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the Victorian era, the precise cut, material and color of a garment revealed
the social class of the wearer. With the growing prosperity of the day,
fashions for women of the higher classes became increasingly complex. Dresses
were composed of several layers of different shades, cloths and trimmings,
and intended to be worn with both under-dresses and over-dresses. Properly
dressed ladies accessorized with gloves and bonnets. Bustlines rose, as
Victorian modesty gained widespread adherence; and waistlines fell as designers
revived the popularity of formal dresses reminiscent of Georgian France.
In the first quarter-century, puffy "mutton-leg" sleeves became all the
rage, but these were later replaced by fitted sleeves and eventually bell
sleeves. Victorians considered the "hourglass" shape to best flatter the
female form, and women wore restrictive corsets to achieve this ideal.
The Victorian era also saw the progression from crinoline skirts to hoop
skirts and finally to bustled skirts. Finally, the invention of sewing
machine revolutionized women's fashion on a practical level, as ladies
devoted themselves to designing, customizing and making their own garments.
As for accessories of this era, the cameo became all the rage of the mid-19th century.
Although Queen Elizabeth was known to favor cameos to complement her garments and
Catherine the Great had an impressive collection as well, Queen Victoria revived the
jewelry piece during her reign. Cameos during the Victorian era were often attached to
a black velvet ribbon and worn as a choker. Jewelers during the nineteenth century
used gemstones, stone, shell, lava, coral and manmade materials as mediums to carve cameos.
Shell had been used by Italian carvers since 1805, and by the Victorian era, was the favorite
material of cameo designers. Popular subjects for cameos included depictions of
deities from Greek mythology (especially the Three Graces, the daughters of Zeus), the Biblical
Rebecca at the well, and the Bacchante maidens adorned with grape leaves in their hair. The
Victorians' appreciation for naturalism, especially their love of gardening, was also
captured in cameos featuring flowers and trees. Finally, the Victorian woman of means
often commissioned a cameo in her likeness, while other artists depicted an idealized woman
with an upswept hairstyle and Romanesque features.
Men's fashions of the era were comparably
more comfortable for the wearer. It was considered impolite society for
a gentleman to appear in his shirt sleeves before a lady other than his
wife, so Victorian men nearly always wore wore an informal "sack coat"
during the day. The sack coat was a loose-fitting, single-breasted garment
appropriate for travel or business, which was distinctive for its small
collar, short lapels, a fastened top button close to the neck, moderately
rounded hems, flap or welt pockets on the hips, a welt pocket on the chest
and a slightly baggy appearance. Men's formal attire consisted of a top
hat, dapper cutaway coat or frockcoat, waistcoat, cravat and trousers.
Food and Cooking
The Victorian era was a period of extravagant
entertaining for the upper middle and high classes. Victorian meals consisted
of as many as nine courses, although many dishes were light and petite-sized.
Fine ingredients, such as exotic spices imported from distant countries,
were used in lavishly prepared meals. Culinary schools were established
for the first time in history, while popular recipe books by chefs such
as Agnes B. Marshall and Isabella Beeton became all the rage in England.
Detailed measurements and instructions were written down for the first
time during this era. New kitchen gadgets such as the can-opener and Ball-Mason
jars were introducted. In addition, Victorians began adopting a host of
manners and customs surrounding mealtime, in accordance with Beeton's maxim:
"A place for everything and everything in its place." Through her widely-read
recipe books, Beeton also popularized such phrases as "Dine we must and
we may as well dine elegantly as well as wholesomely."
The institution of afternoon tea became highly popular during the Victorian era. Afternoon tea was
invented by Anna Duchess of Bedford (1783-1857), one of Queen Victoria's ladies-in-waiting. During this time,
the noble classes ate large breakfasts, small lunches and late suppers. Every afternoon, Anna
reportedly experienced what she referred to as a "sinking feeling," so she requested that her
servants bring her tea and petite-sized cakes to her boudoir. Many followed the Duchess' lead,
and thus the ritual of afternoon tea was birthed. In fact, a culture of sorts emerged
around the tradition of drinking tea. Fine hotels began to offer tea rooms, while tea shops
opened for the general public. Tea dances also became popular social events at which Victorian
ladies met potential husbands.
Sports, Games and Leisure
In addition to the ever popular afternoon tea, Victorian families enjoyed gathering together for
games in the evenings. Many Victorian games were active and silly, and have since been resigned to only being played by young children.
A whole range of 19th century games, in fact, consisted of trying not to laugh. For example, "Poor Pussy" involved one
proper Victorian guest having to crawl on all fours amongst the seated company, meowing piteously, and
crouching in front of someone who had to respond, "Poor Pussy!" with an absolutely straight face. If
either Pussy or the speaker so much as smiled, the latter became the new pussy. If both maintained
their composure, Poor Pussy was Poor Pussy indeed, condemned to crawl toward another human in
hopes of being relieved of his task.
Slightly less humiliating was "The Laughing Game." One person began by
saying, "Ha"; the next, "Ha-ha"; and so on around, while all tried not to actually laugh. Whoever
succumbed was eliminated as the "Ha" repetitions continued to increase around. Other games
entailed silly postures: "Statues," for example, where everyone had to suddenly freeze in some
extreme position, and whoever laughed or broke the pose was eliminated; and "The Sculptor," in which one
player arranged the others as peculiarly as possible, toward the same goal. What we called Simon Says was
then named "O’Grady Says." A game known as "Change" involved various objects--large, small, heavy, light--
to equal the number of the participants. The players began by standing in a circle, each holding one item.
Someone appointed to give commands said "Go," and players had to begin passing anything they held to their
right, while also taking whatever was handed to them. When told "Change," they had to pass objects to the left.
To add confusion, several items were deliberately, simultaneously routed in the opposite direction.
Whoever dropped something or passed it the wrong way was "out"--but all objects remained,
making them harder to pass along smoothly.
Still popular today, "Charades" was played by the Victorians. One player from each team of guests drew a card on which was
written the name of an object, person, book, movie, etc. (to make the game more authentic, you can limit the
names of people, books and objects to those that were popular during the 19th century). The player had to act out what was
written on the card within a specified amount of time, while his or her team members made guesses. Points were
awarded for the correct guesses, and each team rotated until all of the cards were drawn.
was another popular game, which began with chairs placed in a row, with one chair missing. The guests
were asked to walk around the room while the hostess played a short piece on the piano-forte. When the music stopped,
the guests scrambled to find a seat. The guest without a seat was "out" of the game, another chair removed, and the
game continued until the last guest seated was named the winner.
"Blind Man's Bluff" was an especially popular parlour game, although it in fact
originated during the Middle Ages. The game is mentioned in period novels such as Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol
and was reportedly played by members of Queen Victoria's court. One guest was blindfolded, and spun around five times.
While spinning, all the other players ran around looking for a good spot to hide.
When the searcher finished the fifth spin, he or she yelled, "Stop," and all the other players froze in place.
The player then searched for the other players by yelling "blind man's..."
All other players yelled "bluff," disguising their voices. Even distinguished guests in proper attire were
required to stumble around, attempting to track down the other players.
"Hot Boiled Beans" was another game in which one guest was sent out and an object hidden. When he returned,
the guests shouted, "Hot boiled beans and bacon for supper." Guided by other players saying
this meal was becoming cold, hot, even perhaps burned (if he was very near it),
he searched for the article. In "Hunt the Thimble," a small item was hidden in plain view
while all guests were out of the room. Upon returning, each guests was to sit
down silently as soon as she spotted the item. The last person left searching had to pay a forfeit.
Other old games such as "Hare and Hound" and "The Wolf and the Lambs" gave players license to
chase or grab each other as they broke out of more controlled rows or circles.
The Victorians were known for their love of word games. In
an 1856 almanac, one author wrote in a section entitled "Evening Pasttime": "Among the innocent
recreations of the fireside, there are few more commendable and practicable than those afforded by
what are severally termed Anagrams, Charades, Conundrums, Enigmas, Riddles, Puzzles, Rebuses, Riddles, Transpositions, &c."
Victorians excelled at riddles that relied upon double meanings and the sounds of the words themselves.
In addition, a whole range of guessing games expected losers to pay a forfeit meant to
mildly embarrass, to provide a good laugh for all. Forfeits described in Patrick Beaver's
Victorian Parlour Games included having to answer yes or no to three questions without knowing what
questions had been selected, or standing on a chair and posing however the company demanded.
For single guests, forfeits might include having to kiss another member of the opposite sex,
or having a male and a female player be blindfolded and then dance together.
"Twenty Questions" was a popular
guessing game that could end in forfeits, as was "Crambo," perhaps best described as Twenty Questions played in rhyme.
The movie version of "A Christmas Carol" starring George C. Scott included a holiday party scene at the home of
Ebenezer Scrooge's nephew. The game portrayed involved guests having to fill in common word associations, e.g., "poor as a... churchmouse."
Alphabet and counting games generally dispensed with forfeits; players unable to supply an
answer dropped out, and whoever lasted the longest won.
One of the oldest word games
is "Grandmother's Trunk," where one guest began: "My Grandmother keeps (a word beginning with 'a')
in her trunk." The next player continued: "My Grandmother keeps (the 'a' word) and (another with 'b')
in her trunk," and so on, the list growing as the sentence continued around, making it a
memory as well as alphabet game. There were also many round games substituting a sound or
phrase for some recurring number or letter. Players had to anticipate the approach of the
designated letter or (harder) multiples of the number -- and, the faster the game was played,
the easier it was to fumble... and forfeit.