'Victorian Secrets' gets underneath the fashion of the day
Getting dressed for ladies during the Victorian era was rather ... complicated.
Discover what was under a proper Victorian lady's outfit at The Kerr Memorial Museum fall exhibit, “Victorian Secrets,” on display now through Nov. 9 in Oakmont.
Offering a glimpse into the daily life of dressing during the Victorian years (Kerr museum focuses on 1890-1910), more than 50 female, male and children's garment from the museum's personal collection and clothing loans from Pittsburgh area residents are throughout the 14-room home that belonged to the Kerr family of Oakmont.
Tours are available on Saturdays from 10 a.m.-2 p.m., or by appointment for groups.
Victorian women donned an extraordinary amount of underwear, according to museum volunteers and commission board members Jane Foster and Jan Shoop.
“Eight layers of undergarments were worn,” Shoop says. “Most girls of that era were married by age 21 and their goal was to have a waist size smaller than their age.”
Thanks to corsets, most ladies achieved such a waist cinching goal.
If a lady didn't have her maid at the ready to lace her up, women could use a special metal hook to fasten their corset, and corsets were designed with front cinching features too.
The Kerr house, constructed in 1897 by Oakmont doctor Thomas R. Kerr, contains 65 percent of its original furnishings and objects, says Shoop.
The museum contains an extensive collection of Kerr family memorabilia (the only family to reside there) and is a model example of a middle class home at the beginning of the 20th century.
Virginia Kerr, the doctor's only child, lived in the Queen Anne-tyle home listed on the National Registry of Historic Places her entire life, never marrying, and bequeathed the home to Oakmont borough upon her death in 1994.
The museum opened its doors in 2002, with visitors touring all rooms on the first and second floors, in addition to the basement and Dr. Kerr's medical office.
“It is a jewel of the valley,” says Foster, one of 35 museum volunteers.
The basic items required by Victorian ladies of the day were petticoats, corsets, slip (often called chemise) and drawers — as in underwear, but not the modern underwear that we envision.
“Ladies wore eight layers underneath,” Shoop says.
Victorian ladies donned “split drawers” that allowed for access to use the bathroom — modern ladies panties didn't exist then.
“Ladies had to put on their stockings and shoes first too before putting on their corset,” Foster says. “Once the corset was on, a lady would not be able to bend over to put her stockings and shoes on. Their mobility was restricted.”
Several men's union suits hang in the museum basement on display where Daisy, the Kerr's devoted house maid would wash and hang laundry.
Victorian men had things a little easier, they could replace their white starched collars when they were dirtied by Pittsburgh's sooty air (at that time) with a fresh one on a collarless shirt.
This practice kept a man from having to change his entire shirt.
Forget sleeping in flannels or a T-shirt, Victorian ladies wore luxurious dressing gowns around the house and for sleeping, complete with sleeping caps and embroidered slippers.
Fancy lace and satin ribbons that adorned women's undergarments couldn't be washed normally, so they were removed (via small buttons) and washed separately.
Satin, embroidery, silks and lace were abundant and Victorian ladies went for a “Gibson girl” style look made famous by Life magazine illustrator Charles Dana Gibson. Gibson girl fashion featured a tiny corseted waist and hourglass figure.
Joyce Hanz is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.