Tuesday, July 24, 2007


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Respectable Victorians (and most Victorians at least aspired to respectability) had a different group of expectations than ours on which to judge and create deportment.

1) Separate spheres for men and women

2) Acceptance of hierarchical society, signaled by dress, movement and speech

3) Clothing and deportment as display and interaction in society, rather than as self-expression

Above all, there was an acceptance (even in America, the “class-free” nation) of incorporating class differences into modes of interaction and dress. People embraced identity as part of a group.

In the 1800s, every aspect of one’s existence was controlled by one’s gender: occupation, dress, speech patterns, and gestures. Masculinity and femininity occupied strictly separate spheres, and indications of either were broadly exaggerated. Men were entering the height of their “lords of creation” era in the 1840s – across classes men walked with a swagger, stood and sat to take the most space, sawed the air with gestures and grasped and brandished possessions like canes, eyeglasses, lapels, or books. This is the time when there were the widest distinctions between male and female dress: colors disappeared from men’s clothing, facial hair sprouted on lip, chin and face, Regency jewelry and snuffboxes disappeared, and male ornaments were mainly sober watch chains, rings and tie pins. (Exceptions were aristocratic “dandies”, like Lord Dundreary, Bohemians in mid-century, and aesthetes at the end of the century.) Men firmly planted their legs when standing. Their social stance generally had one foot advanced, with the hand on the same side holding a lapel, placed on the breast, or gesturing. When directing attention, the head or the whole hand was used, but not the finger. Hands were never put in pockets – this was considered the height of vulgarity. The gaze was to be firm and frank without being belligerent or prying. Men were permitted, within polite bounds, to eye ladies appraisingly.

Women presented themselves as the exact opposite: passive to men’s activity, calm to their energy, emotional to their rationality, etc. Thus, posture and behaviour were designed to draw attention to itself through grace and poise only. Large expansive gestures, long strides, positioning in the middle of a crowd, were all unfeminine. Women took small steps and stood with hands clasped or holding some ornament, like flowers, muff, or lace handkerchief, which could be clasped to the heart while talking. Arm gestures were very limited – during the 1840s-60s, shoulder seams on gowns came several inches below the shoulder, but hands might purposefully flutter in pretty gestures: rings and bracelets were worn several together to draw attention to them. Corsets kept the upper body still, heavy skirts slowed the walk. Women’s shoes were flat slippers, and their walks were described as “pattering,” “skipping,” or “tripping.” At this time, it was considered attractive for young women to appear light-hearted and giddy and exist as an ornament to society. Their clothing was lighter, more colorful and decorative.
In interaction, married women offered their hands upon introduction; unmarried women, never. All women were taught to speak in a low voice and to avoid a direct gaze. In company, ladies kept their eyes down when speaking to superiors and gentlemen, perhaps lifting their eyes but not their heads to meet a glance. The head might be cocked to one side or the other when talking to a gentleman, to cultivate coyness and demureness. [All this will pose special problems for the actress, who must follow stage convention without too outrageously breaking social convention.]

When married women reached a certain age, they became “dowagers.” Their age and experience in social circles, as well as their removal from the marriage market and the realm of sexual attractiveness, theoretically meant they were the more suitable as social arbiters. Their gossip, matchmaking and social arrangements were taken very seriously, and led to the stern, basilisk-eyed British Matron found in most literature of the era. This was acceptable, as long as women worked through Victorian “influence” over men, and did not handle any actual “power”. A dowager was exempt from rules of carriage and deportment for belles, and indeed could be subject to ridicule if she followed them.

For all ladies, the crinoline relieved some of the weight of 19th-century skirts; before up to ten petticoats might be worn at once, but the cage crinoline took some weight off a woman’s legs and provided a cool draft. Women walked so as to seem to run on wheels; the motions of walking were not apparent; no up-and-down movement or hip motion, steps were small; hoop-swaying was kept to a minimum. Hands stayed on the front of the crinoline to guide it when walking or sitting down. Care had to be taken to keep the crinoline from catching on furniture or doorways and turning up to show anything above the ankle. When entering doorways, a woman led with one hip and shoulder, to turn the crinoline for easy pass-through. Feet should not show more than a few inches at the toe, though coquettes could manipulate their movements to show what was called a “well-turned ankle.”

As well as separate gender spheres, there was a gradation of behaviour along class lines. Poor and working classes wore ill-fitting clothes and heavy shoes, which affected their gait and movement. There were no standard sizes of clothing; suits and dresses were custom-made for middle and upper classes, with the poor wearing cast-offs or hand-me-downs.
A bow or curtsey would vary depending on whether it was to an equal, a superior, or an inferior. Men gave a short nod to inferiors, a deep bow to equals, a deeper bow to older people, superiors and ladies (not women). Curtseys were divided into a short dip of the knees, a deep curtsey with one foot planted behind, or a deeper formal curtsey with skirts held to the sides, and as much time spent arising as dipping. The higher the social standing, the more grace and time was given to bowing or curtseying to superiors.

Class, income, region, and marital status were announced in one’s clothing and stance. Conduct manuals of the time spoke of an individual’s “obligation” to his community when choosing clothes or appearing in a public setting. This was felt as comforting and grounded, rather than restrictive as we might judge today. Transgressions of any of the boundaries signaled disrespectability, insolence, or even threat (Asa Trenchard being a prime example). On stage, social class and moral behaviour can be shown by the degree to which these rules were followed.


Deborah Vlock said...


What a great blog! I love the entry on Victorian deportment. And thanks for recommending my book!


Buff Huntley said...

I'm so pleased to see your comment here! Of course, I recommended your book -- it was tremendously enlightening and helpful to me. I hope you will be coming back and leaving other comments on the material.

Deborah Vlock said...

I've bookmarked you -- I'll be back!