When 18 year old Princess Victoria, became Queen in 1837 no one dreamed she would reign for the rest of the century for another 64 years. The name Victorian to describe the whole period is a misnomer as for some years at the beginning of the era, Regency attitudes prevailed.
After 1840 when Victoria married Albert we see the heyday of Victorian attitudes of prudery and a strict outwardly moral code that lasted until about 1890 when Prince Edward the Prince Of Wales and his more spirited lifestyle was echoed in society.
In the mid-Victorian era 1870-1880 a group of talented artists, poets, writers and some actors were known as the Aesthetes. They were fastidious about every detail from wallpaper and furniture, to window and fireplace proportions and choice of curtains.
Oscar Wilde was linked with the Aesthetic movement. He liked to wear a velvet jacket, flowing tie, a wide-awake hat and in the early days of the movement often wore much ridiculed breeches. Wilde knew the value of speaking through appearance as he made satirical references to this in his plays and in a lecture on dress.
He believed that flowing robes of classical lines and practical Turkish style trousers would be the better garb for both sexes.
The class divisions were echoed throughout the land. In church the higher classes sat at the front in reserved pews and the lower classes at the back. In dress, the wives of wealthy industrialists were clothed in conspicuous finery as they were the social representatives of their soberly dressed husbands.
The new social class that emerged was the bourgeoisie middle class. An outward display of wealth through clothing and possessions showed to those who were still climbing the ladder that the former had reached the top.
Like women, they were bound by the growth of rigid conventions stipulating the 'correct' dress for each and every occasion; in fashionable society a man might be required to change his outfit several times a day.
It was a hypocritical period when relationships were quite artificial. Until late in the century in 1887 a married woman could not own property. Then in 1887 the Married Woman's Property Act gave women rights to own her own property. Previously her property, frequently inherited from her family, belonged to her husband on marriage. She became the chattel of the man.
During this era if a wife separated from her husband she had no rights of access to see her children. A divorced woman had no chance of acceptance in society again.
Even in high places Victorian men kept mistresses, but they still expected their wives or mistresses to be faithful whatever their own misdemeanours. If a women took a lover it was not made public. If it did become public knowledge she would be cut by society. But men could amble along to one of their gentleman's clubs and always find a warm welcome.
A wealthy wife was supposed to spend her time reading, sewing, receiving guests, going visiting, letter writing, seeing to the servants and dressing for the part as her husband's social representative.
For the very poor of Britain things were quite different. Fifth hand clothes were usual. Servants ate the pickings left over in a rich household. The average poor mill worker could only afford the very inferior stuff, for example rancid bacon, tired vegetables, green potatoes, tough old stringy meat, tainted bread, porridge, cheese, herrings or kippers.
By the end of the Queen Victoria's reign there were great differences between members of society, but the most instantly apparent difference was through the garments worn.
The Victorian head of household dressed his women to show off family wealth. As the 19th century progressed dress became more and more lavish until clothing dripped with lace and beading as the new century dawned.
A wealthy woman's day was governed by etiquette rules that encumbered her with up to six wardrobe changes a day and the needs varied over three seasons a year. A lady changed through a wide range of clothing as occasion dictated.
There was morning and mourning dress, walking dress, town dress, visiting dress, receiving visitors dress, travelling dress, shooting dress, golf dress, seaside dress, races dress, concert dress, opera dress, dinner and ball dress.