LACMA costumes curator on Queen Victoria as fashion icon

clarissa-dress-iris.jpgClarissa Esguerra shows Victorian-era silk taffeta dress from England. Photo by Iris Schneider.

Britain's Queen Victoria has been gone for 116 years but she lives on in the world of popular culture, continuing to attract and fascinate audiences. Played on the big screen by actors Judi Dench ("Mrs Brown", 1997 and "Victoria & Abdul", 2017 ) and Emily Blunt ("The Young Victoria", 2009), she is currently being portrayed on television by Jenna Coleman in the PBS Masterpiece series "Victoria." The UK-produced show's first season aired in the U.S. earlier this year and is now in production for the second, to air here sometime in 2018.

victoria-pbs.jpgIn any screen treatment of Queen Victoria, the clothes matter. When she reigned, the silhouette of women's dress changed dramatically, and not just in England. Early women's fashion magazines in America and Europe took their cues from what Victoria wore.

Recently I visited with Clarissa Esguerra, LACMA's associate curator of costume and textiles -- and the department's resident expert on all things Victorian -- to talk about Victoria as fashion icon. During her 64-year reign, Victoria was hugely influential and her style of dress was a large part of that. The museum houses over 2,500 pieces of Victorian-era clothing. Costume designers and students of fashion history are able to study them up close at the museum's Doris Stein Research Center for Costumes and Textiles.

"Victorian fashions were strongly influenced by Queen Victoria, her reign, and the society that she ruled," says Esguerra. "Unlike monarchs before her, she was not fickle, but very steady, traditional, and serious." She points out that the look of women's clothing shifted when the Romantic era transitioned to the Victorian. "The silhouette had been an hourglass shape with exaggerated, wide sleeves and skirt hems with small, slightly elevated waistlines. Dresses were also considered more whimsical with elaborate trims. When Victoria became queen in 1837, you started to see a general sobering of fashion, still beautiful and delicate but color became more somber and trims were less loud."

Victoria was 18 when she inherited the throne. She married her first cousin, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg, just 3 years later. It was a love match and the marriage was passionate and complex. Though Victoria was known to detest pregnancy, the couple had nine children. "She was kind of a model of what would become middle class virtues, of respectibility, hard work, gentility, and kindness. She liked stability," Esguerra said.

Example of cartridge pleating.

Clothing historians often refer to Victorian women's fashion as "hyper feminine." Huge skirts (which depended heavily on multiple petticoats) and tiny waists (corsets required) were de rigueur. The fitted bodice, sloped shoulders and bell-shaped skirt were key to the period's silhouette. A sign of status was to show off as much fabric in their skirts as possible. A technique called "cartridge pleating" (above) allowed dressmakers to fit the maximum amount of fabric possible into a waistline.

"All of that volume made the waist look even smaller and created 'area' around the woman," Esguerra says. "Women became less mobile and there began to be physical distance from men." When it came to their clothing, Victorian men were very rule oriented. The goal, according to Esguerra, was to "look genteel -- it was all about the tailoring." Padding was used to create the "ideal torso." Men were not supposed to show any kind of finery. "If anything it was more about being respectable and dressing in a very methodical way." she said.

Victoria's sartorial influence was made possible by a revolution in ladies magazines in the early 19th century. Widely circulated, they were "very much structured like magazines now where you have a section of what's fashionable, who is wearing what and where they wore it, including court functions," says Esguerra. Before photography, hand-painted engravings served as illustrations, documenting the clothing worn by ladies of society and the queen herself. The ladies magazine Godey's was instrumental in spreading Victoria's fashion influence in America. Started in 1830, Godey's was published in Philadelphia for 48 years. It's editor, Sarah Hale, admired Victoria and published images of her.

Photo by Iris Schneider.

Plaid became popular in the mid-1850's when Victoria and Albert built Balmoral, a retreat in the Scottish highlands. "It became the rage" Esguerra says. "I think wearing plaid was a way for her to connect to the land where she built this estate. Plaid became fashionable in mens, womens, and childrens clothing for years after this. She made it fashionable for the masses."

Later on, Victoria also set the standards for mourning dress. Devastated when Albert died tragically at the age of 42, she outwardly expressed her profound sorrow by wearing black for the rest of her life. "She made it fashionable to mourn your loved one," said Esguerra. "There were very strict rules and and specific stores for mourning wear."
When asked what advice she would give to a costume designer about to design for an actress playing Victoria, Esguerra didn't hesitate. "Think about the silhouette and think about her subtlety. She wasn't glamorous -- she didn't want to be a glamorous woman. She wanted to be a genteel, respectable wife and queen. She wasn't flashy, but she was beautiful."

And just what is it about Victorian-era clothing that might pique a modern audience's interest? "It must seem so otherworldly to people today," says Esguerra.

"Social rules were followed as to what was appropriate to wear according to time of day, company and occasion. The time it took for men and women to dress -- with all the layers of underpinnings -- is completely different from how we dress today."

She speculates that perhaps the desire to be transported back to another time is the answer. In any case, I'll be checking back to hear Esguerra's verdict on the costumes for the PBS Masterpiece series. I know she'll be paying close attention.

victorian-trail-coat-lacma.jpgvictorian-dress-lacma.jpgTail coat circa 1840, woman's plaid silk taffeta dress circa 1855. From LACMA collection.

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