A Victorian Lady’s Guide to Fashion and Beauty, Book Review

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A Victorian Lady’s Guide to Fashion and Beauty by Mimi Matthews covers the course of women’s fashion and beauty changes from the 1840s through the 1890s, basically the length of Queen Victoria’s reign and influence. The book speaks to a lot of what initially drew me into researching the period of 1880-1930 in terms of the dramatic changes from restrictive, complex clothing and social customs to riding bicycles and wearing looser, linear garments without even a corset for shaping (or at least without the appearance of one).

I like the opening dichotomy of the book, “Though a young and eventually transformative queen had ascended the British throne in 1837, ordinary women of the 1840s had very little freedom of their own” (Matthews, 3).  This would largely remain true throughout the reign of Queen Victoria. Women at this time anticipated that they would need assistance just to put on their clothing (which is why the closures were typically in the back) let alone doing much of anything on their own without a chaperone.

Part I details silhouettes, the types of fabrics used, appropriate undergarments, millinery, footwear, outerwear, accessories, jewelry, and for which time of day and activity these items would have been appropriate. References to different lady’s magazines are made throughout and builds confidence in the reader as to how these distinctions are being made. It also mentions the Victorian Dress Reform movement and technological advancements in sewing and dressmaking in the 1850s; the exploitative nature of the garment industry and the impact of the American Civil War in the 1860s; the fashion inspirations from nature in the 1870s; the free-flowing, Aesthetic dress movement, Eastern-Asian influence on fashions, and the black evening dresses of the 1880s; and the New Woman of the 1890s.

I appreciated that Matthews includes a caricature (below) from Punch in 1895. I think today it might be easy to assume that fashions of the previous decades were always taken seriously, even if they seem outlandish to us today, and this is a great example of how – no matter the decade – everyone is a fashion critic. Sleeves became enormous in the 1890s and Punch has no issue poking fun at this style.

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From page 75 in A Victorian Lady’s Guide. Originally shown in Punch, Or the London Charivari, 1895.

I like Matthews’ systematic approach to detailing elements within each period. Although for some fashionable elements, of course, they did not neatly occur with the specific years of a decade (especially thinking of the two bustle periods), I think this is still a sensible way to group these styles.

Part II discusses “What to Wear and When to Wear It.” The distinctions made during the Victorian period between what and when to wear certain ensembles can be difficult for us to comprehend today. Not only were there different kinds of dress for different times of the day, you would never, for instance, wear the same outfit for “walking” as you would for a “visiting” dress, though both occasions might take place during the afternoon. These inherent social rules were very clear and understood at the time, though they began to break down at the turn of the century.

I particularly enjoyed the chapter on Holiday Fashion within Part II, as this is something I have not studied very much myself. Matthews writes that the seaside costumes for most of the Victorian period were similar to walking costumes, and their fashionable details changed through the decades as walking costumes did in terms of silhouette, differing mainly in terms of fabric. It makes sense that the seaside costumes would resemble the walking costumes considering that a lady was primarily meant to enjoy the seaside by sight and walking.  She might, however, wish to bathe, and bathing machines did later develop for the purpose of bathing, not to be confused with the athletic activity of swimming. This, of course, required a bathing costume, though most magazines advised a lady not to let herself be seen in this outfit (hence the bathing machine).

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A lace seaside costume with lace-trimmed parasol meant to be worn while walking on the shore, from page 97 in Victorian Lady’s Guide. (Freja: Illustrerad Skandinavisk Modetidning, 1882. Nordic Museum, Sweden).

Along with further details on types of sportswear, dress for different types of rites of passage are mentioned like marriage, maternity wear, and mourning. I think mourning wear from this period is notably complex and was perhaps oversimplified in this brief section, but all of the important points were covered.

Part III covers Victorian beauty, beginning the hair, both care and style changes through the decades, skin care, and cosmetics. It can be both interesting as a little bizarre reading some of the recommendations from this period! Make-up was still largely looked upon with disdain by the end of the 19th century, meant for the likes of actresses and prostitutes, but a lady might still respectably use face powder, cheek rouge, lip salve, and perfume in moderation. Matthews mentions some of the natural ways a lady might stain her cheeks red (hopefully without arousing suspicion that she had done so) by “strawberry juice, crushed geranium leaves, and rubbing one’s cheeks with a red-coloured flannel” (p143).  Matthews makes note of the home remedies some ladies would use along with recipes provided from lady’s and “domestic” magazines, with the understanding that these methods were meant to be used discretely, otherwise risking ridicule or comparison to a lady of the night.

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A perfectly lady-like product from page 134 in A Victorian Lady’s Guide, Advertisement for Pears Soap, 1886.

Overall, I enjoyed reading this book and would recommend it as an excellent reference tool for fashion historians or as an introductory book to the period for those who are new to learning about this information.

The way the information is blocked by decade and concisely organized makes it easy to understand or reference the information at a glance. Matthews’ coverage of the period is detailed in its understanding of the full spectrum of fashion and beauty and seems to be very well researched. Mimi Matthews herself researches and writes on all aspects of the 19th century and it shows in reading her research here. The book is written so that it is palatable enough for someone new to this period, but also provides details from firsthand sources, like lady’s magazines and other material from the 19th century that provides a depth to the writing. Well researched and worth a read!

Matthews, Mimi. A Victorian Lady’s Guide to Fashion and Beauty. South Yorkshire: Pen and Sword Books Ltd, 2018.


-Danielle Morrin

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