Forget Crop Tops – Here Are Victorians’ Summer Fashion Must-Haves

by Mimi Matthews

In women’s magazines today, we often see lists of summer vacation “must haves.” These lists usually include such hot weather essentials as swimsuits, sunscreen, and a romance novel or two to read at the beach. But what about ladies in the Victorian era? By the end of the 19th century, beach holidays were certainly on the rise. However, our Victorian sisters met the heat without benefit of air conditioning, skimpy clothing, or sun protection. What did they have instead? In today’s article, we look at a few fashion, beauty, and novel necessities for a 19th century summer.


frenchcottonsummerdaydress1872 French Cotton Summer Day Dress. (Met Museum)

A suitable day dress was a must for hot summer weather. In her 1870 book The Art of Dressing Well, author S. A. Frost states that “the most beautiful and useful of summer fabrics is a fine quality of linen lawn.” Cotton, cambric, muslin, gauze, and other light, airy fabrics were also quite popular. Below is a lovely summer day dress from 1872. It is made of sheer, floral printed cotton.

It was not uncommon to see summer day dresses of solid white. Equally fashionable were soft prints, stripes, and light colors such as green, lavender, and pale blue. The day dress below is a blue striped cotton gauze from 1874.

cottongauzedaydress1869 Cotton Muslin Summer Day Dress (Victoria and Albert Museum)

Trimmings on Victorian summer day dresses were generally minimal. For example, the two white cotton day dresses below are trimmed with brightly colored silk satin ribbon and little else.

cottonmuslim1869 Cotton Muslin Summer Day Dress. (Victoria and Albert Museum)

cottontarlatanLate 1860s Cotton Tarlatan Summer Day Dress (Kyoto Costume Institute)



Though smaller hats (like the one seen in the image at above right) were very fashionable during the Victorian era, a wide-brimmed hat was far better suited to protecting a lady’s face from the sun. For summer, straw or reed hats were a perfect option. They were usually trimmed fairly simply and could be worn at the beach or while playing outdoor games like golf or tennis.

victorianhatheader1870-1875 Straw Boater with a Blue Silk Ribbon. (Victoria and Albert Museum)

As an alternative to a wide-brimmed hat, a Victorian lady might wear a large, broad-brimmed leghorn bonnet. Below is a yellow leghorn straw bonnet from 1840. It is trimmed with green ribbon and artificial flowers.

leghornbonnet1840 Leghorn Bonnet. (MFA Boston)


For those ladies wishing to protect their complexions from the sun, a parasol was another stylish summer accessory. Below is an 1867 fashion grouping featuring a gentleman’s suit, a lady’s summer day dress, and a plain silk parasol.

summerensemble1867 Summer Ensemble. (Met Museum)

In contrast to plainly trimmed straw hats, parasols could be quite luxurious. They were frequently made in silks and satins with elaborately carved handles of ivory or wood. Below is one of my favorites—a late 19th century parasol of green and cream silk taffeta with an ivory handle.

frenchsilktaffetaLate 19th Century French Silk Taffeta Parasol.(MFA Boston)

A Victorian lady embarking on her summer holiday via a crowded coach or train, would likely have taken a carriage parasol. Popularized by Queen Victoria in the mid-19th century, carriage parasols were made with a hinge in the middle of the handle so that they could fold up for ease of travel. Below is a silk carriage parasol with a handle made in the shape of a bird’s claw grasping a ball.

parasolbird1860-65 American Silk Parasol with Bird’s Claw Handle.(Met Museum)

birdhandle1860-65 Parasol with Bird’s Claw Handle. (Met Museum)



Not every Victorian lady had the luxury of a seaside holiday during the hot summer weather, but for those that did, The Art of Dressing Well recommends that bathing dresses be made of “fine flannel” and “trimmed with a worsted braid of fast colors.” Wool was also a common fabric for lady’s swimwear, as illustrated by the 1875 twilled wool bathing ensemble below.

bathingensemble1875 Women’s Bathing Ensemble. (FIDM Museum)

Though still a long way from a 20th century bikini, by the end of the 19th century, bathing dresses were becoming a bit less cumbersome. For example, when compared to the 1870s wool bathing dress, the 1890 twilled wool bathing costume looks almost modern!

woolbathingsuit1870s Wool Bathing Suit. (Met Museum)bathingcostume

1890-1900 Bathing Costume. (Manchester Art Gallery)


If wide-brimmed hats and summer parasols failed to protect a Victorian lady from sun damage, there were various lotions and potions available to repair her complexion. To fade freckles and unsightly suntans, ladies employed strawberry water or Gowland’s Lotion. To soothe sunburns, they bathed their faces in fresh milk or cream. An emulsion of almonds could also be used in cases of sunburn. Beeton’s 1871 Dictionary of Practical Recipes and Every-Day Information offers the following recipe.

almondAlmond Emulsion Recipe, Beeton’s Dictionary, 1871.


There were no designated beach books in the Victorian era, but for ladies of the 19th century, a good sensation novel was always great fun. One of the first, and most well known, of the era was The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins (1859). Another thrilling sensation novel was Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon. Published in 1862, it features murder, insanity, and accidental bigamy!

More from BUST

Before Millennial Pink, There Was Victorian Yellow

“Promiscuous Bathing” Shockedn England In The 1850s

The Story Of Charles Dicken’s Beloved, Flea-Ridden Dog


You may also like

Get the print magazine.

The best of BUST in your inbox!

Subscribe to Our Weekly Newsletter

About Us

Founded in 1993, BUST is the inclusive feminist lifestyle trailblazer offering a unique mix of humor, female-focused entertainment, uncensored personal stories, and candid reporting that tells the truth about women’s lives.

©2023 Street Media LLC.  All Right Reserved.