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.

Men’s Victorian Costumes

Men's Victorian Clothing

For a man, there are also great Victorian costumes to choose from but it can be a lot more difficult to source these. The majority of wealthy men from that era were known for wearing calf-length frock style coats that were custom fitted along with either a waist coat or a double breasted vest.

Colours were mainly neutral but could sometimes be bright. There were of course many poor men, country lads, grooms, chimney sweeps, road sweepers, butlers, footservants and soldiers. Alternatively, you could choose to go as a professional from that era, such as a schoolmaster, lawyer, judge, Minister of Religion or even a detective!

No one is going to worry if your costume is not totally authentic, so wear what you enjoy, although wearing an authentic Victorian bathing costume or nightshirt and cap might get a little chilly!.

Victorian Fashion

Queen Victoria ruled a powerful and wealthy Britain for over 60 years, from the 1830s until her death in 1901. This long period of history saw many changes in fashion styles.

Victorian Women’s Fashions

At the start of Queen Victoria’s reign the ideal womanly shape was that of a long slim torso and wide hips. This required tightly laced corsets with a chemise underneath. On top of these came a tight-fitting bodice with a low waistline and a long skirt made full by layers of horsehair petticoats. Skirts were looped, draped, or tied up in various ways, and worn over matching or contrasting underskirts. Towards the end of the period there was a gradual return to a narrow silhouette and the return of the bustle. 

Hats were essential. They were large and often elaborate, usually lined with wide brims to protect their owners’ faces from the sun. Victorian women did not like the tanned look, they preferred to be pale. Hat trimmings were elaborate and changed every season. The ladies often did their own trimming, perhaps adding or subtracting flowers and ribbons and even ornaments and frills. Bonnet shapes, however, did not change much over the period.

Creating A Victorian Woman’s Outfit

So, to recreate an upper class Victorian woman’s costume, you will need either a long dress or skirt with a full shape and a blouse. You will also need accessories like a bonnet or hat, a shawl, lace up boots, long gloves and heavy jewellery. If you want to go in an evening gown, these were elaborate with low neck lines. Long gloves, choker necklaces and jewelled collars were popular. Working class women wore simple dresses in dark materials, with narrow sleeves and no petticoats. They might wear an apron (with a bib) over the dress, and a shawl tied over their shoulders.

Victorian Men’s Fashions

Upper class Victorian men wore high waisted trousers, dress shirts, waistcoats, cravats, a top hat and boots or you could go for the morning coat, gloves, spats and pocket watch look, with a top hat or bowler.  Working men wore collarless shirts (grandad shirt) or smocks, with the sleeves rolled up. Men’s footwear was very formal mainly short ankle boots for wearing around town. Hats were always worn when outside. This includes working-class men who might wear battered top hats, flat caps or lower-crowned, broad-brimmed hats. 

Creating A Victorian Man’s Outfit

Give a plain white shirt a period look by turning up the collar. You could add a ribbon, or scarf or even a fancy cravat and knot this in front. A flat cap and waistcoat, with an open shirt and high waisted trousers would create a working man’s outfit very simply. For an upper class man’s outfit, you could perhaps source a morning coat and top hat from a charity or vintage shop.

Victorian Children’s Outfits

The clothes of baby boys and girls were quite similar for most of the Victorian period. Older children’s clothes were very similar to those of adults. Babies were dressed in layers of petticoats (yes, boys as well as girls)  to keep them warm and make it easy to wash them. A baby might wear a simple circular cape while outside, to keep them warm. They would also have warm elaborate bonnets.

Victorian Fancy Dress

Getting these outfits together could be as easy as raiding your granny’s wardrobe or perhaps visiting a charity shop or antique store. For women, a simple Victorian outfit can be made from a long skirt in a thick material and a high collared shirt (preferably with puffy sleeves). Women should also wear hats. Of course, you could have costumes custom-made for the event, or even make them yourself, if you want authenticity.

Keeping Warm

Most events where you can wear Victorian fancy dress may take place in the colder months. It can get quite cold outside from October onwards, depending on where you live. The best way to keep warm without hindering activity or covering your costume is by adding extra layers underneath. For girls and women, leggings and vests or t-shirts will help keep them warmer. Boys and men could wear sweatpants under their costume, thicker socks, warm shoes or boots. Layering costumes on top of spandex body suits are another great way to stay warm during autumn and winter.


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!