In 1856 Samuel Beeton persuaded his wife, Isabella, to be a joint editor with him in a new publishing venture, a monthly paper called The Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine. Initially priced at 2d, this was the first cheap magazine for young middle-class women, and it was an immediate commercial success, with an advertised circulation of 50,000 copies by 1856.
Isabella wrote domestic management material, embroidery patterns, cooking, dressmaking and all the translations of French novels that were serialised in the periodical from 1855 until her early death in 1865. The contents also included a range of serial fiction, biographical sketches, gardening and medical tips (including some useful advice on birth control), and an irresistible correspondence page. There was always a strong emphasis on practical instruction and useful knowledge.
In May 1860 the price increased and the Beetons directed their journal to a wealthier and more fashionable readership. Included were coloured plates and more emphasis on fiction and fashion. The Paper Tax abolition also meant there was more competition.
Two women and one young girl stand outside a Victorian toyshop, illustrating the prevailing women’s fashions for the upper middle-class in the mid-19th century. In particular, they demonstrate the trend for bold colours that began to emerge with the invention of synthetic (‘aniline’) dyes in 1856. These gradually replaced the gentler vegetable-based dyes of earlier periods, inspiring a particular trend for purple dresses and coats among Victorian women – purple (‘mauveine’) being the first synthetic dye produced.
Dresses in the mid-Victorian period were comprehensive items: covering all skin from ankle to wrist. Necklines were generally high, though some dresses had adjustable bodices allowing the neckline to be lowered for evening wear. The hems of skirts were edged with stiff braid, in part to stop fabric trailing along the ground, but this also had the effect of making skirts very wide. Designers began to emphasize this wideness by adding pleats and ruffles to skirts.
The crinoline was also popular with women. Worn beneath the dress, these enormous underskirts were made of materials like wool-and-horsehair and linen. This was given shape by rows of piping down to the hem, worn beneath to expand the outer skirt.
Ankle-length boots with a small heel were favoured for outdoor wear, particularly in muddy conditions. It was considered essential for women to cover their heads outdoors, with bonnets and boaters being the most popular styles of hat.
This extraordinary multi-page fashion spread from The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine shows clearly the trend for decoration and augmentation among urban middle-class women in the mid-19th century. Alongside images of fashionable overcoats and dresses, there are drawings and descriptions of purses and cloth muffs. There are also accessories for the home and utilities for decorative needlework.
Paper dress patterns such as this one had been an in-trade standard among dressmakers since the 1830s, but with the launch of the magazine World of Fashion in 1850, they were now marketed directly at the consumer. By the time of this publication, there were 15 magazines in London alone that included dress patterns in every issue. While the magazines insisted that the patterns could be followed with ease by tracing around the shapes on a piece of material; in practice the patterns were printed on soft tissue paper and easily subject to rips and tears. It was not unusual for a middle-class woman to cut out the material she wanted and have a trained seamstress stitch the pieces together.
The English Woman’s Domestic Magazine was the first English serial to make dress patterns and the latest fashions available to a mass audience.
As the 1860s wore on, mechanical sewing machines became more popular in middle-class households. Paper dress patterns such as this became more popular – and achievable – as a result, and were printed and consumed in large numbers well into the 1980s.