The fashions of earlier times often appear quaint to those who come afterwards, but it is as well to bear in mind that the men who wore frock coats and stove-pipe hats were the same men who built the railways we are still familiar with, who built bridges and iron ships on an unprecented scale, who laid transatlantic cables and organised an Empire which stretched across the world.

Public benefaction: laying the foundation stone of the Brown Library, Liverpool, 15 April 1857. Liverpool Public Library, from The Victorian City, Images and Realities, Dyos and Wolff (1973)

The women, dressed in what seem to us even more outlandish costumes, included some of the great novelists and poets of the period and pioneers of medicine and nursing. Fashions of course varied over the course of time. In the earlier part of the period dresses were given shape by stiffened petticoats but by mid century the characteristic mode was the crinoline. This was a cage, usually made of thin steel struts over which a number of petticoats were arranged followed by the skirt the material of which could be partially raised to reveal a decorative underskirt. They were constructed in a number of different ways, some were entirely circular and produced a bell-like silhouette while others were made without struts at the front so the material of the dress fell flat there and billowed out behind. Whatever attractions this fashion had for those who wore it, it did produce some difficulties. It was awkward for gentlemen to walk with their ladies because the circumference of the skirt prevented any near approach. The most difficult problem of all was how to manage the skirted cage itself as the pictures amply demonstrate.

Crinolines. Paris, Bibliothequè Nationale, Cabinet des Estampes, from A History of Costume in the West, François Boucher (1979)

The Fitting, 1865

James Laver, A History of Costume in the West, François Boucher (1979)

As a spectacle in the distance, on a lawn or in a large house the crinoline clearly had attractions or it would not have lasted as long as it did, but in more confined spaces or in trains or omnibuses it must have required considsiderable ingenuity to control. After about 1870 the hoop was replaced by the bustle, a smaller cage, or later pad, which allowed the material of the dress to fall sheer in front while gathering large quantities of material at the back. More adventurous women were able to empahasise the shape of their legs by having tapes on the inside of the skirt which allowed them to draw the material close to them at the front of the dress.

Impudent Boy:'I say, Bill! Come and see the conjuring - Here's this here gal a goin' to squeeze herself into that there broom!' Punch (1860)

A Victorian dinner table. 'Many Happy Returns', by W.P.Frith (1856), from Dickens of London, Wolf Mankowitz (1976)

A dandy. Punch