Dresses of the Victorian era were large for a reason. They were inconvenient in so many ways.
There are different periods of the Victorian era.
As with the Regency era, early Victorian dresses were flowy, with empire waistlines, and lacked petticoats.
Crinolines with full hoop skirts are awkward as hell in the mid Victorian period. They are actually quite cool during the summer. Your legs are kept cool by the skirt which sways.
As the skirts are actually separate pieces, the late Victorian era dresses are exceptionally versatile and comfortable.
It’s not the clothes that are uncomfortable, it’s the underwear. Before a Victorian woman would even consider dressing, she would put on a shift, stockings, boots/shoes (you can’t do that after you have laced your corset), a corset cover, a hoop skirt, petticoats (sometimes as many as 4), and bloomers (those hoop skirts tended to catch the wind, exposing more skin than was appropriate). Her clothes could only be put on after that.
Ideally laced and fitted corsets are fantastically comfortable. I’ve never felt more secure and comfortable wearing a corset than I do when I wear them. My body feels embraced in them. The wrong corset will torture you.
All of them were not large. They were not worn by the women crossing the plains on the Oregon trail. Neither were they worn by the women working in factories. Subsistence farmers in New England and the Midwest were not wearing them.
At the time of their invention, large dresses were fashionable, just as stilettos of seven inches are today.
It is a warped view of what people wore in the 19th century if you rely only on Godey’s illustrated prints to study 19th century clothing. There were morning dresses, walking dresses, seaside costumes, riding habits, dinner dresses, and ball gowns featured in the magazine every month. The large majority of readers of the magazine would not need such an extensive wardrobe, since their clothes could be divided into social and domestic wear, with a few seasonal additions for summer and winter. Several other magazines followed suit, including Peterson’s, Arthur’s, Graham’s, Leslie’s, and Harper’s.
Nineteenth-century clothing is particularly captivating to students of historic fashion because it represents the first time that extensive photographic documentation of what people actually wore has been available. The study is no longer merely limited to interpretations of the hand-drawn or engraved fashion plates that women of the period aspired to.
Despite this, these portraits should not be drawn in too broad a sense. As studio portraits, the images do not provide the informal insight of twenty-century candid snapshots, which show a variety of apparel in various settings. Furthermore, clothing worn in a studio photograph was usually that person’s “best dress,” as middle-class Americans of the mid-nineteenth century lacked the depth of their wardrobes today.
Whatever extravagances a woman could afford to acquire, the “look” she aspired to was the same. To give the appearance of a narrow waist, women during the Civil War period wore tight-fitting clothing. Almost every line of garments emphasized the narrow waist by creating the illusion of wide shoulders and hips. The physical appearance of the body was further altered by foundation garments.