Ivy Thompson first started experimenting with her style in middle school. She embraced the Japanese Lolita street style before, at some point in high school, deciding “it wasn’t challenging anymore.” So two years ago, the TikTok creator peeled back the layers of frothy dresses, bows, and knee-high socks and started sewing Victorian-inspired clothing to wear in her everyday life.
“I was looking into other things I could wear year-round,” says Thompson. “I discovered that there's actually a pretty robust historical costuming community out there.” Today, she’s a major player in the online Victorian fashion community. Her TikTok account, @thesewloartist, boasts over 670,000 followers and has clocked nearly 10 million likes, showcasing her vast collection of Victorian and Edwardian clothing. “It's interesting to imagine what people at the time really would have worn and looked like and how they would have interacted with their everyday objects,” she says.
Thompson teaches her followers about the dress codes and traditions of the era, as well as shows step-by-step guides on how Victorian costumes are layered — the shoes first, of course. All while showcasing her wide collections of dresses and accessories — “my costumes have their own bedroom" — some dating as far back as the early 19th century. But while it may be fun to time travel digitally for online audiences, today’s Victorian fashion fans are also taking their styling to the streets, embodying the lifestyle and mindset of the Victorian era — with many, many twists.
Named after England’s Queen Victoria, Victorian-era fashion is renowned for its elaborate corsets, petticoats, and bustles, with women’s style dominated by full skirts. Over the past two years, the era’s style has slowly penetrated modern-day fashion, thanks to shows like Netflix’s Bridgerton and the comeback of the Y2K-style corset. Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, with a preoccupation for nature and rural living as a form of escapism growing, new fashion aesthetics have emerged online, inspired by Victorian styling. Take cottagecore, for example, which romanticizes agricultural life through the use of prairie dresses and bustiers.
Some Victorian fashion creators on TikTok are not interested in making the era’s style modern though. Margaret O'Neil, who goes by @costumeandconservation on TikTok, is a textile conservation student with a focus on historical costumes. In her videos, she puts on layers of crinolines, corsets, and skirts for her 32,000 followers. Since she first started collecting Victorian costumes, O’Neil has amassed an impressive selection of pieces, including a garment from 1800, her oldest to date. “I always joke that my wardrobe goes from 1820 to 2020,” she says, referring to how she uses vintage pieces as her everyday clothing.
While she’s genuinely interested in the fashion of the time, O’Neil says that, for conservators, it’s also just one of the easiest periods in history to work with because there’s a lot of material available. That provides an opportunity for conservators to explore old sewing and material techniques. Take a gown from the 1860s, for which O’Neil had to sew an elliptical cage crinoline, a mid-19th century undergarment used to give volume to skirts, that requires hours of hand sewing.
“It's a super weird piece of clothing,” she says. “Even looking at the satirical prints of the time, they made fun of it.” When she donned the garment, O’Neil found herself unable to move around her Wilmington, Delaware apartment. “There’s a reason we abandoned this style,” she jokes.
While O’Neil opts for utmost historical accuracy, Thompson is "totally happy to incorporate different styles together”: “I don't set out to make every single garment as perfectly accurate as I can, because that's just not me.”
Likewise, creator Lauren Foster approaches Victorian fashion with a more interpretive spin. Based in Pennsylvania, Foster first started sharing videos on TikTok channeling the cottagecore aesthetic before becoming interested in historical costuming. Although she’s collected vintage clothing, Foster is focused on styling garments inspired by Victorian fashion which she gets from the online resale market, rather than wearing exact replicas of costumes from the time. “Most of the clothing that I’ve found is from the 1900s,” she says, referring to the Edwardian era.
Foster’s interest in 19th-century fashion also comes with a desire to break stereotypes in the white-dominated “-core” aesthetics communities. “There are not a lot of people of color in these aesthetics, and when they finally see someone that looks like them, who is not ashamed of putting that lifestyle out there, they really appreciate it,” she says.
As a mother of two living in rural Pennsylvania, she wants to educate others about the fashion and lifestyle of Victorian-inspired aesthetics in real life: “I've heard from so many people that they're afraid of judgment over dressing a certain way or moving to a rural area because that can be dangerous as a Black person in America,” she says. “And they really appreciate that there is some sort of representation.”
Mostly, Foster is having fun with the clothes she wears. Creating Victorian-inspired content has now become her full-time job, just a year after she first launched her Instagram and TikTok channels. On her account, @theenchantednoir, Foster can be seen wearing Victorian-inspired clothing in modern settings, staging photoshoots that channel the rural 19th-century aesthetic, and highlighting the stories of Black people during Queen Victoria’s time.
“People are very shocked that there were Black Victorians at all,” she says. “I really feel blessed, honestly, that I'm getting to do something that I feel passionate about, but that's also helping people in the process.”
On TikTok, these creators welcome their followers to a world where time-traveling is just one corset away, should they embrace the style.
Every morning, Thompson sorts through her wardrobe, picking out a bodice and full skirt that might seem a better fit for the set of Bridgerton than a day of errands in Portland, Oregon. But she still marches outside, unafraid of the onlookers: “I never thought that I would have the opportunity to say this, but yes, this is my style, this is what I look like every day.”