Victorian Valentines

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When the month of February arrives, almost all people on the planet have one thing in mind: how am I going to spend Valentine’s Day? But before you think about that, you should also think about where this holiday originated from.

What is it?

Valentine’s Day is also known as Saint Valentine’s Day or Feast of Saint Valentine. It began as a celebration for one of the earlier Christian saints known as Valentinus. Around the world it is celebrated on February 14th, however it may not be a national holiday in some countries.

The Victorians were very fond of sending Valentines and might spend many hours creating a special offering in watercolours or a poem or puzzle, or adding trims to lace paper. Some young men would commission a special poem for their favoured lady, while women might paint or colour a picture. Catherine (Kate) Greenaway was a popular illustrator of children’s books in Victorian times, having attended art college, and she also designed valentines for card manufacturers, which are now collector’s items.

Why the love?

The romantic nature of Valentine’s Day may stem from the fact that St. Valentinus used to perform weddings for people who were not allowed to get married or were enemies of the Roman Empire. For this, he was sentenced to imprisonment where he later healed the daughter of his jailor. Although this holiday is celebrated on February 14th, it is, in some parts, celebrated on other days such as July 6 and July 30 by the Eastern Orthodox Church. The day’s romantic association first came in the High Middle Ages of 18th century England where the practice of courtship and romance was greatly emphasized. The practice of flowers and distribution of romantic notes was further emphasized in this era which lead to present day Valentine’s where one gives their counterpart flowers, a special note and maybe even some chocolate.

Modern Valentine’s Day

By the twentieth century, there was a mass production of Valentine greeting cards which lead to today’s practice of sending cards by post. In the latter parts of the twentieth century, the practice of giving and receiving cards was extrapolated to every sort of gift. So if a man gave his wife chocolate, flowers and a card, he would expect his wife to give him some sort of chocolate, a card and maybe something else. Regardless of what material good was given, the intention was the same and that was to return the favour one has bestowed upon another.

Statistics now show that almost 190 million valentines are sent around the United States of America each year. Whether they go to family members, your loved ones, your spouse, your girlfriend, your boyfriend, your significant other or your partner, that is a lot of valentines. It is commonly seen even in public schools with children aged just five years old giving valentines to their peers.

Valentine’s on a Global Scale

In China, the most common gift given by a man to a woman is chocolate, flowers or both. It is often referred to as a lovers’ festival, where the woman is not necessarily expected to bestow gifts on the man. In Finland, Valentine’s Day is more or less a Friend’s Day and it is a day for you to remember all your friends and not just your spouse or significant other.


In essence, Valentine’s Day started as a holiday where the act of marrying two people was celebrated even if it was against the law at the time. Now it is more or less a way to remember your loved ones and your friends and to show them you appreciate them by showering them with gifts and flowers.

Victorian ladies in Ball Gowns

Victorian Ball Gowns

Choosing Your Victorian Costume

Who Is It For

If you want to dress up in Victorian costume for a particular event, the first step is to ask yourself what role (in that society) you want to represent. Are you going as a gentleman, or lady of means? Perhaps you are looking for a costume for a girl or a boy? Or perhaps you identify with the labourer or housemaid? Before you can piece together your costume, it is important to identify your place in this bygone society, and the way you want to represent it.

It’s also important to consider what type of event you are attending. If you are going to an historical event or a formal commemoration, you will need to choose a costume that is accurate in its details as far as possible and the most effective way to do so is through a quality costume. If, on the other hand, you are attending a fancy dress party or other fun event with a Victorian theme, then a little (or a lot) of latitude will be allowed and you could even wear steam punk clothing. If the fancy dress is required for a school event, such as world book day or an historical visit or theme, then a practical outfit, suitable for school and rough and tumble may be best.

Once you’ve determined the type of citizen you most closely identify with, it is time to decide how you will design your own unique look. Many gentlemen of the era wore muted and neutral colours, while ladies took to a more cheerful range unless they were in mourning (which was often the case) when they wore black or half mourning.

Deciding which colour scheme best suits you is the difference between a truly memorable costume, and one of a more average disposition. Most costumes make use of one primary colour, followed by one or two secondary splashes to complete the image.

Next, you’ll need to determine the level of authenticity you wish to adhere to. Many of the original clothes of the Victorian era were made of heavy wools, cottons, and silks. Men and women alike found them either warming, or broiling depending on the weather and the temperature. When choosing a costume, or having one made, the type and quality of fabric must be taken into account. More authentic representations are usually made of finer quality fabric and construction, and are therefore more expensive than a thinner counterpart. Choose a costume that best suits your location, purpose, and budget, as well as the weather you are likely to encounter.

You may wish to remember that Whitehead’s Victorian Street Fair is held at the end of November or start of December each year and it may be chilly, so a warmer costume might be best. Alternatively, you may find it useful to wear thermal underwear!

Perhaps the most important decision to make comes in the form of tailoring. Should you handle the expense of a bespoke costume, made and measured to your exact specification? Or would a more affordable, off-the-rack option suit you better? Both options have both their pros and cons.

A bespoke costume entails everything you could ever require in a costume: It is made from quality materials that are often the most authentic representation of the time. The construction is of a much higher quality, allowing you to don the piece many times before showing any signs of wear. A tailored Victorian ensemble will also be made to your exact measurements, guaranteeing a fit and function unrivalled by any other option. Being made for you means it will move with you in a way that other clothing simply cannot match. An experienced costume maker can also lend you their expertise in the creation of your project. If you’re having trouble deciding the look and execution of your Victorian alter ego, then an experienced tailor will be more than happy to simplify the process with their skill and fashion sense.

The disadvantages of bespoke come in the form of cost, time, and sometimes function. Tailor made is typically a high budget option, as you are paying for both the materials and the labour that brings them together. A bespoke Victorian outfit will also not be ready immediately. It often takes several fittings to achieve just the right measurement and vision. If you intend on doing any strenuous activity that might damage the costume, then a bespoke option may not be suitable, given the price.

In this case, an off-the-rack option may be best. You may be able to find a suitable costume in a charity shop. The Action Cancer shop in Carrickfergus carries a range of Victorian era clothes collected from many others of their stores.

If not, you can buy a costume. The greatest advantage of choosing a pre-made costume is the price. Costumes that are mass produced are absolutely more cost effective than a customised ensemble. Due to their affordability, many customers choose to engage in a higher level of activity while wearing them. Time is another advantage here as well. These costumes are already designed and manufactured by the time you select them, and are therefore available for instant or near-instant use. This is pivotal for those that must find a quick costume to wear because they have made a last minute decision to attend!

The caveat to off-the-rack comes in the form of its quality. Many OTR costumes are of lesser quality than bespoke options. They are also more standard, and less unique in appearance.

These are just a few simple guidelines for choosing your Victorian costume that should help you determine your quintessential Victorian costume, regardless of age or gender. Take your time and choose wisely. Regardless of your choice, have fun and enjoy your costume of choice!


How To Make A Victorian Flower Fairy Dress

The Victorians were very interested in fairies and all sorts of other spooky stuff. A flower fairy costume would be a good one for a little girl, even if the costume is not everyday wear for a Victorian girl. The costume would also do good service for dressing up in other contexts or as a party dress.

Victorian Etiquette Rules

This video will not be everyone’s cup of tea, however, it gives a lot of information on how social standards worked in Victorian society.

Making Butter In Victorian Times

You may buy your butter in the shop but in Victorian times, it was made fresh every day in the kitchens of the Big Houses. This video shows you how that was done.

Dressing As A Victorian Cook

A video showing how a Victorian cook dressed each day.

How To Make Victorian Underwear For Ladies

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This is a long video showing how Victorian underwear from the 1890s era could have been made.


And if you want to see the history of how Victorian costumes evolved during the Victorian era, look here.

An Authentic Lady’s Victorian Costume


The Authentic Costume

A truly authentic Victorian Lady’s costume is quite complex. See below for how they dressed – it’s no wonder they needed servants and dressers to help them with their clothes! But you can get the Victorian Look much more easily today, without having to go to all the trouble that Victorian ladies had to take just to get dressed!

Victorian Undergarments

These included a corset, to create an hourglass figure for the fashionable Victorian lady, frilly, long legged pants and plain stockings in wool or cotton. The corset was worn over a simple white cotton under-dress that reached the thighs.

The Victorian Petticoat

Women wore petticoats to prevent their legs from showing as well as to protect themselves from the hoop and the bustle (of the early Victorian era). You can make a simple petticoat by using an old white sheet and cutting it so that it won’t show below your dress. If you use the hemmed edge of the sheet for the bottom of your petticoat, you will save yourself some work. Simply gather the sheet and attach a band to the top with simple stitches.

The Hoop Or Bustle

Hoops are generally built into an additional petticoat. They are made from wire and can be purchased relatively inexpensively online. Bustles are also constructed of wire and covered with material. They have a sash attached to wrap them around the waist to raise the dress in the back.

The Victorian Dress

Most dresses were elaborately hand sewn with rich fabrics. There are patterns available but are often quite complex and you may need to start creating your dress quite some time before the event so you may prefer to consider purchasing one that is already made. Dress colours typically were royal purples, deep blues, and vibrant pinks. They were enhanced with fine embroidery using pearls and beads and elaborate gathering.

The Victorian Accessories

No upper class Victorian female would consider leaving the house without her gloves and a bonnet. Most gloves were made of solidly covered material since the dresses themselves were so elaborate. Occasionally, they might have beads or jewels sewn onto them for classic effect. Glove stores frequently have stunning high fashion gloves for sale and you will have loads of fun shopping for this accessory.

Find a simple straw bonnet and decorate it with fabric that matches your dress. The ribbon can wrap around the base of the hat and double as a tie to secure it to your head. Flowers and feathers are always a welcome addition to any bonnet.

Using The Toilet In Victorian Dress

With full bodied, dresses, bustles and crinolines, it might seem that Victorian women must have had very good bladders! This short video shows exactly how easy it was to use a chamber pot or toilet even wearing the largest of crinolines or a bustle. NOTE: this video is fun and perfectly OK for anyone to watch.

A fun video, suitable for all to see, showing how someone dressed in Victorian clothes could use the toilet.

Making A Victorian Costume

Victorian Walking Skirt

If you want to make your own Victorian costume, you could start by making a walking skirt. This video shows how to make and cut out the pattern, cut and sew the material and shows how it was sewn together on an old hand-turned sewing machine. The video also includes adding a pocket to the skirt.

Girl’s Flower Fairy Costume

The Victorians were known for believing in fairies. A flower fairy dress would fit well with a Victorian party theme.