Victorian Life in the Big House by Mary Dutson

Victorian Life in the Big House with Mary Dutson

Meeting of 11th August 2011

Mary Dutson and Helen Good entered the Hall in the walking dress and character of Victorian ladies, and had us all on our best behaviour. Helen was in an 1890s middle class walking outfit with a fetching straw boater and a large bow to emphasise her wiggle (the bustle being out of fashion by now). Hats – secured with huge hat pins were then removed (a Victorian lady would not leave the house without hat and gloves) and Mary took us through the fashion of the period. This was rich female fashion, the less wealthy wore what they got hold of, and the men – whilst still formal – aimed for as much comfort as they could (much as today!).

Mary showed a collection of original and replica clothing, including a 150 year old voile wedding dress, ‘French jet’ (actually black cut glass beads) shawl, glove stretchers and button hooks. A theatre hat was in its original box and wax paper, these were popular for travel on the new trains as they collapsed to fit into the overhead rack.

Much of the clothing was very restrictive – the afternoon reception gown (on manikin) of hand embroidered silk with 22 silver buttons was so tight you could not raise your arms without splitting the seams: all saying ‘I am very rich and I don’t do any work’. Hoops (of horse hair or an iron band suspended from the waist) or crinolines were worn beneath the dress. Corsets were worn, but ladies rarely were so tightly laced that they fainted; daytime whalebone corsets stretched with the breathing.

A few more Victorian myths were laid to rest:

- Covering piano legs was not the norm

- Sticking one’s little finger out when tea drinking was considered common

- Not all ladies could grow luxuriant long hair – some pinned on hair pieces

- Quite energetic fun was had in all those clothes, with paper chases etc. Ladies sometimes borrowed their husband’s clothes for more freedom (we were told the story of the lady who caught her foot on a fence, tumbled into a somersault and flashed her husband’s tartan britches!).

Keith Denerley ‘volunteered’ to dress in the gentleman’s frock coat with a silk cravat to keep the collar upright, a tight waistcoat, white gloves and a top hat. Underneath he would have worn long pants as the wool trousers were itchy. Daph Gwilliam was then picked on to play the peasant – a thick cotton cap was worn all day to keep soot out of the hair, for going out a bonnet was put over the top. CS