Schenectady County Historical Society curator Ryan Mahoney adds some finishing touches to "Underlying Structures: What Shaped the Victorian Woman," on display at the society's headquarters.
Queen Victoria reigned for 64 years, so checking out the world of fashion during that time is an immense undertaking.
In " Underlying Structures: What Shaped the Victorian Woman," the Schenectady County Historical Society is narrowing the focus just a bit, offering a look at what might have been worn by the well-to-do city woman between 1850 and 1890.
The exhibit runs through Oct. 31 at society headquarters at 32 Washington Ave., and a special reception and discussion on fashion and jewelry from that time period will be held at 3 p.m. on Tuesday.
"People think that fashion changes quickly today; well, it also happened quickly back then," said Kaitlin Morton-Bentley, a Niskayuna resident and society volunteer who worked with fellow volunteer Deb Crosby and SCHS curator Ryan Mahoney to put together the exhibit. "After the Industrial Revolution things started changing much faster and that certainly included fashion."
If you go
WHAT: Reception for exhibit on 19th century fashion and life
WHERE: Schenectady County Historical Society, 32 Washington Ave., Schenectady
WHEN: 3 p.m. Tuesday
HOW MUCH: $5 for non-members, free for members
INFO: 374-0263 or www.Schenectadyhistory.net
There are eight dresses from the Victorian Era on display along with a corset from the period and a collection of jewelry.
"The exhibit is about Victorian dresses, and seven of the eight dresses are from the Schenectady Museum collection that we got last year, so they've never been on display here before," said Mahoney.
"But there's also plenty of information on mourning practices, weddings, jewelry and religion; anything that's about family life from that period. And, they were worn by Schenectady women. We have the names so we know who they belonged to."
Among the dresses on display is a brown wedding dress dated at around 1871.
"Queen Victoria wore a white dress at her wedding in 1840, and to wear white was a really new thing," said Morton-Bentley, a Skidmore graduate with master's degrees in library and information studies and museum studies from the University of Rhode Island.
"Previously, women had just worn their best dress, which would be worn again. Wealthy women started to emulate this trend of wearing white at their wedding, but most women still wore dresses of various colors, usually dark, that would be worn again. It wasn't until the 1950s that white wedding dresses really became the standard."
A big technological advance in fashion came in the 1850s with the development of crinoline, a stiff fabric or skirt-shaped structure of steel designed to support dresses of the time.
"Then we also have corsets and bustles getting established in the 1850s, all things that could help your body fit into the garment," said Morton-Bentley. "Some women said they were comfortable, and others hated them and never wore them or couldn't wait to get out of them. Sometimes it depended on what class you were in, and working women usually needed something more flexible."
While many of the newest fashions came from Paris and London in the 19th century, Morton-Bentley said there were no celebrity-like designers at the time.
"People would see things from Paris in a newspaper or a magazine, and then a prominent woman would take it to her dressmaker and ask them, 'make me something like this,' " she said. "It wasn't like it is now. There were no famous designers back then."
The Victorian Cultural League and the Victorian Social Club, both Schenectady-based organizations that celebrate the Victorian Era, will be on hand for Tuesday's festivities.