Neo-Victorian Clothes from the 20th century

based upon a chapter in Collector's Guide to Vintage Fashions by Kristina Harris

A "pioneer" style "Victorian" dress from a 1940s magazine.

It's easy to loose track of the fact that fashion trends are about as consistent as a weatherman's predictions. But think about it; have you adopted all the current trends into your current wardrobe? Probably not. And neither did the women of the past.

Nowhere are modes and sub-modes more varied, it seems, than in the 20th century. So it's not surprising to me when an enthusiast shows off a "Victorian" dress and it actually turns out to be from the 1940s. How could anyone confuse such a relatively modern dress with a Victorian one? People do it all the time.

Some mislabeling of 20th century dresses comes purely from a lack of understanding about historic styles. More times than I care to count, I've seen typically 1930s garden party type dresses dated to the Victorian era - by both collectors and dealers.

But sometimes enthusiasts are more justifiably confused; some authentic 20th century dresses are decidedly Victorian in style.

A 1940s "Victorian" dress.


For instance, the dress pictured above has a great many elements of Victorian fashion: a beautifully woven wool skirt, a velvet bodice with wooden buttons, even a bustle. But the dress dates to the late 1940s. How to tell?


  • Hint #1: The bodice is free from any boning (which is unusual in Victorian bodices in general and almost never seen in bustle-era Victorian clothes).

  • Hint #2: The bodice is not interlined (as almost all Victorian bodices are).

  • Hint #3: There's no "stay tape" or belt on the inside of the waist (which was used in most post-1870, pre-1900 bodices).

  • Hint #4: The skirt is neither interlined nor features any velvet, braid, horsehair, or crinoline hem binding (which are found on virtually all Victorian skirts).

  • Hint #5: Such large, wooden buttons would be rare on a Victorian dress. Victorians preferred prettier buttons, such as fabric-covered buttons, or buttons made of mother-of-pearl or porcelain.


But, you say, the dress just doesn't look 1940s? Though it wasn't a universally accepted style, neo-Victorian dresses were worn from c. 1947 - 1949 as a softened look emerged in women's fashions. And the look wasn't only for the wealthy, either. A peek inside the ever down-to-earth Sears catalog details this:

"The 'Back Look' is the Newest Look..."

"New Bustle Back Suits..."

"Straight, slim front...rippling, bustle back...marvelous profile..."

Sears' headlines - not to mention those in fashion magazines like Vogue and Harper's Bazaar - raved about the new, decidedly feminine Victorian style.

Other eras hosted their own brands of neo-Victorianism. Quite unusual (and somewhat rare) are dresses from the 1930s with a "pioneer" Victorian style, which actually foretold many spin-off styles that appeared ion the 1940s and 50s.

A "pioneer," Victorian-esque dress from the early 1940s.


The dress pictured above is made of lightweight plaid taffeta in colorful green and red shades. The general line of the dress dates it to the early 40s, but the gathered hemline trimmed with lace and a velvet ribbon gives it a feminine, Victorian look rarely associated with the period. But check out some issues of Harper's or Vogue from c. 1939 - 1940, and you'll see unquestionably neo-Victorian styles gracing some of the pages.

Perhaps better recognized are c.1920 dresses in the pannier, bustle, or hoopskirt style. "They are doing their best to turn women back into the former restless search for beauty amid wasp waists, balloon skirts, trains, and draperies," one period writer commented. Another said: "The campaign was on,...Flaring, flaunting, flower-beds of skirts, displayed in shop windows were to tempt the shopper."

A desperate attempt by fabric manufacturers to make fashions more fabric-consuming, such designs were most often seen in evening wear. They often feature boning (to shape the skirt, if not the bodice), but reveal themselves as 20th century concoctions with their spaghetti straps or relatively short skirts.

Pannier and hoopskirt dresses from 1920.


Most widely known are the neo-Victorian styles popularized by Christian Dior in 1947. Yearning for the elegance of the fashions he remembered his mother wearing, Dior launched his "New Look" campaign with corseted waists, padded bosoms and hips, hoopskirts, and Gibson Girl style shirtwaists.

Some "New Look" garments can easily be confused with the Victorian fashions they emulate, if they're not carefully examined; many Victorian construction methods were revived on the best New Look garments, and at first blush all the Victorian trappings seem present: stay tapes (ribbon belts that fasten inside the garment waistline), interlinings, piping, even boning, padding, and hem bindings.

If a garment label is present, it will clue collectors into the fact that the garment is 20th century garb. (Some Victorian dresses had labels, but they are rare and do not have the modern wording or typefaces seen on 20th century labels.) Otherwise, careful attention should be paid to hem lengths (with the exception of some evening gowns, they'll be shorter), padding at the hips (which is not normally seen on Victorian skirts), lightly padded shoulders (never used in Victorian fashions), and synthetic fabrics.

Undoubtedly, the height of neo-Victorian style was the 1950s; it was a time when nearly every woman wore some neo-Victorian article - fashions inspired by the New Look. With full skirts (now nearly always supported by "crinoline" net petticoats and not by plastic hoopskirts), fitted bodices, parasols, and gloves, the fashions of the 1950s are the most popular of the neo-Victorian styles among today's collectors. Nonetheless, some people confuse certain 1950s garments (some evening gowns, in particular) with 19th century designs.


LEFT: An early 1950s ad for plastic hoops. RIGHT: An existing pair of Belle-o-the Ball hoops.


For the record:

  • Crinoline or net underskirts were not attached to Victorian skirts.

  • Fuller hips were achieved through separate garments worn under clothing during the Victorian era; skirts and bodices were almost never padded