The Writer’s Guide to 1840s Women’s Fashion

The 1840s continued the somber formal trend that had begun in 1836. The depictions of and expectations for women changed. With the fading of Romanticism, carefree exuberance was replaced by a cultivated austerity and a focus on domesticity. Queen Victoria was a big reason for this shift. She married Prince Albert on February 10th, 1840, and gave birth to their first child on November 21, 1840. They went on to have nine children in seventeen years.

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

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in 1841. Photo source.

Underwear

The standard first layer was still a linen or cotton chemise or shift. During this decade they often had a drawstring neck that allowed for adjustment between different necklines.

The corset was an important structural undergarment and was stiffened by heavy cording and whalebone. They laced in the back and most also had a pocket in the front for a busk. [1] The corset flattened and spread out the bust. [2]

Petticoats were essential for creating the fashionable wide and dome-shape skirt silhouette. A woman would wear at least two and up to seven. [3] One was usually stiffened with pintucks, horsehair, or wool weft to provide width and support. [4] The bum pad or bustle from the 1830s continued to be used at the beginning of the decade before disappearing. [5]

An 1840s corset. Photo source.

Dresses

The fashionable silhouette of the 1840s consisted of a long, pointed waistline, narrow sleeves, sloping shoulders, and a wide, floor-length skirt in a dome shape. Trim and embellishment were uncommon with the fabric being the real star of the show. Silk was becoming more widely used and became acceptable for daytime. It was particularly suited to the crisp front points and wide pleated skirts of the era. Shot silk was especially popular. With the warp and weft different colors, the fabric subtly shifted hue. [6] Wool, cotton, and linen were also used but for morning and informal dresses. Patterns, such as plaid, florals, and stripes, were popular. Most women’s clothing was either made at home or by a seamstress, with only corsets, cloaks, and mantles available readymade. [7]

Bodices were tailored to fit snugly and smoothly and often came to a sharp point, although it softened to a rounded curve by the end of the decade. [8] Gathering, shearing, and pleating was a popular form of embellishment. [9] By the late 1840s, darts had become more common. [10] Various necklines were seen including a V or a wide and shallow curve for dressier daytime gowns [11] Evening dresses had a wide long neckline that was almost off the shoulder and usually embellished with a bertha, a pleated or hanging panel of fabric that covered the short sleeves. [12]

The voluminous sleeves of the 1830s continued until about 1842 when they were replaced by a narrow, fitted sleeve. They were usually cut on the bias, resulting in patterned fabric appearing to spiral up the arm. [13] Sleeve caps were common and were sometimes embellished with fringe or ribbon. [14] The sleeves began to loosen going further into the decade, opening into a narrow bell shape, and predicting the pagoda sleeves of the 1850s.

A new technique for pleating skirts was introduced in 1841: gauging, also known as organ or cartridge pleating. This method allowed the fabric to “spring” out from the waistline and create the distinctive dome-shape of the decade. It also allowed for more fabric to be used, increasing the width of skirts. Since the hemlines had lengthened, a band was added inside at the hem to protect them from wear. [15]

Pelerines were commonly worn outside the home. They were a light, cape-like garment that covered the top of the dress and extended to the elbows. They often had long lappets in the front. [16]

An 1848 fashion plate showing the fashionable silhouette. Photo source.
A detail of pleating on an 1845 dress. Photo source.
An 1843 evening dress with a bertha. Photo source.
A woman wearing a pelerine. Photo source.

Outerwear

Mantles, mantlets, coats, and jackets were popular and were generically referred to as pardessus. [17] There were also ankle-length cloaks with slits for the arms covered by cape-collars. The shawl had returned to popularity. While those from India were the most highly prized, mills throughout Europe churned out imitations. [18]

Hairstyles & Headwear

“Spaniel curls” were still popular from the previous decades but the bun or chignon moved down from the top of the head to the nape. [19] Hair was usually parted in the center. Another popular style was smoothing the sides over the ears and tucking it into the bun.

Linen or cotton caps were worn by married and conservative women indoors. They could be plain or adorned with lace, ribbons, and frills. [20]

The bonnet was practically mandatory for outdoors. The brim became narrower around the face and extended past it, limiting the peripheral vision. [21] This style was named the “coal-scuttle” bonnet after the buckets used to carry coal. [22] Married women wore their caps under their bonnets. They were less decorated that previous decades, mainly with flowers on the inside of the brim or a veil.

“Spaniel curls,” 1842. Photo source.
A woman wearing a bonnet (left) and a cap (right). Photo source.

Footwear

Stockings made of silk, cotton or wool came above the knee and were secured with ribbon garters.

Shoes for daytime were usually boots with low thick heels. They typically extended from the ankle up to the mid-calf and could be buttoned or laced.

Accessories

Several accessories were popular including fans, parasols, and muffs. Gloves were worn for evening, usually opera-length, and some daytime occasions. Reticules were necessary for carrying belongings since integral pockets were uncommon.


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Copyright © 2021 Rebecca Shedd. All rights reserved.

[1] Cunnington, Phillis. The History of Underclothes. London: Michael Joseph, 1951 p. 148-149.
[2] Severa, Joan L. Dressed for the Photographer: Ordinary Americans and Fashion 1840-1900. Kent, OH: Kent State UP, 1995 p. 8.
[3] Bruna, Denis, ed. Fashioning the Body: An Intimate History of the Silhouette. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015 p. 178.
Severa, Joan L. Dressed for the Photographer: Ordinary Americans and Fashion 1840-1900. Kent, OH: Kent State UP, 1995 p. 17.
[4] Cunnington, Phillis. The History of Underclothes. London: Michael Joseph, 1951 p. 145.
[5] Thieme, Otto C., Elizabeth A. Coleman, Michelle Oberly, and Patricia Cunningham. With Grace and Favor: Victorian & Edwardian Fashion in America. Cincinatti: Cincinatti Art Museum, 1993 p. 35.
Byrde, Penelope. Nineteenth Century Fashion. London: Batsford, 1992 p. 50.
[6] Shrimpton, Jayne. Victorian Fashion. Oxford: Shire Publications, 2016 p. 9.
Thieme, Otto C., Elizabeth A. Coleman, Michelle Oberly, and Patricia Cunningham. With Grace and Favor: Victorian & Edwardian Fashion in America. Cincinatti: Cincinatti Art Museum, 1993 p. 35.
[7] Tortora, Phyllis G. and Keith Eubank. Survey of Historic Costume, 5th ed. New York: Fairchild Books, 2010 p. 330.
[8] Severa, Joan L. Dressed for the Photographer: Ordinary Americans and Fashion 1840-1900. Kent, OH: Kent State UP, 1995 p. 75.
[9] Fukai, Akiko, ed. The Collection of the Kyoto Costume Institute: Fashion, A History from the 18th Century to the 20th Century. Kyoto: Taschen, 2013 p. 180-181.
Tortora, Phyllis G. and Keith Eubank. Survey of Historic Costume, 5th ed. New York: Fairchild Books, 2010 p. 335-336.
[10] Severa, Joan L. Dressed for the Photographer: Ordinary Americans and Fashion 1840-1900. Kent, OH: Kent State UP, 1995 p. 9, 43.
[11] Cunnington, C. Willett. English Women’s Clothing in the Nineteenth Century: A Comprehensive Guide with 1,117 Illustrations. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 1990 p. 135.
[12] Tortora, Phyllis G. and Keith Eubank. Survey of Historic Costume, 5th ed. New York: Fairchild Books, 2010 p. 336.
[13] Thieme, Otto C., Elizabeth A. Coleman, Michelle Oberly, and Patricia Cunningham. With Grace and Favor: Victorian & Edwardian Fashion in America. Cincinatti: Cincinatti Art Museum, 1993 p 27.
[14] Severa, Joan L. Dressed for the Photographer: Ordinary Americans and Fashion 1840-1900. Kent, OH: Kent State UP, 1995 p. 7-9.
[15] Severa, Joan L. Dressed for the Photographer: Ordinary Americans and Fashion 1840-1900. Kent, OH: Kent State UP, 1995 p. 8.
[16] Thieme, Otto C., Elizabeth A. Coleman, Michelle Oberly, and Patricia Cunningham. With Grace and Favor: Victorian & Edwardian Fashion in America. Cincinatti: Cincinatti Art Museum, 1993 p 31-35.
Cumming 153
[17] Shrimpton, Jayne. Victorian Fashion. Oxford: Shire Publications, 2016 p 10.
Tortora, Phyllis G. and Keith Eubank. Survey of Historic Costume, 5th ed. New York: Fairchild Books, 2010 p. 338.
[18] Laver, James. Costume and Fashion: A Concise History, 5th ed. London: Thames & Hudson, Ltd, 2012 p. 175.
[19] Foster, Vanda. A Visual History of Costume: The Nineteenth Century. London: BT Batsford, 1984 p. 13.
Severa, Joan L. Dressed for the Photographer: Ordinary Americans and Fashion 1840-1900. Kent, OH: Kent State UP, 1995 p. 43.
[20] Tortora, Phyllis G. and Keith Eubank. Survey of Historic Costume, 5th ed. New York: Fairchild Books, 2010 p. 338.
[21] Foster, Vanda. A Visual History of Costume: The Nineteenth Century. London: BT Batsford, 1984 p. 13.
Severa, Joan L. Dressed for the Photographer: Ordinary Americans and Fashion 1840-1900. Kent, OH: Kent State UP, 1995 p. 10-11.
[22] Buck, Anne (1997). Victorian costume and costume accessories. Costume & Fashion Press. ISBN 0896762203.

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