For most, the Victorian period is still a byword for sexual repression. Men's clothing is seen as formal and stiff, women's as fussy and over-done. Clothing covered the entire body, we are told, and even the glimpse of an ankle was scandalous. Corsets constricted women's bodies and women's lives. Homes were gloomy, dark, cluttered with massive and over-ornate furniture and proliferating bric-a-brac. Even piano legs were scandalous, and covered with tiny pantalettes.
Home furnishing was not necessarily ornate or overstuffed. However, those who could afford lavish draperies and expensive ornaments, and wanted to display their wealth, would often do so. Since the Victorian era was one of extreme social mobility, there were ever more nouveaux riches making a rich show.
The materials used in decoration may also have been darker and heavier than those used today, simply as a matter of practicality. London was noisy and its air was full of soot from countless coal fires. Hence those who could afford it draped their windows in heavy, sound-muffling curtains, and chose colors that didn't show soot quickly. When all washing was done by hand, curtains were not washed as frequently as they might be today.
There is no actual evidence that piano legs were considered scandalous. Pianos and tables were often draped with shawls or cloths -- but if the shawls hid anything, it was the cheapness of the furniture. There are references to lower-middle-class families covering up their pine tables rather than show that they couldn't afford mahogany. The piano leg story seems to have originated in Captain Frederick Marryat's 1839 book, Diary in America, as a satirical comment on American prissiness.
Victorian manners, however, may have been as strict as imagined -- on the surface. One simply did not speak publicly about sex, childbirth, and such matters, at least in the respectable middle and upper classes. However, as is well known, discretion covered a multitude of sins. Prostitution flourished. Upper-class men and women indulged in adulterous liaisons, in French fashion. Then of course there were the artists and bohemians, as well as the lower classes.
Some people now look back on the Victorian era with wistful nostalgia. They imagine a dream world of lacy dresses, lavish balls, country house parties, and charming cottages surrounded by old-fashioned flowers (see, for example, the paintings of Thomas Kinkade). Historians would say that this is as much a distortion of the real history as the stereotypes emphasizing Victorian repression and prudery.
Also notable is a contemporary counter-cultural trend called steampunk. Youth who dress steampunk wear Victorian-style clothing that has been "tweaked" in edgy ways: tattered, distorted, melded with Goth, Punk, and Rivet styles.
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