The Writer’s Guide to 19th Century Fashion

The 19th century saw fundamental changes to society and technology as well as fashion. In previous centuries, the fashions of Europe only impacted that continent and perhaps their few colonies. But with the advent of better means of travel and communication, the styles of Europe spread around the world. In several ways, 19th century Western trends still impact us now.

Today I will be introducing the basics of 19th century fashion and will be diving deeper over the coming weeks.

Once the world returns to normal, I highly encourage you to attend a Victorian or American Civil War reenactment event near you. Most of the participants have extensive knowledge of the clothing of the period and are often happy to share it.

A Changing World

There were several major upheavals that impacted fashion in the 19th century.

Probably one of the biggest was the Industrial Revolution, a period of extreme technological growth and innovation. Modern production methods and new machinery were introduced, and the textile industry was one of the first to jump on the bandwagon. Spinning and weaving that had been done by hand before was now being done by machine, leading to increased productivity. [1] The first widely used sewing machine was invented in 1830. The earliest machines were operated using a foot-powered treadle or a hand crank. Although this limited their speed, they were still faster than sewing by hand. The first electric machines were introduced in 1889 by the Singer Sewing Co. [2] The introduction of the heavily regimented factory also increased output and lowered prices.

The beginning of globalization, spurred on by capitalism and colonialism, connected suppliers and consumers from around the world like never before. The British Empire is one example. Due to its reach, shoppers in London could purchase Indian cotton, Chinese silk, and other global fabrics and styles, often at affordable prices from the new department stores.

Queen Victoria of Britain, who ruled from 1838 to 1901, had an enormous impact on fashion. She put special effort in supporting the British textile industry and made style choices that were emulated around the globe.

Harding, Howell & Co. of London, possibly one of the first department stores in the world. Photo source.

Women’s Fashion

Women’s fashions changed dramatically through the century. The pace of style increased and shifted from decade to decade. This section will just be brief overview and I will be looking at each decade in depth in future posts.

The Empire period (1799-1815), named after Napoleon’s First French Empire, was still influenced by the classical styles of the end of the 18th century. Dresses were slim and columnar with short sleeves and empire waistlines. Stays became shorter. These styles are also called Jane Austen dress after the English author, whose most well-known books such as Pride and Prejudice are set in this period.

The Regency period, named for George, the Prince Regent of Britain, stretched from 1811-1820. Waistlines began to drop, fabrics became more substantial, and skirts began to widen with the use of flounced or corded petticoats. Wigs were no longer worn, and hair was not powdered; bonnets were common. Hairstyles were kept low with ringlets (sometimes called “spaniel curls”) over the ears. [4]

In the 1820’s, waistlines continued to drop, and bright colors and patterns became popular, as opposed to the solid pastels of the last 18th century. [5] Sleeves and skirts continued to widen with an increase in embellishment at the hems. Hair was pulled up in loops at the back with curls in front and covered by a bonnet when outside. Shoes were flat slippers.

The 1830’s saw the widening of both skirts and sleeves with the waist cinched in with a corset. [7] Hair retained the front curls but became taller in the back. [8]

In the 1840’s, sleeves narrowed once more but the width of skirts increased with the use of many, many petticoats. Later into the decade, sleeves that flared below the elbow became popular. The fashionable hairstyle still included “spaniel curls” with the remainder of the hair pinned up in the back. Caps and bonnets were common.

The hoop skirt or crinoline was introduced in the 1850’s, allowing women’s skirts to expand to even greater widths. This decade also saw the rise of bell-shaped pagoda sleeves. Hair became simpler and indoor caps and outdoor bonnets were common.

Women’s skirts reached their widest in the 1860’s and the decade also saw the introduction of the first chemical dyes. [10] Wide pagoda sleeves were still the rage. Hair was styled simply, usually pulled back and caps and bonnets were common.

The 1870’s, known as the first bustle period, saw the volume of women’s skirts move to the back with the help of tapes and a bustle. Two skirts became popular. The bustle craze was short-lived and was replaced by a long-line bodice known as a cuirass.

The 1880’s saw the second bustle period with the volume of skirts rising from the bottom to just below the waist. Corseting was essential for achieving the dramatic and fashionable S-shaped silhouette.

The silhouette of the 1890’s slimmed from the previous decade with a hip pad being the only skirt support. The large “leg of mutton” sleeves of the 1830’s made a comeback. The corset became longer, producing a slight S-bend silhouette.

A timeline of 19th century women’s fashion. Photo source.
19th century women’s underwear. Photo source.

Men’s Fashion

Men’s styles were still dominated by the three-piece suit although it changed from its elaborately embellished 18th century origins. Under the influence of the dandy, colors became darker and more sober with an emphasis on impeccable tailoring and fit. [3]

During the Empire period, pantaloons, which reached to the calf, were worn along with breeches. They both began to fade in popularity and were almost completely replaced by trousers by the Regency period. Wigs had been abandoned altogether. Hair became shorter and facial hair made a reappearance with sideburns being popular.

In the 1820’s, the influence of the dandy led to an emphasis on tailoring and a slim figure. Men’s corsets became more widely used. The construction of coats changed, with the addition of a waist seam that improved the fit. Trousers became looser and the top hat reappeared. [6] Curly hair with sideburns was popular.

Men’s fashions of the 1830’s also put an emphasis on wide shoulders and a small waist, the same as the women. [9] Frock coats became more common, and waistcoats were single or double breasted. The modern fly-front closure for trousers was replacing the fall-front. Moustaches came into fashion.

The fashionable style for the men in the 1840’s was like the previous decade. Ascots and cravats were common. Different styles of coats were required for varying social occasions. Prince Albert, the husband of Queen Victoria, emerged as a trendsetter.

The 1850’s saw little change in men’s fashions although a new style of coat, the sack coat, became popular. It fitted loosely and came to mid-thigh and was popular for outdoor pursuits. Facial hair of all styles became incredibly trendy.

In the 1860’s the sack coat almost completely displaced the frock coat for informal occasions. Top hats became taller and straighter. The bowler hat became popular as casual headwear.

Patterned shirts became accepted in the 1870’s and neckties were replaced with ascots. Collars were pressed down instead of standing up. Blue jeans were introduced by Levi Strauss in 1873 in San Francisco. [11]

The 1880’s saw a return of the popularity of the “ditto suit,” coat, waistcoat, and trousers made of the same fabric, today known as a three piece. The middle of the decade also saw the introduction of the tuxedo, a more relaxed formal style.

Men’s silhouettes also became leaner and simpler in the 1890’s. The sack coat gradually replaced the frock coat for most social occasions. The informal blazer was also introduced. The necktie and bowtie were popular. Top hat and bowlers were still stylish but straw boaters became fashionable for outdoor activities.

Men’s fashions from 1800-1849. Photo source.
Men’s fashions from 1850-1894. Photo source.

I hope this was helpful. Let me know if you have any questions or suggestions by using the Contact Me form on my website or writing a comment. I post every Friday and would be grateful if you would share my content.

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Let’s get writing!

Copyright © 2021 Rebecca Shedd. All rights reserved.

[1] Landes, D.S. (1969). The Unbound Prometheus: technological change and industrial development in Western Europe from 1750 to present. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
[2] "Sewing Machine History – Invention of the Sewing Machine". Archived from the original on 2010-11-24. Retrieved 2010-09-12.
[3] Payne 1865, pp. 452–455
[4] Thomas, Pauline. "Regency & Romantic Hairstyles and Hats 1800–1840 Fashion History".
[5] Tozer and Levitt (1983), p. 29
[6] Kohler, Carl (1963). A History of Costume. New York, NY: Dover Publications. pp. 372–373.
[7] Tortora and Eubank 1994, p. 278
[8] Payne 1969, p. 505
[9] Payne 1969, p. 458
[10] Travis, Anthony S., "Perkin’s Mauve: Ancestor of the Organic Chemical Industry", Technology and Culture 31 (1), 1990 pp. 51–82
[11] http://www.uri.edu/personal/svon6141/history.htm Archived 2011-07-20 at the Wayback Machine The History of Jeans

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