Victorian costume & dress

During the three years it took me to research my historical fiction novel, ‘The Sentinel’, I took whatever chance I could to explore ways that would help me locate my characters in ‘place’ and deepen my knowledge of the 1880s time period. I wanted to know what their everyday lives were like.

I was fortunate to come across this exhibition in Ballarat in 2018: which was perfect research for my novel. Not only that, I had the chance to see these items in person.

A friend and I visited the exhibition on a cold October day and were drawn immediately into the Victorian era. Here we found bustles and bows, puppets and parasols and even a hansom cab!

However, in one room – the room we’d come to see – was a range of dresses and bonnets from more formal attire to a working woman’s hastily constructed dress (below right) that helped me visualise what my characters would wear.

Alongside the display was a small room where the Friends of Sovereign Hill bonnet makers had set out items that visitors such as us could try on. My friend had a wonderful time pretending we’d stepped back in time!

The bonnets helped me understand how this headwear was a visual representation of a woman’s social status. When my main character, Kathleen Devine, wears a bonnet full of feathers and flowers, it is signifying her elevated social status as the daughter of a doctor. Her bonnet is a symbol to her suitor of her wealth, something he objects to with great vehemence.

The working women’s dress however was thrown together from rough fabric. The cloth had flaws in the weave, the sides of the dress were unequal and the stitching uneven. The colour was plain, with little patterning and minimal lace around the neck. According to the historians, this indicated that the dress needed to be ‘practical and economical’. Just like my poor character, Rosie Brown, the downtrodden wife of the bully, Seamus Brown, the maker of this dress would not have the time (or the skills) to make fine fashion. Their dresses needed to be practical and work-a-day. They had no time or luxury for frivolity.

It was a wonderful exhibition and a fantastic way to ‘step back in time’.

‘Victorian Silhouette’ – exhibition Gold Museum – Sovereign Hill – Ballarat, October 2018.

Until next time,


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