I went through a long period of collecting and wearing Victorian and Edwardian clothing–mostly from markets and shops in England and France. Some of it was completely hand sewn. All of it was incredibly layered, detailed, and intricate and well made from beautiful fabrics. The lace and embellishments were astonishing. Collecting wasn’t necessarily an easy task, because at 5′ 10″, I’m not of Victorian proportions. (The ideal was a 13″ waist…ha!)
I loved every piece and felt very close to all the women who had worn these items before me, and the women who had labored to make them in the first place. About 10 years ago, I sold off my collection, many pieces were purchased by the Twin Cities Victorian Society, other pieces went to people as eccentric as I was.
Having seen the vestiges of Victorian lifestyle in markets and shops, I’d often wondered about people’s daily lives in those days. I’ve read books about it, but nothing compares to the new one I’m reading: How to Be a Victorian. It covers every detail–from the time they get up in the morning to the time they retire at night–all social classes. The author has personally experimented with many aspects of their lives –from mowing hay in a corset to not washing her hair for a month–and her research is thorough.
I’ve already learned so much and only half-way through. The chapter on men’s and women’s clothing was fascinating–and sobering. They had to wear so many layers, many of wool, to just keep from freezing. And the only things they washed regularly were the undergarments that touched their skin. Their understanding of what caused disease was imperfect, often misguided by snake oil salesmen and crazy “scientists”–but they did have a more sophisticated grasp of what was good for them and what wasn’t that I’d imagined.
Not only has my curiosity been satisfied, I have gotten a vivid new appreciation of the luxuries our lives are lived in today. The two things most people suffered from and worried about most as Victorians were staying warm and having enough to eat. I got up this morning in a cozy house (it’s freezing outside) and made a shake that contained almond butter, fresh spinach, frozen raspberries, lemon juice, and a banana. None of those ingredients grow in this season or this climate, but I take their availability for granted.
Most Victorians–except the rich–were lucky to have a piece of bread and a cup of tea for breakfast. In fact, poorer families survived on bread alone for every meal…and in small quantities. This continuous gnawing hunger had a tremendous physical effect on human bodies. In the mid-1800s–the difference in the average height of a boy attending Eton and a boy of similar age from the East End was 4″! Victorians were significantly shorter than both their predecessors and their successors. Not a good era for health.
This book reminds me why I read–especially historical fiction, which this isn’t. You really can’t understand your own era without understanding what’s come before, all the steps and missteps that got us here. So many of the things I thought odd or foolish about Victorians were actually very sensible in their time. There’s no substitute for knowing history. It imparts much more meaning to what’s happening today.
Here’s a fantastic collection of tradesperson photos from the East End of London in the late 1800’s (Thank you Spitalfields Life blog!)–gives you some idea of street life then. And I just ordered Jack London’s The People of the Abyss–about the appalling conditions of East Enders in the early 1900’s. The journey of discovery continues…