The late Victorian era saw Queen Victoria in perpetual mourning for her consort, Prince Albert. It was an era where mourning clothes were considered a normal part of a wardrobe, and the fashion developed its own rituals and accessories. As well, as the Industrial Age really started to rev up (pun alert!) and so many new colours and luxurious fabrics became more easily available to the middle and working classes. Still, you won’t see too many working class dresses in museums, as they were worn until they fell to bits – and the bits were turned into quilts and rag rugs.
By the 1870s, the crinoline was being phased out and replaced by the bustle, so that women sometimes looked as it they were malformed centaurs with a very short back and four legs. Women often wore elaborately draped over-skirts, and some were made with apron-like swag over the front of the skirt. The bustle meant that coats had to be designed to allow for room for the bustle, either by an opening in the back of the coat, or by using a huge volume of fabric to encompass it. Wraps and shawls were another way to accommodate the bustle. Evening gowns had short trains.
The 1880s saw the rise the popularity of the s-shaped silhouette, with a prominent chest to balance the prominent posterior. If you didn’t have a good bust, ruffles were favoured to create the illusion of fullness. Corsets were altered to help create the fashionable silhouette. The tightness of the front of the skirt gave this style its nickname of ‘hobble skirts’. Less restrictive were the ‘outdoor’ outfits of riding/hunting habits; these were made up of a matching jacket and skirt worn with a high-collared shirt, with the extremely fashionable feminine version of a top hat, worn with a veil. These riding habits were worn without bustles, but the cut of the jacket followed the s-silhouette. As sports became more fashionable for women, sporting outfits without bustles became respectable.
In the years leading up the 20th century, bustles began to fall from favour, while corsets remained an essential part of a woman’s underwear. The dress reform movement came into its own, with loose skirt that allowed for free movement of legs. Surprisingly, one of the biggest influences on dress reform of the popularity of the bicycle. Gowns remained ornate, but the slimmer silhouette created by the lack of a bustle, hoop, or crinolette was now the fashion.
The House of Worth was joined by other fashion houses, but I personally think that no one ever made dresses more beautiful than his creations. As a Steampunk enthusiast, his dresses are way beyond my skills to recreate, but I use them as inspiration for my characterizations in my Steampunk narratives. This overview only touches lightly upon the variation in fashion over the Victorian era, but it would be easy to use even these facts to show the difference between a lady of high fashion and a sports-mad suffragette.