Victorian Silhouette & Fashion Explained for Readers, Fellow Authors, & Dilettantes from Gail Carriger (Special Extras)

My dear Gentle Reader,

I am so very immersed in the Victorian Era it often doesn’t occur to me to actually explain fashion (or fashion terms). So here is is the massive explanation of pretty things I talk about in the Parasolverse, that you might not know…

Ivy and her hat, REM’s character sketch

“The English attach too much importance to ceremonies merely conventional, and for which there seems no motive but the ever-changing decrees of fashion.”

~ The Ladies’ Guide to True Politeness and Perfect Manners or, Miss Leslie’s Behaviour Book by Eliza Leslie (American 1864)

 All 3 At A Glance

  • Sophronia & The Finishing School: Early 1850s
  • Alexia & The Parasol Protectorate: Mid 1870s
  • Prudence & The Custard Protocol: Mid 1890s

1854  The Metropolitan Museum of Art; 1877  The Museum at FIT; Evening Ensemble  Hellstern & Sons, 1895  The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Why these 3 time periods?

Before we start, confession time. One of the reasons I chose the 1870s for my original series (starting with Soulless) is how ridiculous the fashions were during that time period, very bustled and frilly. Of course history also had a say in why I chose the 1870s as well, I’m a fan of Queen Victoria’s Little Wars.

Then it seemed quite natural to chose c. 20 years before and c. 20 years after, for the next two series. Of course, this is primarily for various character age reasons, but also because of the change in silhouette. And, fortunately for me (as a humor writer) all three time periods are fashionably ridiculous in their unique way: and each very different from one another, as I hope you will see.

The Finishing School Series

1851 – 1853

1851 Wedding Dress, American Met Museum


Main points of entry?

Sloping shoulders, low necklines, nipped in waists, increasingly wide bell skirts, full wide sleeves. Younger ladies in pale colors.

Preshea & Monique in an 1850s fashion plate


What makes it silly?

Very wide a full skirts requiring lots of petticoats (as the cage crinoline had not yet been introduced).

1854  Ball Gown The Metropolitan Museum of Art
1855-1865  The Metropolitan Museum of Art

* 1854 saw the arrival of the cage crinoline in England. This is a skirt (or series of tape ribbons) with concentric circles of wire in it to make if poof. I doesn’t appear in the Finishing School books because the last book takes place before it was introduced. 

Why for this series?

Good for espionage: the full skirts and wide pagoda sleeves hampered movement, but also are great for hiding things. Pockets could be put in and hidden everywhere. Fashion is rife with useful plot moments and vehicles for humor.

1855  The Los Angeles County Museum of Art


Authorial drawback?

Hats were mostly confined to bonnets, not my personal favorite. Although hair could be quite ridiculous.

Bonnet 1854 The Metropolitan Museum of Art

What were the men wearing?

Some carry over from the Regency Era, especially for formal occasions. Trousers relatively tight but knee britches had been abandoned except for boys and the countryside. Jacket styles began to include a wider range of cuts.

Coat ca. 1845-1853 The Victoria & Albert Museum; 1851_Parisian; Wedding Waistcoat 1854  The Philadelphia Museum of Art


What to watch for inspiration?


What happened next?

Things got, if possible, even more ridiculous. Skirts just got wider and wider with the cage crinoline in play. I include these kinds of dresses in the Delightfully Deadly series of novellas.

Wedding Dress  1864  The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Cage Crinoline  1862  The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Want to learn more about the ever expanding hoop?

The Parasol Protectorate Series

1873 – 1876


Main points of entry?

Many layers, lots of trim, many kinds of hats, full bustles, long sleeves, restricted movement, range of necklines and sleeve styles.

Morning Dress  1875  The Metropolitan Museum of Art

What makes it silly?

Big back bustles (although not so big as the 1880s revival bustles), way too much trim and ribbons and bows and whatnot. Extremely bizarre hats. New experimentation in chemical components and mass production yields up new color ranges and pallets. Increased access to new and amazing fabrics from India and China. New Rich attempting to break into the aristocracy increases nuanced destination in assessments based on appearance.

Bustle 1873, Austrian, Made of cotton and horsehair

Summer Corset  1872  The Metropolitan Museum of Art


Why for this series?

The hats! The fabrics. The yardage. The restrictions. All represent a level of confinement and superficiality that Alexia, whether she realizes it or not, chafes against.

1872-1875  The Metropolitan Museum of Art
1870-1875 Wedding Bonnet   The Victoria & Albert Museum

The authorial drawback?

Too much fabric, way too hard to move. Challenging for cover art.

 1872 Ball Gown  Charles Fredrick Worth


What were the men wearing?

Relatively somber colors in suits, flashy waistcoats and vests, some experimentation with fabrics and patterns, mostly matched suits.

 1873_May_Gof; 1873-1875  The Victoria & Albert Museum; 1875-1880  The Los Angeles County Museum of Art


What to watch for inspiration?

What Happened Next?

Skirts started to come in closer and closer to the body, the lobster tale became fashionable, fabrics became (if you can imagine) even more elaborate. The Natural Form movement began (my absolute favorite. Romancing the Inventor is set during this time period.

 1870s  Kerry Taylor Auctions; “Lobster Tail” Bustle  1870s  The Metropolitan Museum of Art

1879-1880; 1879  both The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Custard Protocol Series

1895 – 1896


Main points of entry?

Experimenting in asymmetry, puffy sleeves, wide range of outfit choices, more freedom of movement, complementary fabrics, the biggest most outrageous hats ever (Queen Ivy’s influence). New Woman movement influences sportswear and major dress reform due, in part, to the ubiquitous bicycle and the suffragist movement. Military influence as well.

Fashion houses really begin appear including brand loyalty, scions of fashion became brand ambassadors for a house to which they were loyal (actresses, singers, noted beauties). (Prudence lives in Worth.) Iconic dresses given names as if they were art pieces.

 1890s Wedding Dress  1890s  The Indianapolis Museum of Art; Wedding Dress  Jean-Philippe Worth, 1895  The Metropolitan Museum of Art


What makes it silly?

Those truly bizarre sleeves, those enormous over-decorated hats equal a very top heavy look.

 1895  Kerry Taylor Auctions; 1890 Sleeve Supports  The Metropolitan Museum of Art

1895  The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Summer Corset  1895  The Victoria & Albert Museum


Why for this series?

The hats! The sleeves, the ridiculousness continues. Sportswear can make a character statement easily and up front. I have two human characters who gravitate to the practicality of sportswear (it’s less practical for shape shifters who gravitate to tea gowns and robes). Both of them are scientists Faith in How to Marry a Werewolf who is a big hiker and geologist and Arsenic who is a doctor and has masqueraded as a man in the past, in Reticence.

1894  The Goldstein Museum of Design


The authorial drawback?

I really think this period is pretty ugly. It’s hard to write characters swooning over dresses I think are hideous.


What were the men wearing?

Relatively somber suits not too dissimilar from today, frankly fashion hasn’t changed too much for men since then. Fancy occasions called for vests (single breasted) or waistcoats (double breasted) and the occasional cravat (now often referred to as an ascot). Sportswear continued to be more and more specialized and earn new names (tweeds, for example, meant hunting attire, punting meant a stripped boatsman look good for picnics or any boating activity, etc…)

 1895 Evening Vest  1885-1895; Ascot  1890s both The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Suit ca. 1894 via The Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art
1890s man via shewhoworshipscarlin tumblr

Virgil, perhaps?


What to watch for inspiration?

Puffed Sleeves Muthafucka Anne Green Gables Gail Carriger

via Robbie Rozelle [email protected] on Twitter

What happened next?

If you can imagine, dresses became even more elaborate eventually bleeding into the massive hats and complex outfits of the turn of the century.

Ball Gown  Jacques Doucet, 1898-1902  The Metropolitan Museum of Art

“If you chance to find an authoress occupied with her needle, express no astonishment, and refrain from exclaiming, “What! can you sew?” or, “I never supposed a literary lady could even hem a handkerchief!”

~ The Ladies’ Guide to True Politeness and Perfect Manners or, Miss Leslie’s Behaviour Book by Eliza Leslie (1864)

Yours in corsets,

Miss Gail

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Reticence: The forth and final Custard Protocol Book!


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Bookish and proper Percival Tunstell finds himself out of his depth when floating cities, spirited plumbing, and soggy biscuits collide in this delightful conclusion to New York Times bestselling author Gail Carriger’s Custard Protocol series.



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