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How Victorian Women Wore Red

shades of victorian red collage 1024x663 a641b

During the nineteenth century, red was considered a vibrant, powerful color, suitable for warm winter cloaks, richly patterned shawls, and dramatic evening dresses. In shades ranging from soft rose to brilliant crimson, it adorned women of every age and every station, providing a vivid pop of color to ensembles that would otherwise be considered plain or even drab. In today’s article, we look at some of the loveliest examples of the color red in Victorian fashion. These sorts of vivid, deep reds were generally achieved with aniline dye. Invented in 1856, aniline dye produced a wider range of color than natural red dyes like cochineal.

GOWNS

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In his 1870 book Color in Dress, author George Audsley describes red as “a strong, ostentatious, and warm color.” In its brightest and richest shades, it could be worn in autumn or winter and was thought to be particularly flattering on brunettes and those with darker hair. For “florid brunettes” (i.e. brunettes with rich-toned or olive skin), Audsley recommends scarlets, bright crimsons, and all other shades of brilliant reds.

british silk visiting dress via met museum 780x1024 704671865-1868 Red Silk Visiting Dress (Met Museum)

For pale brunettes, Audsley advises deeper reds, such as clarets, dark russets, and crimsons. The reasoning behind this was that since the pale brunette had very fair skin and very dark hair, it was “injurious” to the complexion to wear a mid-tone shade. Instead, the pale brunette was urged to choose colors at either the very darkest or very lightest end of the red spectrum. Thus, she might wear a rose red or a deep claret, but not a bright scarlet or a vivid cherry.

1876 red silk dress image via philadelphia museum of art 771171876 Red Silk Dress (Image via Philadelphia Museum of Art)

Certain shades of red were better suited to certain times of day. Rose red, for example, was not an ideal color for evening dress since, according to the 1885 edition of Hill’s Manual of Social and Business Forms, “the beauty of rose color disappears under the gaslight.” Crimson and scarlet, on the other hand, were considered to be more flattering at night. Whether in gaslight or candlelight, they never lost their brilliancy, making them a perfect choice for evening.

1875 british silk ball gown image via met museum 7fb531875 Red Silk Ball Gown (Image via Met Museum)

 Audsley states that the color red was “expressive of anger and the ardent passions.” However, depending on the shade, red could also be stately, dignified, or even girlish. An 1886 edition of The Cosmopolitan reports that red dresses were especially popular that year for “misses and young ladies.” These red dresses were sometimes made with black or trimmed with black silk passementerie.

1887 wool dress via met museum 566x1024 302091887 Claret-Colored Wool Dress (Met Museum) 

According to Audsley, red was also symbolic of war, pomp, and power. As such, the color was particularly well suited for those garments designed with a militaristic flair. Red dresses trimmed with military-style buttons or black or gold military braid were considered very fashionable. Red jacket bodices made to resemble Hussar jackets were also quite popular, especially as British troops began returning from Egypt in 1882.

1899 wool jacket with military braid via met museum cb7631899 Red wool Jacket with Military Braid (Met Museum)

Shades of red were often used in combination with other colors. In dresses of the Victorian era, reds can frequently be seen coupled with black. However, Audsley warns that crimson and black or brown—though technically harmonious—make a rather dull combination.

late 1870s british silk ball gown via met museum 86655Late 1870s Red Silk Ball Gown (Met Museum)

Red and gold was another popular color combination during the Victorian era. Red dresses were printed or embroidered with gold patterns or made with gold trimmings, including gold lace, beads, buttons, tassels, fringe, or braid.

1879 french red silk dress with gold trim via met museum 557x1024 f753a1879 Red Silk Dress (Met Museum)

 Pale red fabrics contrasted with deep red fabrics could make for a dramatic evening dress or ball gown. As an example, below is stunning silk evening dress from the 1880s. Note that the designer has left off any tassels, fringe, lace, or beads. The color combination alone is what makes it so striking.

1884 1886 silk evening dress via met museum 819x1024 0a3c21884-1886 Red Silk Evening Dress (Met Museum)

 Shades of red can also be seen in Victorian dresses made of patterned fabric such as plaids or prints. In these cases, it is generally only an accent color and far less brilliant than on its own. For fair-skinned blondes, this was considered to be a flattering way to wear red since, according to Audsley, it was generally too powerful for them otherwise, especially when worn close to the face.

1880 plaid indian printed cotton madras dress via museum at fit 245e91880 Red and Blue Plaid Cotton Dress ( Museum at FIT)

 

1875 white and red cotton dress with silk ribbons via lacma a622c1875 White and Red Cotton Dress (LACMA)

SHOES

Fashion historian C. Willet Cunnington reports that during bleak, Victorian winters “red jerseys, red coats and cloaks, red hose, petticoats, hats, bonnets and muffs, conduce to brighten up the winter somberness.” Red accessories were not, however, limited to the winter. Fashionable ladies wore red throughout the year, including red bonnets, parasols, shawls, stockings, and even red shoes. These red silk boots are just one example of how red was used in Victorian ladies’ footwear.

1865 1875 red ribbed silk boot with lace trim via victoria and albert museum 873adRed Ribbed Silk Boot with Lace Trim (Victoria and Albert Museum)

 Evening slippers in shades of red were also very fashionable when paired with the right evening dress or ball gown. The below evening slippers are made of red silk with decorative glass beading.

187 1885 red silk beaded evening slippers via met museum 1024x544 3d6021875-1885 Red Silk Beaded Evening Slippers (Met Museum)

BONNETS

Red ribbons, red plumes, red beads, and red silk flowers decorated Victorian ladies’ bonnets throughout the year. The dazzling 1880s red bonnet below is made of red silk ribbons, beads, and feathers.

1883 french bonnet of silk beads feathers and wire 1 via met museum 1024x737 4111c1883 French Bonnet with Red Beads, Feathers, and Ribbon (Met Museum)

Red ribbons were also frequently used to trim plain, straw bonnets. As an example, the poke bonnet below is trimmed rather sparingly in red velvet ribbon.

1879e2809384 american poke bonnet with red velvet ribbons via met museum 8a8e01879-1884 Poke Bonnet with Red Velvet Ribbon (Met Museum)

PARASOLS

In author William Black’s 1894 novel Highland Cousins, one of the characters declares that “any young lady that carries a scarlet parasol does nothing more nor less than confer a favor on every one coming within sight of her.” The idea that a red parasol was a beautiful and eye-catching accessory was nothing new. Red parasols were fashionable for much of the 19th century. Generally made of silk, they came in a range of shades, from pale rose to deepest claret.

1886 red silk parasol via met museum 1024x824 c0f131886 Red Silk Parasol (Met Museum)

 

SHAWLS

Shades of red were often found in the rich, cashmere shawls which were so popular during the Regency and Victorian eras. These reds were generally combined with golds and other rich colors. Red was also a favorite color in less expensive wool or knitted shawls. Below is a red wool wedding shawl from 1866.

1866 wool red wedding shawl via met museum 698x1024 f3e0b1866 Red Wool Wedding Shaw (Met Museum)

 

UNDERGARMENTS

Shades of red were also used in women’s undergarments, with fashionable ladies as apt to don a cherry-colored corset or scarlet stockings as their less ladylike counterparts in the lower strata of society. In many respects, red underthings were still quite daring. As an example, below is a red cotton corset from the 1880s.

1880s red cotton corset via met museum 697x1024 8bea21880s Red Cotton Corset (Met Museum) 

Red stockings were especially fashionable during the Victorian era. Sometimes they were plain red. Other times they were embellished with decorative patterns or embroidery. The red, silk knit stockings below feature a design of playing cards.

1900 red silk knit stockings via museum at fit a4c431900 Red Silk Knit Stockings (Museum at FIT)

 

FANS 

A red fan was a striking complement to a light colored or neutral-toned evening dress or ball gown. Red fans came in many different varieties. There were painted fans, feather fans, and fans decorated with sequins and spangles. Below is a red, silk crepe fan stamped with gold rosettes.

mid 19th century french fan of red silk crepe leap mounted with red wooden sticks stamped with minute gold rosette via mfa bosto 1024x626 fb99dMid-19th Century Red Crepe Fan (MFA Boston) 

Red fans with red gowns could also be quite striking. The 1886 red silk reception dress below is shown with a red fan. As you can see, it makes a very dramatic statement and would probably not have been recommended for young ladies in their first season.

1886 selina cadwallader silk reception dress via cincinnati art museum 814x1024 f32231886 Red Silk Reception Dress (Cincinnati Art Museum)

 

JEWELRY 

For the fashionable Victorian lady, there were many options in red jewels, with rubies and garnets being by far the most popular. Depending on a lady’s budget, one might find her wearing a ruby or garnet brooch, necklace, bracelet, earrings, rings, or even hairpins. Below is an interesting cabochon garnet ring set in gold. It is designed to resemble the turret of a castle.

1899 1903 cabochon garnet set in a gold turret via victoria and albert museum 8517a1899-1903 Cabochon Garnet Ring (Victoria and Albert Museum) 

Rubies were much more expensive than garnets.  In fact, according to an 1881 edition of The American Magazine, at that particular time in history rubies had surpassed diamonds in value.  Most valuable of all were the pigeon’s blood rubies found in India.  Below is a magnificent ruby and rose-cut diamond ring from 1850.

1850 ruby set wtih rose cut diamonds in gold via victoria and albert museum 729d61850 Ruby Set in Gold with Rose-Cut Diamonds (Victoria and Albert Museum)

 There is no one color that fully represents the Victorian era. However, I hope the above has given you some idea of how red was used in Victorian women’s fashion. For a refresher on the shades of Victorian fashion that we have already covered, the previous articles in my series are available here:

Shades of Victorian Fashion: Pretty in 19th Century Pink

Shades of Victorian Fashion: Orange, Pumpkin, and Peach

Shades of Victorian Fashion: Butter, Lemon, Gold, and Yellow

Shades of Victorian Fashion: Lilacs, Lavenders, Plums, and Purples

Shades of Victorian Fashion: Cerulean, Mazarine, Navy, and Blue

I leave you with the following wise words on color from the 1862 edition of Littell’s Living Age: “Dress should be to the person what the frame is to the picture, subordinate — the setting that enhances the beauty of the gem, but does not overwhelm it.”

nude with red stockings by guiseppe de nittis 1879 1df0bNude with Red Stockings by Guiseppe De Nittis, 1879

 Images via Met Museum, The Victoria and Albert Museum, LACMA, The Museum at FIT, Cincinnati Art Museum and MFA Boston

This post originally appeared on MimiMatthews.com and is reprinted here with permission.

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Mimi Matthews is the author of The Pug Who Bit Napoleon: Animal Tales of the 18th and 19th Centuries and A Victorian Lady’s Guide to Fashion and Beauty (Pen and Sword Books, July 2018). Her articles on nineteenth-century history have been published on various academic and history sites, including the Victorian Web and the Journal of Victorian Culture. When not writing historical non-fiction, Mimi authors exquisitely proper historical romance novels. Her debut Victorian romance The Lost Letter can be ordered at Amazon. To learn more, please visit www. MimiMatthews.com.

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