Widecombe History Group Talk on Victorian Costume


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Victorian Costumes for The Great Outdoors - Illustrated talk was given by Kate Strasdin.

Kate is a Dress Historian and has recently finished her M.A. in "The History of Textiles and Dress", with particular emphasis on the history of dresses worn for walking and early mountaineering and as we are A Dartmoor Group, this was of particular interest to us. Kate is Ashburton born and has obtained a Degree in History and had chose to write her dissertation on ‘The Outdoor Costumes worn by The Victorian Ladies’.

The inspiration to chose this subject stemmed from her personal involvement with the Annual Ten Tors Expedition held on Dartmoor each year, (this was cancelled in 2001 due to the ‘Foot & Mouth restrictions). She participated in the ‘Ten Tors’ six times, doing each of the distances twice, 35, 45 and 55 miles. Approximately 3000 youngsters take part each year, and prior to the event they go through a strict regime of training, and the evening before they set off, all the equipment, food, clothing etc. is checked over by the military who oversee the whole exercise. Her involvement with Ten Tors was the inspiration behind her decision to explore the type of clothing worn by previous generations on outdoor pursuits such as Rambling, Mountaineering, Sport and other activities. This subject has never been researched and recorded or written about, to the extent and detail that she undertook.

Her enthusiasm for the subject soon became apparent when she commenced her address, and her knowledge of the subject resulted in an interesting talk.

The first image we saw was a photograph of an expedition on a glacier at Chamonix, the largest glacier in Europe, this was of eight ladies and five men. These ladies were all attired in full length dresses, bonnets and carrying umbrellas or parasols. An article by The late Lady Sayer once wrote :- in 1830 a very active young lady Miss Dixon, on May 19th left Princetown at 4.30 in the morning, the larks were up and singing, and after breakfasting at Tavistock, continued her rambling until terminating at the Tamar. After having travelled some 25 - 30 miles since leaving the Prison, and continued walking for about 15 hours with little interruption. On May 27th she set off from The West Okement Valley, climbed a tor utterly unperturbed by the clouds that had suddenly collapsed. Another woman mentioned in the same article, Miss Rachael Evans, who in 1846, walked to Tavy Cleave, and wrote in HER diary that ‘it was a stormy afternoon, and occasional rain, and poor light’, Kate explained that this was typical of some very energetic ladies in the 1800’s. Kate said, one of the questions that she attempted to find an answer to was, ‘were our ancestors restricted by the type of clothing they wore and how did they manage on Dartmoor and similarly in the Alps’. The men wore Norfolk tweed jackets with matching cap, and knickerbockers strapped beneath the knees, wool socks and hob-nailed boots on their feet. It appears that the ladies too had their boots fitted with hob-nails by the local cobblers. As time passed by and the Americans came to Europe on trips, they too brought their boots to Britain to be nailed, as the British boot and shoemakers were renowned for their excellence in nailing.

By 1850 the middle and upper class had more money to spend and were prepared to try different ways of spending it particularly on outdoor activities, consequently they began to be seriously interested in exploration and out-door pursuits, and by 1870 cycling, swimming, walking, rambling and sport became very popular. This was recreational, where previously it had only been scientific explorations that were undertaken. Tennis, and other sports became popular, and many quite large clubs were formed for rambling etc. She drew the conclusion that the old ‘chestnut’ that our female ancestors were unadventurous was a myth, they were in fact very adventurous and tried most things, they were not weak but in fact strong and active. From mid 1800’s to the outbreak of WW I there were a great deal of outdoor activities. British people went to the mountainous areas in Europe for health reasons and while there, decided to climb mountains for something to do to pass the time. The locals thought they were mad as they thought that dragons and the like lived on the mountains, this was the beginning of what we now call the winter sports. It is thought that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (author of Hound of the Baskervilles etc.) was the first person to ski downhill as a recreation. Kate has studied the women diarists of that time. In their journals they wrote reports of where they went and what they did, and often recorded the type of costume and dress worn at these various events. In a book called ‘The Cost of Sport’, published in 1899, it states that cycling cost £5 - £10 per annum, tennis was £10, and walking and mountaineering was £40, from that it can be deducted that only the middle and upper classes could afford these hobbies. Hunting was £100 per annum, yachting £200, and game shooting at £500 - 600. Mont Blanc was climbed for the first time in the 18th century but in the very early 19th century it was climbed by a servant girl Marie Harriday, possibly the first woman to achieve this feat. Mountaineering expeditions became competitive in mid 1800’s and both men and women took part. The Matterhorn itself was first climbed in 1865, there is evidence that a lady, Lucy Walker climbed it only a couple of years after - these ladies of the Victorian era were very adventuresome.

The dresses worn were quite full in design and also heavy, sometimes involving several layers of clothes and no doubt complete with corset. The most popular material was tweed and all the male outfits were made of a large check pattern. The ladies began to appreciate the quality of tweed and the industry began to produce a tweed made of a smaller check. Gradually they moved from a full length dress to a jacket and skirt still reaching down to their ankles, while on their heads, in place of the earlier bonnets, they wore a hat similar in style to the men’s bowler. A canvas-type material also came into vogue for some of their outfits, all the time endeavouring to use material which did not get too heavy when wet. Waterproof clothes is a must for outdoor pursuits and there are old recipes for waterproofing cloth, c1868 e.g.:- "melt a quarter pound of yellow soap, water, a quart of boiled linseed oil, mixed into a paste, and gradually paint layers of this paste onto the tweed, allowing each coat to dry between applications". The need to have clothes that allowed the body to breath, i.e. reduce the perspiration trapped within the costume, led to the manufacture of Burberry clothes. Some catalogues were produced advertising these clothes specially for outdoor wear for both sexes and some of the early lady enthusiasts even belonged to the Alpine Club, their expertise at mountaineering was admired and accepted by the male fraternity. Hob-nail boots continued to be the ideal for walkers until the 1930s, from then on different types of soles for boots were being developed. C.1980s Gortex, a breathable fabric came onto the market, and other materials with a felt exterior and suede interior came into favour. Looking back at the Inuits, Eskimos, etc. one finds that their use of skins served the very same purpose, the exterior hairs of the animal produced the waterproof protection needed and the interior skin, after having been dried, was cracked to let the perspiration escape and so let the wearer’s body breathe. This was realised by modern manufacturers and has led to modern materials being developed. The long dresses of our Victorian ancestors were surprisingly comfortable and more practical than one might think. however there was a tendency for some more recent historians to ridicule their dress but, in fact. it was far more practical than first thought. Then began the tendency to follow their male counterparts in dress style, firstly they wore knickerbockers under their skirts and when well away from the villages or other centres of population they removed their skirts and walked in their trousers and before returning to ‘civilisation’ they replaced their skirts. In c1911 divided skirts were produced, the first step towards the now popular trouser suit, and was designed by Burberry - that seems to be the beginning of the styles worn by the majority of ramblers both male and female today. A long dress can be very beneficial, as long steps can be taken unrestricted, and it was found that by attaching rows of metal rings around the inside of the skirt with strings running through the rows of rings, when pulled the strings would raise the bottom of the skirt sufficiently high to step across water without getting the hem wet, and in a situation where there was mixed company, ‘the call of nature could be dealt with modestly’ by pretending to sit for a while!!! Thomas Cook was mentioned, as the first guided/package tours began to be organised, and they have their own archives showing early tourism. (These archives can be viewed by researchers). Because these costumes were worn and suffered hard wear very little survives, so descriptions, drawings and photographs are very helpful. Kate concluded by asking, if anyone finds any photographs or detailed written reports showing or describing these early costumes to please let her know, as she continues her research into this fascinating subject. (contact 01364 652495).

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The information on this page was last modified on March 18 2013 12:54:51.


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