While fashion is often treated as a frivolous topic, an "anthropological" view of fashion in any era or place can reveal social hierarchies and spoken and unspoken mores and taboos. In the late Victorian era, the great fashion controversies surrounded "lady-like" versus "rational" clothing. Victorian males also underwent a fashion revolution as their clothing reflected more practicality, as suited a industrialist, rather than the adornment of earlier aristocratic men of leisure. Nevertheless, the female image was the center of the debate over fashion in the late 19th century.
ballet star
Lady-like Dress

The Victorian ideal of beauty for females was an ample bust, an extremely small waist and wide hips. The bust and hips were not the focus of male fetishization, however. Legs remained the "terra incognita" of erotica. Females focused on the hard work of restraining and molding their midsections.

The hourglass ideal female form was achieved or attempted through the use of corsets, beginning in childhood. These pre-pubescent corsets were labled "reform corsets," a label that begs modern explications. Suffice it to say that the Victorian female child was molded into a desirable image before puberty.

However, "child" is something of a misnomer. The female age of consent after the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act was settled at 10 years of age, while the age of marriage was settled at 12. In 1885 consent was raised to 16 years while the legal age for female marriage remained at 12.

Fashion historian Leigh Summers estimates corsets created 21 (light-lacing) to 80 (tight-lacing) pounds of pressure per square inch. Female lung capacity was reduced by 20%. Tight-laced corsets displaced internal organs either below or above the corseted midsection. Proponents of rational dress claimed tight-lacing endangered the health of both fetus and female. Summers speculates this practice may have provided a surreptitious way to miscarry.

To achieve an extreme tight-laced waistline, a female had to incrementally decrease the size of the waist over an average two year period to allow the internal organs to settle beyond the midsection. A tightly-laced corset had to be worn in this fashion regularly to prevent the body from reverting to its natural parameters.

The "Pet of the Ballet" in this illustration from The Days' Doings provides an illustration of this tight-laced ideal; however, this "pet" with exposed legs was not the ideal of "lady-like dress."

At the end of the century, the "S-bend corset" exaggerated natural female contours by forcing the hips back and chest forward. The style is satirized in a cartoon from Comic Almanack For 1874, "The Weight of Fashion." An acceptable waistline measured 20 inches; however, idealized waistlines ranged from 16 to 12 inches.

Tight-lacing also helped to achieve an upper-class feminine ideal of a pale and near-fainting enfeebledness. Otherwise this cultural ideal was sometimes attempted by extreme diets that could include arsenic eating.

This enfeebled "proper" female was in direct contrast to the robust movements of ballet and can-can dancers in the popular music halls. These halls, however, were not acceptable places for "private" females to visit, and the "public" females were not acceptable as voices of public critique. Instead, challenges to "lady-like" dressing came from the upper classes.

Burn The Corsets!

Ferret bloomers on bikes
A Rational Dress manifesto stated:

The Rational Dress society protests against the introduction of any fashion in dress that either deforms the figure, impedes the movement of the body, or in any way tends to injure the health. It protests against the wearing of tightly fitted corsets, of high-heeled or narrow toed boots and shoes; of heavily weighted skirts, as rendering healthy exercise almost impossible.

Founded by Lady Harberton in 1881, the Rational Dress Society continued attempts at reform that were popularized via the American suffragette Amelia Bloomer in the 1850s. In one of its more radical declamations, the Rational Dress Society called for women to wear no more than seven pounds of undergarments.

The Lady Harberton Cycling Costume was the preferred garment of the rational dress movement. Harberton, an avid wheeler herself, advocated a long jacket and a split and hem-gathered skirt, a variation on the older bloomers. The fashion was not universally adopted. However, a small group of progressive and wealthy females did wear and promote rational dress.

In the 1880s, Victorian England experienced a growth of interest in sporting for both males and females. Sporting was historically associated with the aristocracy. The middle classes sought to apropriate this expression of wealth and leisure themselves.

While debate raged over acceptable clothing for females, cyclists in their odd costumes remained a source of satire for the London press. The Ferret, in keeping with its scandalous precedents, illustrated wheelers as both objects of ridicule and desire, as noted by the exposed limbs and unrealistically short flying skirts in the cover illustration at right.
more bloomers on bikes
This comic illustration also plays to the sexualized idea of females who dare to velocipede.

Cigarette smoking may be traced to British exposure to Turks rolling tobacco in thin paper during the Crimean War in the 1850s.

The New Comic Times cartoon also sexualizes the female desire for greater freedom of movement. The male wheeler is tripped up by the sight of a brazen bicyclist exposing her limbs.

His fall, moreover, indicates that an "awful effect" of velocepiding is unlimited male access as his arms reach out to the young woman. His trajectory would not seem to comply with the laws of physics.

A Private Box

Only radical upper class women smoked, at least in public. Prostitutes and other public women would not have a male societal prohibition against smoking.

Therefore, unless a female was depicted as both a smoker and a suffragette (as shown in the comic above) the coded image would label such a female a women of ill repute. This caricature appears to be a comment upon a theatre assignation. Older females often "managed" younger prostitutes.

Another dress movement of the era was the aethestic/artistic dress movement promoted by the bohemian Pre-Raphaelites. The artistic style looked to medieval dress for inspiration. Corsets were nowhere to be found.
right finger