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In Victorian society the upper class had clothes for everything — walking, riding, visiting, smoking jackets, morning coats and everything in between. Each garment was tailored towards a specific social purpose and being over or under-dressed for an occasion was a big faux-pas.

We’ve seen it on shows like Downton Abbey, which while Edwardian rather than Victorian, definitely has scenes that illustrate that ideal. Come down to supper in a smoking jacket instead of a proper evening jacket? You might as well have greeted everyone in your pajamas. To overdress is every bit as grievous a sin. Or, as stated in The Ladies Book of Etiquette and Manual of Politeness, published in 1860, “It is in as bad taste to receive your morning calls in an elaborate evening dress, as it would be to attend a ball in your morning wrapper.” [1]

Smoking jacket c. 1860-1880,


Morris and Co. evening dress suit, c.1885. V&A museum


One thing that I have found particularly interesting about the Victorian Era is the concept of “dress” and “undress”.

But Kelsey, you might ask, why would that be so fascinating? Shouldn’t that be fairly straight-forward? If you’re dressed you’re dressed and if you’re standing around in your corset and chemise, you’re not. Right?

Not exactly. While standing around in your underwear would definitely be considered “undressed” — and a total scandal — one could also be considered “undressed” if you were completely covered. At the time “dress” was also a measure of the formality of your clothing.

Morning gown c. 1888

“Undress” was a state of casual attire, comfortable things you’d wear around the home. For women this usually included less fitted dresses that covered them from the neck to the wrists. Conversely to be fully “dressed” for a formal occasion often meant wearing gowns with necklines that exposed the decollete, and shorter sleeves.

Ball gown c. 1880


[1] The Ladies Book of Etiquette and Manual of Politeness by Florence Hartley, 1860.


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