight years old, and young single women, to work 10-12 hour shifts, six days per week, and when children could not perform to demands of “mill masters,” it was an acceptable practice to beat them.

While slavery was a contentious issue in northern U.S., the contention was something of a hypocrisy. In the south, slaves were not paid, but in exchange for their labor, they received housing, clothing, food, and (some) health care. In the north, wager earners were paid for their labor, but but very seldom enough to provide themselves with adequate food, shelter, clothing, and medical care. Management, of course, did not receive wages; they received salaries.

Income disparities manifested themselves most obviously in fashion and style of dress, and social mannerisms, most of which was, of course, in imitation of those of Great Britain. This is one of the more interesting aspects of the Victorian Age. While Victorian fashion has gone out of, well, style, it still remains popular today, with several online companies devoted solely to clothing of the era, such as Gentleman’s Emporium and Vintage Dancer, to use just two as examples.

Having lasted more than 63 years, the Victorian Age saw many subtle changes in fashions.

Vintage Dancer states on their site: “In fashion, the Victorian era is an elaborate display of class, wealth, beauty and purpose for women and men. The layers of dress and suiting required of poor and rich alike were impractical, sometimes uncomfortable but always beautifully fashionable. Victorian fashion began with large dresses, poke bonnets and modest coverings for the ladies while men displayed color, pattern and rigidity in their attire.”

Women’s fashions experienced a period from 1840-1855 of largely straight lines, which gave way, until 1869, to hoop skirts, then to bustles through 1876. The bustle returned again from 1883 to 1889, when it was dispensed with for good.

“A basic Victorian men’s outfit starts with high waist pants held up by suspenders in solid wool, plaid, or dark stripes,” Vintage Dancer states.

Here, however, comes the class differences: “Next, add a loose Victorian men’s shirt,” the site states, “or colored for working classes.” Middle and upper-class men wore a Victorian suit with matching vest, it goes on to state, but the poor classes may have only afforded a mismatched vest which, was known as a waistcoat.

“Use a cravat or ascot in lieu of a necktie, Vintage Dancer recommends. “Wear button-up or lace-up boots on your feet and a Victorian top hat, bowler or cap on your head. Complete the look with a Victorian men’s frock coat, cutaway or morning coat (tailcoat.) Add men’s accessories such as gloves and a pocket watch to really make your costume stand out.”

Where the website advises wearing a frock coat, cutaway, or morning coat, the wage classes were far more apt, instead, to wear what was termed a sack coat. Victorian sack coats are nearly identical to standard suit coats of today, while frock, cutaway, or morning coats, are more associated with modern-day tuxedos.

Styles that included such coats would have been more prevalent in towns such as Red Jacket, Houghton, Hancock, Ontonagon, and others where there were stores and similar businesses, whereas at mining locations, only the mine agent and the clerk would have worn white shirts and frock coats, which were a common coat for daytime.

The rules that dictated Victorian etiquette and protocol could (and often did) fill a large book. But in the Lake Superior Copper District, these, particularly in the early years leading up to the Civil War, were not so strictly observed as they were in the major cities, such as New York, Philadelphia, or Boston.

Graham Jaehnig has a BA of Social Science/History from Michigan Technological University, and an MA in English/Creative Nonfiction Writing from Southern New Hampshire University. He is internationally known for his writing on Cornish immigration to the United States mining districts.

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