Women’s dress: 1879 & 1925

A key date in The Murder of Mary Russell is 1879, when Sherlock Holmes and his future landlady meet. The other date is, of course, 1925, when Mary Russell…well.

One thing that fascinated me is the difference in clothing between those two periods. Yes, Russell tends to wear her father’s old suits, but she couldn’t have got away with that in 1879.

One doesn’t think of the Victorian era as a time of rapid change, when it comes to women’s clothing, but in fact, even a relative neophyte to the history of fashion quickly begins to spot the differences.


John O’Connor

In the mid-1850s, multiple petticoats were replaced by crinolines, hooped skirts made of various materials but often steel. For a decade, huge and unwieldy skirts reigned supreme. Then in the 1870s, crinolines shrank into crinolettes, then bustles, until in 1879 the fashion was for the so-called “natural form” (hah!) of a long, rigidly corseted torso, a petticoat that emphasized the skirt backs, and a train.

During the 19th century, a woman wore 25 or more pounds of clothing—and that was before she put on her outer cloak. In 1863, at the height of the hoop skirt, 2500 people died in a church fire in Santiago, Chile, when crinolines blocked the way to escape. Throughout the century, women died when their skirts caught flame, or drowned when they slipped into the stream fetching water and their clothing pulled them under.

I was interested in the many and incredibly complex layers of clothing a Victorian woman wore (for an illustration of dressing, click here.)1879 garments (King)

The technology of the corset reminds me of a ship’s rigging, a series of balanced tensions and surfaces—and if I had to put one on every day, I’d probably throttle myself.

Why, even a woman’s drawers were engineered to meet the needs of a woman who couldn’t reach past her skirts, and couldn’t bend her torso.Drawers

Compare with this a woman’s dress in 1925, when The Murder of Mary Russell opens. Perhaps three or four pounds of clothing, half of which is on the feet.1925 garments (King)

I’ve made a handout for stores to give out at my events—you can print them out, and even use them as a two-page coloring book, if you like.  The Victorian page is here, the 1925 version here.


murder of mary russell UK

The Murder of Mary Russell may be ordered as:

A signed US hardback from Bookshop Santa Cruz or Poisoned Pen Books

An unsigned hardback or ebook from B&N/Nook or Amazon/Kindle

A UK hardback from Waterstones or hard/ebook from Amazon UK.



  1. Merrily Taylor on April 7, 2016 at 7:00 am

    I remain eternally grateful that I was not born a woman in the 19th century – the clothes are beautiful to look at, but comfortable to wear: not so much.
    I did read once that the famous French designer Worth made his first fortune by designing the lightweight “hoop” device that made the enormous hoop skirt possible. Prior to that, women had achieved the Look by layering on petticoats, which was neither comfortable nor practical (heat and weight).
    In every generation, what women haven’t done for fashion! The ladies of the 20’s really lucked out in some ways (although garter belts, ugh).

  2. Wendy martin on April 7, 2016 at 9:53 am

    When I first started reading your books, I did research the styles, as you made a few references to clothing, but I had trouble wrapping my head around picturing Mary in her various female appearances, both as she grew from her teens, and as the styles changed. These were “interesting times!”

  3. Diane on April 7, 2016 at 10:24 am

    I understand that women continued to wear their corsets when pregnant. I wonder how many miscarriages were caused by corsets, not to mention damage to internal organs. Muumuus and sweatpants and t-shirts – anything non-constricting!

  4. Laura Stratton on April 7, 2016 at 10:57 am

    I agree with Merrily. For many reasons, I am so grateful that I was not born in the 1870s. 25 POUNDS of Clothing every single day! MERCY. I much prefer the current trend towards loose, lighter weight clothing.
    Our Miss Russell, would not have been very tolerant of the time it took to dress every morning in the late 1800s. I think the slim fitting look of the flapper dress would have fit her body well but the frivolity of those clothes would have seemed quite silly to her.

  5. Linda Hay on April 7, 2016 at 11:10 am

    I love looking at photos of my Grandmother, born 1900, from that frilly christening dress and the amazing wicker baby carriage, to one of the last, taken in 1983 with bermuda shorts and a sleeveless blouse, toasting the photographer with a martini. In-between everything from huge hair bows, to middy blouses, swim suits, fur coats and stoles, to 1960’s shifts, and pant’s suits, sweaters and slacks, and as one who lived at the Jersey shore, shorts. I thought I had the coolest Nana going in the 50s because she would jump rope with us because she wore shorts!

    A few years ago I made a Civil War era costume to wear at a July history fair. My hoops were made of lightweight plastic tubing for a refrigerator’s ice maker. I was so grateful that I didn’t have to wear seven layers of petticoats as women did in earlier generations. Figuring out how to sit was one of my challenges, but luckily the tubing bent in ways the hoops didn’t. Everyday wear for farm women was more reasonable … a loose fitting dress which had sleeves that rolled up, a skirt which could be “kilted” … working in the hay field and kitchen was hard work, but one could breathe.

  6. MaryL on April 8, 2016 at 11:26 am

    I have done the whole Renaissance Festival garb thing, complete with corset. It isn’t too bad, especially as I am, um, “ample”. Surprisingly comfortable-holds you up, supports the back. However, at the end of a hot day it is a relief to get out of the thing. But I feel that way about my bra too.

  7. Barbara A. Cullom on April 8, 2016 at 2:13 pm

    An exciting new chapter in the collective Holmes-Hudson-Russell story!

  8. Helen Martin on April 23, 2016 at 9:28 pm

    As a docent at our museum years ago I took part in a “History of Fashion” 1700 to 1960 and for the school kids we made replica items for the mid 1800’s – the hoop skirt era and we dressed someone in all the undergarments. They were horrified at all the complexity and the fact that there were no zippers but just buttons and ties. Our curator always referred to fashion as “beauty by impairment.” I made the corset which turned out to be straight forward sewing (on my machine!). No whales were harmed in the making of that garment.

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