During the Victorian era, yellow was believed to be the color most similar to light. With shades ranging from the palest butter to the liveliest lemon, it was suitable for morning dresses, day dresses, evening gowns, and seaside wear. Fashion magazines and color experts of the day recommended restricting clear, bright yellows to spring and summer. However, shades of yellow could be seen in fashionable dress throughout the year, often in the form of gloves, a decorative fan, a frilly parasol, or a stylish hat. In today’s article, we look at some of the loveliest examples of the color yellow in Victorian fashion.
Individual Images via Philadelphia Museum of Art, Victoria and Albert Museum, and Met Museum
In his 1870 book Color in Dress, author George Audsley calls yellow “the color nearest approaching to light.” As such, he advises that true, brilliant yellow should be used quite sparingly in dress lest it overpower its wearer. Instead, he recommends that Victorian ladies wear a modified hue of yellow, such as gold, maize, or primrose. Soft, buttery yellows could also be flattering, as illustrated by the 1868 dinner dress below.
1868 Emile Pingat Silk Faille Dinner Dress. (Philadelphia Museum of Art)
Yellow was considered to be particularly becoming to brunettes and ladies with black hair as it neutralized the yellow and orange undertones in their skin, thereby whitening and brightening the complexion. In fact, an 1855 article in Godey’s Lady’s Book states that, for brunettes with orange undertones, “there is no color superior to yellow.” The below 1844 dress of bright yellow printed cotton would have been an excellent choice for a dark-haired Victorian lady.
1844 Cotton Day Dress. (Met Museum)
For fair blondes, Audsley calls true yellow a color that is “particularly to be avoided.” Deeper and darker shades of yellow, such as gold and maize, were much more flattering to blondes, especially when combined with other complementary shades. The below 1892 evening dress by the House of Worth may have been a good option for a fair Victorian blonde as it leans more toward gold.
1892 House of Worth Striped Silk Afternoon Dress. (Museum at FIT)
Yellow harmonized with a variety of colors, including shades of purple, brown, red, blue, and black. Yellow was also often paired with white as an accent color in the form of ribbons or trim. The below dress combines shades of yellow and gold with black lace to magnificent effect.
1900-1902 Kate R. Cregmile Silk Evening Dress. (Cincinnati Art Museum)
According to Audsley, “The effect of yellow upon the mind is of a bright, gay, gladdening nature, owing to its likeness to light, both natural and artificial.” It was a cheerful color which Audsley claims was best suited for “spring and early summer.” Below is a detail image of an 1887 House of Worth ball gown.
1887 House of Worth Silk Ball Gown. (Met Museum)
Yellow could be a bit tricky to wear. A lady must not only choose the correct shade for her complexion and for the season, she must also choose the correct shade for the time of day. The 1897 edition of Hill’s Manual of Social and Business Forms exhorts its readers to remember that though white and yellow was flattering at night, the color combination was “unbecoming by day.” Conversely, pale shades of yellow, which were handsome in the daytime, became “muddy in appearance by gaslight.” The bold, golden yellow used in the 1880s dress below is one example of a shade that was suitable for evening.
1880s Liberty & Co. Silk Evening Dress. (Met Museum)
Yellow was not a common color for everyday women’s boots and slippers, however, as the 19th century came to a close, many ladies began to don brightly colored evening slippers with their evening dresses. Among these, shades of yellow were well-represented. The below evening slippers from the 1890s are a perfect example of just how striking a pair of bright yellow shoes could be.
1890-1899 J. Ferry Silk Evening Slippers. (Met Museum)
Evening slippers were generally made of silk satin and often featured decorative beadwork or ribbon bows (as seen above). The below evening slippers are made of yellow silk satin with glass bead embroidery and rhinestones.
1890 Silk Satin Evening Slippers. (Museum at FIT)
Yellow gloves were fashionable throughout the 19th century. However, in the Victorian era, yellow kid gloves were more often seen on men than on women. For ladies, an 1894 edition of Godey’s Lady’s Book states that, though there may be “fanciful and striking colors” available in gloves, “as a rule women of good taste prefer tans, russets, and light golden browns to the more glaring shades.” Below is a pair of 1870s evening gloves in a subdued shade of butter yellow.
1870-1889 French Leather Gloves. (Met Museum)
Yellow ribbons and flowers were popular trimmings for Victorian era hats. When combined with a hat of a darker color, such as deep blue or black, the effect could be quite striking. The below sunbonnet from 1842 shows how dramatic a darker straw hat could look when accented with yellow.
1842 Straw and Silk Sunbonnet. (Met Museum)
Not all yellow hats were as dramatic as the one pictured above. Shades of yellow could also be delicate and quite feminine. As an example, consider the below bonnet of golden yellow silk, horsehair, and straw.
1850 Straw and Silk Bonnet. (Met Museum)
Shades of yellow were also used in women’s undergarments, such as stockings and corsets. The below corset from 1880 pairs yellow with black.
1880 Silk Corset. (Met Museum)
Yellow fans could be quite fashionable, especially when made to complement a lady’s evening dress. Victorian fans came in many different varieties. There were painted fans, feather fans, and fans decorated with sequins and spangles. Below is a particularly striking fan made of pierced yellow horn sticks accented with painted polychrome floral motifs.
Yellow Horn Fan with Floral Motifs, early to mid-19th Century. (MFA Boston)
For the Victorian lady seeking a piece of yellow jewelry, a pale topaz or citrine set in gold was both fashionable and affordable. The below brooch from the early 19th century is made of gold filigree and set with a large citrine accompanied by smaller emeralds and rubies.
1820-1830 Citrine Brooch set in Gold Filligree. (Victoria and Albert Museum)
If citrines were not to her taste, a Victorian lady might adorn herself with yellow diamonds or yellow sapphires. Yellow diamonds were rather expensive. By contrast, yellow sapphires—though still very brilliant—were actually quite affordable. Below is a 19th-century yellow sapphire ring set in gold.
1800-1869 Yellow Sapphire Ring. (Victoria and Albert Museum)
A FEW FINAL WORDS...
There is no one color that fully represents the Victorian era. However, I hope the above has given you some idea of how yellow was used in Victorian women’s fashion.
This post originally appeared on mimimatthews.com and is reprinted here with permission.
Top image: Portrait of Miss Lloyd by James Tissot, 1876
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Mimi Matthews is the author of The Pug Who Bit Napoleon: Animal Tales of the 18th and 19th Centuries (to be published by Pen and Sword Books in late 2017). Her articles on nineteenth-century history have been published on various academic and history sites, including the Victorian Web. In her other life, Mimi is an attorney with both a Juris Doctor and a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature. She resides in California with her family – which includes an Andalusian dressage horse, a Sheltie, and two Siamese cats.