Bloomers and Kate Greenaway (or, what to wear with your goggles on the Time-traveling Elephant Airship)
Let's not try to mince words: 19th century costume sucks, if you're a girl trying to do anything more than sit in the parlor and do needlepoint. You can, if you're of a mind, do pretty much anything that the previous centuries would have you do if you had to, but here, you have an aperion of petticoats (early Victorian), huge hooped skirts (mid V), and corsetry and a bustle (late V). At the same time, you want to be able to do stuff your grandma never dreamed about, like ride a bicycle, travel the world, work in town, or just walk through the forest birdwatching.
For many, it was simply a case of making do with what was around, but for others, a new era meant a new way to dress. Few of these clothes ever made the fashion plates, but they're all as fun to wear as to look at. For steampunks, re-enactors, and adventuresome dressers of all kinds, here's a glimpse into Victoria's real Secrets, the hidden world of Victorian underground fashion...
Frightening the Horses, or Cross-Dressing Reveal'd!
The most straightforward way to deal with this problem is simply to dress like a man, in the manner of George Sand. Most people nowadays remember her as The Woman who Killed Chopin (by insisting that he live with her in a damp, drafty house on Majorica), but her initial success came as a journalist. Wearing men's clothing was a way to get into and out of places like coffee houses, the viewers' gallery in the courts building, and suchlike without causing (too much) of a major distraction.
Unfortunately, when found out, she caused several kinds of public scandal: people called her everything from a hermaphrodite to a lesbian (although they didn't call it that back then), and hinted that she was as freaky underneath her clothes as she was in them. (It didn't help that she converted to Judaism, either, and bore several children out of wedlock.) Although it would have been a nice touch if she'd finally found a nice Jewish girl, and settled down, a la Gertrude Stein, and spent her old age dispensing feminist advice, she was neither much of a feminist, nor, after a century and a half of searching, has anything vaguely like a female partner ever emerged.
The same, however, cannot be said of quite a few women of the era. As much as most writers claim that women dressed like men just didn't exist, there were any number of suspicious-looking fellows with false moustaches creeping around 19th century America and Europe. History records several Union/Confederate 'soldiers', as well as cowgirls, pit lasses (female coal workers), sailors, and many another working girl for whom a long skirt was more a hazard than a fashion statement. So that it is, that people keep on finding a) women passing themselves off as men to be able to have sex with other women, b) women passing themselves off as men, for various political/religious/practical reasons, and c) women wearing various versions of semi-male attire, just because it happened to work out that way.
Towards the end of the century, the chain-driven 'safety bicycle' turned cycling from a slightly suicidal sport for rich eccentrics to the fastest way between any two given points. Since women were entering the workforce as secretaries, nurses, and the like, being able to get to work quickly made cycling, and therefore having something to wear that didn't get caught up in the mechanism, less an affectation than a necessity. Wearing breeches seemed to be the easiest way around this. And some women wore the outfit for the heck of it: as one Punch cartoon went:
Old woman: "Why are you wearing a cycling suit? You don't even own a bicycle!"
Young woman: "No. But I have a sewing machine!"
Towards the end of the Victorian era, the 'tailored' dress became popular, which was merely a fitted jacket and frothy blouse, similar to men's Regency wear, grafted on top of a corseted waist and narrow skirt, a look that was to become the female version of a business suit for both working and married women until about 1910, by which time, women walking around in men's clothes simply looked like your eccentric maiden aunt.
That Most Scandalous Outfit
The Bloomer Suit is, to my eyes, the most adaptable alt.victorian look. Invented by Amelia Bloomer in 1851, just when women's clothing was beginning to get really out of hand, it was derided by the press and wearers hassled in public. (Oddly, though, it doesn't look too bad, no matter how much caricaturists of the time tried to make it seem so -- at its very worst, it just looks like 18th century Chinoiserie.) Although Amelia quit wearing it a few years later, when crinolines took the place of petticoats, it refused to die, surfacing, here and there, as 'Rational Dress', 'Athletic Costume', and the like, every time anyone wanted a neat solution to staying covered while cycling, doing German exercises at the Turnhall, swimming, or just being able to deal with foreign cultures and terrain while keeping a common standard of decency.
Inspired, in part, by childrens' wear of the time (think Raggedy Ann), and partly by Russian and Middle Eastern folk costume, it comprised a coat or vest over a knee-length full dress or tunic with gathered trousers. You could dress it up or down. You could wear it, with adaptations, in any weather. (Arguably, it's the great-great-grandmother of the first wedding gown to have been worn on the South Pole.) For a good part of the late 80's, I, myself, wore variations of this style, as a student at NYU, and was even complimented on my attire, by an astonishing range of people. (As my mother, a designer, remarked, it's made for women who are made like women.) Since you're probably not Muslim, a waistline can be made with sashes, which also gives you a nice place to stash small objects or hang purses or keychains, as well as camouflaging anything from a few spare pounds (sterling or avoirdupois) to a few extra layers of clothing. (My personal record was about six, and no, I didn't look like Bibendum.) Since this never quite caught on as a popular style, it's pretty much a case of roll-your-own and creativity, as it comprises everything from a full skirt-and-leggings to an equestrienne's split skirt, to a hip-length tunic-and-pants, with bathing attire, Paul Poiret's harem outfits (c. 1912-1928), and of course, real-live Middle Eastern costumes as inspiration. Maybe you'll sew a revolution yourself!
Aesthetes, Decadents, and Dandies (oh, my!)
The roots of the Aesthetic Movement can be traced to the Crystal Palace Exhibition in 1851. Intended to showcase the products of British engineering and manufacturing, to many sophisticated viewers it only seemed to underline that most of these were over-designed and stupefyingly ugly. Fashionable professors at University railed against it, John Ruskin pointed out the beauty to be found in previous centuries, and William Morris, along with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood put these ideas into practice, championing the handmade, strong, simple lines, and delicate, muted colors.
At the same time, a new breed of young men (and some women), heirs to the money all these goods made, was going through University, and this message did not fall on deaf ears.
"Let there be nothing in a home that is not useful or beautiful." Oscar Wilde decreed, echoing the sentiments of John Ruskin, and it was so: these first-generation professionals lived in red-brick apartment buildings and townhouses based on the designs of the Adam Brothers, decorated with plant motifs and stained glass. Having few heirlooms, and little money, they decorated their flats with simply designed furniture made special with fanciful paint jobs, out-of-fashion pieces from junk shops, inexpensive bits of majolica and blue and white porcelain and showy-looking plants and antique textiles.
To counterpoint these surrounds, many donned historical garb. Instead of the stiff bustle outfits common at the time, many women took up wearing unconstructed outfits loosely based on Greek vases and paintings of the early Renaissance. (Corsets optional.) The more conservative school stuck to silk, wool and linen, with vegetable dyes and lots of embroidery, and 'medieval' details as balloon or bell sleeves and trailing skirts. The more playful Aesthetic school made up the same ideas with Liberty of London's fanciful cotton prints, or alternatively, satin or velvet, to make lovely housedresses suitable for playing with the children, the lute, or taking an afternoon nap after reading The Yellow Book. These dresses, dropping straight from the shoulder, were also popular as little girls' dresses, as seen in Kate Greenaway, and to play lawn tennis.
(Here again, this kind of dressing overlaps the turn of the last century. The straight silhouette of Aesthetic dressing influenced Austrian dressmakers of the Vienna Werkstatte (c. 1910), whose embroiderers were subcontracted out to, you guessed it, Paul Poiret, who made the test-tube like shape a mainstay of his fashion collections, which, with a much higher hemline, formed the backbone of 'that 20's look'. Aesthetic and/or Arts and Crafts furniture and design lingered on till about the Forties, until its revival in the Eighties.)
Aesthetic men tended to base their garb on the 17th-18th century, wearing breeches, big floppy hats, ruffly shirts, capes, and other cavalier touches, although this, again, was considered more clothing to wear to an art gallery or a concert than to wear to work, although, as always, people in publishing or advertising were a bit more lenient in office attire! Eventually, this died down (among men) to 'the dandy look', which replaced Beau Brummell's breeches with modern trousers, with perhaps just a frock coat, a bunch of flowers (in place of a tie), a brocade vest or an unusual set of studs or cufflinks as trademark pieces. Again, not strictly women's wear, but nice to know...you might think of yourself as an eccentric maiden aunt....
The Kinky Side, and other things.
You'll hear every kind of exaggeration applied about Victorian paleness, from arsenic pills, to safeguards that would make those of an xeroderma pigmentosa patient sound like the routine for a tanning competition. Mostly, the anti-sun precautions revolved around three problems: a) there was no chemical sunscreen available, b) you couldn't cover up with paint, as you could in previous centuries, and c) getting noticably brown risked the age-old problem of making you look "coarse" and "prematurely aged". Of course, this varied -- a wealthy left-leaning feminist living in New York, with an interest in gardening and European travel might think a touch of sun 'becoming', and 'having the common touch', while a Southern debutante with a slightly iffy family tree -- "Creoles, you know..." -- would practically put herself into purdah lest a stray ray of sun alter her complexion. Towards the end of the era, you would even hear about doctors recommending sun for consumptives and sickly children! (On the other hand, colonials in Africa claimed that sun, especially on the spinal region led to all kinds of dreadful health problems -- including that horror, "going native"...) In terms of costumery, think more Emma Thompson than Helena Bonham Carter, and you won't be too far off.
The other big subject of Victorian costume legend concerns corsetry. Yes, little girls wore corsets, as did some men. Yes, you can find stories of women with waists no larger than a saucer. Yes, it did cause a lot of health problems, and potentially still can: do not, for instance, tight-lace if you smoke -- your lung capacity goes to almost nothing -- or have any reason at all to suspect you're pregnant -- for reasons I don't have to mention. No, there were no rib removals, or other surgery involved: female anatomy tends to be fairly flexible (after all, it's designed to contain a whole other person inside, at least temporarily) and apparently, from what we know of contemporary tight-lacers, the various organs just tend to rearrange. Oh, yes, for comfort's sake, and to get the thing to work, wear something under the corset, like an undershirt or chemise -- having it against bare skin is sexy, but as a former Frank N. Furter, it's damned sticky.
If some people are to be believed, upper-crust Victorians were as into piercings and tattoos as Burning Man participants, enthusiastically piercing their penises, nipples, and suchlike and getting all manner of tattoos. You're going to have to take into consideration that anything surgical throughout the period was not exactly without risk, and more than likely, with a good deal of pain, and that one case does not exactly a trend make. Frankly, I'm skeptical, if only because a lot of these stories sound like what teenagers like to fling at their parents when they're trying to win the perennial game of "It's My Body, and I'll Wear what I want to".
The Prince Albert ring has the elements of just such an urban legend: originally, it seems to have been a practice of dandies following Beau Brummell's lead wearing "ultra tight trousers" in 1825 and then got tagged onto the Royal Consort somewhen in the late 1980's. Somehow, I doubt it: by 1825, Beau Brummell, who never would have worn trousers, never mind anything tight enough for his genitals to be an issue, was penniless and in exile in Caen, and no longer in fashion to anybody. (Albert was also, at this time, about six years old.) Albert's own genitalia were, not strictly speaking, his own, being in the service of The Queen for genetic duty. The idea that he might endanger his basic reason for hanging...around the Palace for the sake of his pants fitting sounds...well, kind of what dandies were supposed to do, not hyper-responsible adults such as he and Vicky were trying to be. It does look very much like the kind of story you might want to make up about these people in that it's kind of like acknowledging that your parents had sex: the idea of the prim-and-proper, tubby little Victoria suggesting a slightly pervy piece of jewelry to her hubby is just too good a story to let the facts get in the way thereon. So I'm saying it's a good story and an intriguing name, but ....nah....
The "bosom ring", was supposed to have been a pair of pierced nipples, held together with "a delicate chain, ornamented with little bows". The actual piercing was to be done by a special patent nipple-piercer, just stick in your chest, and they'd both be done at once, while the jewelry thereon was "to be found at high-class Parisian jewelers". This seems to have been a case of a manufactured fad: we get the original skinny on this, not from a fashion magazine or a medical journal, but from a piece of ad copy from the Midwest from a fellow who was claiming it to be a fad already to sell nipple-piercing machines (his ad also included a suspicious-sounding 'testimonial' from a happily pierced young woman who said, somewhat breathlessly, that it not only improved her appearance, it also 'increased her vital desires!'). The name doesn't trip off the tongue right, and people with pierced boobs universally affirm that chaining the two together sounds like a recipe for a lot of pain and tearing. Also, while the machine itself got patented, no one seems to have unearthed any design sketches from Lalique or Boucheron, stray bows, or bosomy looking rings in anyone's jewel box.
Which leaves tattoos. (You'd think I'd find a good way of ducking out of these, but no such luck.) When the Prince of Wales visited Jerusalem, he got a tattoo of a Jerusalem cross, touching off a minor fad for tattooing among his male relatives, who paid large sums to get their family arms and other symbols on otherwise covered parts of their anatomy as a kind of permanent ID bracelet. There's also Winston Churchill's mom, who got a snake around her wrist (and spent most of her life subsequently having specially sized bracelets made to hide same.) Happy now?
So, what do I suggest for a neophyte chronic argonaut? I'd say, work up a persona. Pick a year, and work accordingly: would you like the lush, simple lines of Ada Lovelace's gown, or to engineer a bustle with all kinds of trickery? What kind of person do you feel like? Do you dream of being a cross-dressing woman engineer, an explorer with bits of native attire, Tillie the Tassel Twirler, an Aesthete dandy poetess? How old are you? What's your figure like? What sex do you want to be today? Who are you?
"I used to know who I am, but I've changed five or six times today."
--Alice's Adventures Under Ground
Don't forget your hat and gloves!