Weird History
743 voters

12 Of The Dumbest Things Pop Culture Has Us Believe About The Victorian Era

October 19, 2020 4.3k votes 743 voters 126.6k views12 items

List RulesVote up the Victorian-era tropes that you've seen over and over again.

Thanks to popular movies, television, and books, we've all been fed a bunch of lies about what life was actually like during the Victorian era. According to these beloved forms of entertainment, Victorians were priggish, repressed, and experienced a dozen wardrobe changes throughout the day. These tropes and stereotypes may make for dramatic storytelling, but they couldn't be further from the truth.

Life during the Victorian era was full of contradictions, where strict social codes compelled people to loosen up and have fun on the sly. When Victorians weren't dodging pollution or epidemics, they were experimenting with new trends, beliefs, and inventions. Unlike what you see on the screen, not everyone in Victorian England was white, either. 

  • Photo: Alexander Bassano / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    No One Had A Sense Of Humor

    The Trope: All Victorians maintained a depressive and dreary attitude about life, one completely devoid of humor.

    Why It's Wrong: How could the era that introduced the world to Sherlock Holmes lack any comedic qualities? Sharing jokes was an honored pastime in Victorian England, where the term "laugh and grow fat" was taken very seriously. Professional humorists made their living writing jokes all day, and personal ads were dominated by singles in need of a partner who could make them laugh.

    Notable Offenders: Popular Victorian novelists like Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy reveled in working-class woe, and this tone carried over into many of the BBC adaptations of famous Victorian written works.

  • Photo: Pride & Prejudice / Focus Features

    Everyone Was A Prude

    The Trope: Sex was only a procreative act.

    Why It's Wrong: Sexual education definitely wasn't a thing in the Victorian world, and women were held to much different standards than men. That being said, not all Victorians were sexually repressed. Adult content was easy to find, as were escorts. While the public-facing message was one of chastity, Victorians were engaged in all kinds of lascivious activities behind closed doors.

    Notable Offenders: Published guides to sex and sexuality were popular in the 19th century, but these books favored men much more than women. Books like 1899's What a Young Husband Ought to Know and 1894's Sex Tips for Husbands and Wives uphold these unfair standards that downplay physical desire. "Give little, give seldom and above all give grudgingly. Otherwise what could have been a proper marriage could become an orgy of sexual lust," author Ruth Smythers writes at the end of the latter book.

  • Photo: Enola Holmes / Netflix

    Corsets Were A Symbol Of Female Oppression

    The Trope: Victorian women only wore constraining and tight corsets to please the men around them.

    Why It's Wrong: "The principal writers upon the subject of Corsets have been... men, who, great as is their knowledge of their part of the question, certainly know nothing of ours," writes Madame Roxey A. Caplin in 1864. Far from being manufactured in just one style or shape, corsets came in many varieties to suit various lifestyles and budgets. Corsets were available for those engaged in physical activities, for those of all sizes, and also for pregnant women. Some Victorian physicians even believed corsets strengthened core muscles by providing additional support.

    Notable Offenders: Netflix's Enola Holmes, starring Millie Bobby Brown, reinforces this idea. "The corset: a symbol of repression to those who are forced to wear it," Miss Holmes declares while looking straight into the camera.

  • Photo: The Age of Innocence / Columbia Pictures

    Women Had Expansive Wardrobes

    The Trope: All women maintained endless wardrobes, sometimes wearing a dress just once before retiring it.

    Why It's Wrong: The size of the wardrobe depended upon a woman's budget. Poor and working-class Victorian women, who made up a good chunk of the population, couldn't afford multiple outfits. Dresses, what women were expected to wear at the time, were usually made to order by seamstresses. The invention of the sewing machine in 1851 made dresses more affordable, but there were still economic barriers in place for many women.

    Notable Offenders: Most movies set in the Victorian era focus on the wealthy. Look no further than Martin Scorsese's stunning The Age of Innocence, a dramatic love story set in 1870s New York City. The actors - including Winona Ryder, Daniel Day-Lewis, and Michelle Pfeiffer - are secondary to the elaborate garments they wear throughout the film.