The Writer’s Guide to 1830s Women’s Fashion

The 1830s continued the trend of brash, exuberant styles from the previous decade. However, by the middle of the decade, bold trends were suddenly reigned in for a more understated and modest look as Romanticism gave way to the Gothic Revival.

The coronation of Queen Victoria in 1837 had a large impact on women’s fashions and officially kicked off the Victorian era.

For an overview of fashion for the entire 19th century, please read my Writer’s Guide to 19th Century Fashion.

Long Live the Queen (of Fashion)

Just as with most monarchs before and after her, Queen Victoria had an outsized impact on fashion. Whatever the queen wore, almost every woman in the empire wanted to wear as well. Victoria preferred restrained and modest styles and was leery of new trends. Her ascension to the throne was likely a big contributing factor to the sudden shift in the aesthetic at the middle of the decade. [1]

Queen Victoria’s coronation portrait, 1837. Photo source.

Undergarments

The base layer was still the linen or cotton chemise. During this decade, it came to the knees and had narrow elbow length sleeves.

The corset was worn over it and extended to the hips. It could be lightly structured with cording or more heavily stiffened with baleen boning. Thanks to the introduction of the metal eyelet, corsets could now be tight-laced. They also had gored cups for the breasts.

Since the fashionable silhouette demanded ever-widening skirts, multiple layers of petticoats were required. [2] Some were starched or corded for extra support and width.

A bum pad known as a bustle was worn tied around the waist. It supported the skirts in the back. [3]

Since sleeves became so outrageously wide during this period, it became necessary for women to wear padded sleeve supports also known as sleeve plumpers tied around their upper arm. Although usually stuffed with feathers they could also be reinforced with wire or buckram. {4]

1835 undergarments consisting of a chemise, corset, sleeve supports, and petticoat. Photo source.

Dresses: 1830-1836

As I mentioned in the introduction, the styles at the beginning of this decade were brash, bold, and wide. The most striking feature was the sleeves known as gigot or leg-of-mutton. They often were wider than the waist and required undergarment supports for them to keep their shape. The volume could extend down the length of the arm or be confined to the upper arm with a fitted forearm or be banded at intervals to create a series of puffs. [5] Sleeves were long for daytime but short and puffed for evening. Sometimes a long sleeve of gauze overlaid the short evening sleeve. [6] A sloping line from the shoulder into the sleeve was fashionable.

Necklines were usually wide. For evening, they were almost off the shoulder although summer dresses sometimes had similar necklines but with long sleeves. Morning dresses usually had high necklines.

The waistline was just above the natural waist and was nipped in and fitted. A lot of emphasis was placed on the waist with all bodice styles incorporating a V shape.

Skirts were wide and ended just above the ankle. [7]

Riding habits were a popular style and were made with the fashionable wide sleeves and skirts.

An 1833 fashion plate. Photo source.
Riding habits with the trendy wide sleeves. Photo source.

Dresses: 1836-1840

Beginning in 1836, the necklines began to rise and the skirts to lengthen. The fullness of the sleeves moved down on the arm and the volume at the top was often pleated to control it. Going into the 1840’s, the sleeves began to narrow.

An American 1837 dress. The Philadelphia Museum of Art. Photo source.

Outerwear

Due to the wide necklines, shawls became popular again.

Ankle-length mantles were fashionable until about 1836 when they were shortened and became known as mantlets or shawl-mantlets. They had points which hung down in the front. There was also a three-quarter length mantle known as a burnous, named after the garment from Arabia. A paletot was a knee-length mantle with slits for the arms instead of sleeves. The pardessus was a half or three-quarter length coat with sleeves. [8]

Hairstyles & Headwear

At the beginning of the decade, hairstyles were flamboyant to match the clothing fashions. “Spaniel curls” over the ears were still popular from the previous decade while the rest of the hair was looped, braided, or curled into a high bun. The Apollo knot and the hairstyle à la Chinoise were two of the styles. [9] Hairstyles for evening were elaborate and heavily decorated. [10]

Throughout the decade, it was customary for married women to wear white day caps indoors and under their headwear. [11] They would continue wearing headwear for evening. Turbans were a popular choice. [12]

The hats and bonnets of the early 1830’s were also large and heavily bedecked with feathers, trim, and flowers. They usually had a high crown and a wide brim.

With the shift in the middle of the decade, hairstyles and headwear changed as well. The “spaniel curls” disappeared and hair was often parted in the center and brushed back into a low bun. The brim of hats and bonnets became narrower, the latter often concealing the face. [13]

A fashion plate of hat and hairstyles from 1831. Photo source.
Fashionable bonnets and hair from 1838. Photo source.

Footwear

Flat slippers with square toes made of fabric or leather were the standard footwear. During this decade, low boots with an elastic inset were introduced. [14]

Accessories

During the beginning of the decade, wide white pelerines were worn over the shoulders and added to the wide silhouette. Belts were a popular accessory. Long gloves were worn for evening.

Jewelry was abundant with brooches, drop earrings, bracelets (sometimes worn in pairs), and long decorative chains being popular. [15]


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Copyright © 2021 Rebecca Shedd. All rights reserved.

[1] Bassett, Lynne Z. Gothic to Goth: Romantic Era Fashion and Its Legacy. Hartford: Connecticut Wadsworth Antheneum Museum of Art, 2016 p. 30
Byrde, Penelope. Nineteenth Century Fashion. London: Batsford, 1992 p. 46.
[2] Byrde, Penelope. Nineteenth Century Fashion. London: Batsford, 1992 p. 41-42.
[3] Tortora, Phyllis G. and Keith Eubank. Survey of Historic Costume, 5th ed. New York: Fairchild Books, 2010 p. 332.
[4] Lynn, Eleri. Underwear: Fashion in Detail. London: V&A Publishing, 2010 p. 168.
[5] Byrde, Penelope. Nineteenth Century Fashion. London: Batsford, 1992 p. 39. 
Johnston 76; Tortora 333; Foster 56
[6] Byrde, Penelope. Nineteenth Century Fashion. London: Batsford, 1992 p. 40.
[7] Byrde, Penelope. Nineteenth Century Fashion. London: Batsford, 1992 p. 41.
[8] Tortora, Phyllis G. and Keith Eubank. Survey of Historic Costume, 5th ed. New York: Fairchild Books, 2010 p. 286.
[9] Foster, Vanda. A Visual History of Costume: The Nineteenth Century. London: BT Batsford, 1984 p. 13, 54. 
Tortora, Phyllis G. and Keith Eubank. Survey of Historic Costume, 5th ed. New York: Fairchild Books, 2010 p. 334.
[10] Tortora, Phyllis G. and Keith Eubank. Survey of Historic Costume, 5th ed. New York: Fairchild Books, 2010 p. 334.
[11] Ginsburg, Madeliene. The Hat: Trends and Traditions. London: Studio Editions, 1990 p. 77.
Tortora, Phyllis G. and Keith Eubank. Survey of Historic Costume, 5th ed. New York: Fairchild Books, 2010 p. 334.
[12] Byrde, Penelope. Nineteenth Century Fashion. London: Batsford, 1992 p. 45.
[13] Cunnington, C. Willett. English Women’s Clothing in the Nineteenth Century: A Comprehensive Guide with 1,117 Illustrations. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 1990 p. 122.
[14] Payne 1969, p. 507
[15] Byrde, Penelope. Nineteenth Century Fashion. London: Batsford, 1992 p. 44-45. 
Tortora, Phyllis G. and Keith Eubank. Survey of Historic Costume, 5th ed. New York: Fairchild Books, 2010 p. 340.

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