The Writer’s Guide to 1850s Women’s Fashion

In the 1850s, the silhouette for women widened again, this time with a focus on the skirt. Although width was also reintroduced to the sleeves with the popularity of the bell-shaped pagoda sleeve. The sobriety of the 1840s was replaced by a love of color, pattern, and trim. Technology was also having a greater impact with the debut of the Singer sewing machine and the development of the first synthetic dyes.

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

Silhouette

Sloping shoulders, a small waist, and a wide domed skirt were the fashionable silhouette for the 1850s. Increasingly, dresses were two separate pieces: the skirt and the bodice or jacket. The fashion extremes of this decade were roundly satirized and mocked in the press.

An 1859 fashion plate showing the wide stylish silhouette. Godey’s Lady Book. Photo source.

Innovations

The 1850s saw the introduction of several innovations that changed fashion.

In 1851, Isaac Singer began selling his lock stitch sewing machine. Although it was patented in the 1840s, this decade was the first time it was commercially available. The machine became incredibly popular for home sewing, and even professional Parisian dressmakers began using it. [1] It sped up the sewing process substantially. Soon women’s magazines such as Godey’s Lady Book began printing patterns and diagrams for the latest fashions. [2]

In 1856, William Perkin, an English chemist, accidentally invented the first synthetic aniline dye. He was attempting to make quinine, a malaria treatment, but noticed when he was cleaning up his mistake that it stained his cloth. He named the rich purple color “mauveine” and opened his own factory a year later. [3] The color became wildly popular and was even championed by Queen Victoria herself. Other chemists quickly followed in his footsteps. [4]

An American dress from 1856-1858 dyed “mauveine.” Photo source.

Titans of Fashion

In 1858, Charles Worth opened his own design house in Paris. He would become a powerhouse of fashion for the rest of the century with an impressive list of clientele that included Empress Eugénie, Sarah Bernhardt, Lillie Langtry, Jenny Lind, and Nellie Melba. [5]

Empress Eugénie was a Spanish countess who married Napoleon III in 1853. [6] Gagelin, where Worth was employed, supplied her trousseau. [7] After he established his own house, the empress named him as her court designer. The empress carefully cultivated her appearance for public occasions and her style made her a fashion setter into the 1860s. She also helped popularize the new “mauveine” dye. [8]

Charles Worth. Photo source.
Empress Eugénie. Photo source.

Undergarments

The linen or cotton chemise was worn as the first layer.

Over that was the corset. Since the waistline had risen back to the natural waist from the previous decade, the corset flared at the hips. Also, tight lacing was less important. [9]

To achieve the fashionable wide skirt, a copious number of petticoats was required, up to seven. One of them was usually a crinoline, a skirt stiffened with horsehair and pintucks, or a corded petticoat, which used cording. All that weight could cause back problems and put women in danger of accidentally sticking their skirts in the fire.

In 1856, the cage crinoline was introduced. It was a framework stiffened by metal wire that held the skirts out. It reduced the number of petticoats needed, which cut down on the weight. [10] It also allowed skirts to become wider than ever. [11] Contrary to popular belief and depictions in movies, cage crinolines were lightweight and flexible. They were not a solid structure. The wire hoops could be compressed to pass through doorways and other tight spaces. They also folded in on themselves when the woman sat. Cage crinolines were cheap and therefore available even to the lower class. [12] I highly recommend you watch this video by Prior Attire to see how easy it was to move in a cage crinoline. L2

Because of the greater risk of a swinging cage crinoline exposing a woman’s legs (or more!), both the modesty skirt and the pantalette were worn. The modesty skirt was a simple, narrow, knee-length skirt, usually made of linen or cotton worn under the chemise. Pantalettes were long drawers that had been previously only worn by children. [13] They commonly had an open crotch seam to make going to the bathroom in a cage crinoline easier. Combinations, which married the chemise and pantalettes into one garment, were becoming more popular.

An illustration of a woman wearing a cage crinoline. Photo source.

Day Dress

As mentioned before, dresses had become two pieces and it became common for them to come in sets: a skirt with a matching daytime jacket and an evening bodice. These sets were prevalent for wedding dresses. Silk was the most popular fabric, although cotton and wool were also used. Wild colors and patterns such as plaids and stripes were all the rage. [14] Skirts and bodices were commonly trimmed with braid, fringe, cording, ribbons, and bows, with military style braid work, such as that seen on the zouave jacket, being especially popular. [15]

For daytime, bodices and jackets usually had high necklines, long sleeves and a straight or curved waistline. [16] Sleeves widened and by 1857 the bell-shaped pagoda sleeve was popular. [17] The wide sleeves were filled in with false sleeves called engageantes. [18] Separate collars of fabric or lace were pinned or tacked to the high neckline. A popular decoration for daytime bodices was the bretelles, a V-shaped piece of fabric or trim that extended from the shoulders to the center of the waist. [19]

A cutaway zouave jacket with wide pagoda sleeves. Photo source.

Eveningwear

Evening bodices had wide necklines that were almost off the shoulder with short, puffed sleeves. [20] Berthas were still a popular embellishment.

Rows of flounces on skirts became trendy and added to the width. [21]

A blue silk evening dress. Photo source.

Outerwear

The shawl was still popular, especially those from India. Although weavers in Scotland, England, and France were busy churning out cheaper imitations. [22] The mantles of the previous decades were also common.

An 1853 fashion plate showing three women in mantles. Photo source.

Hairstyles & Headwear

The simple styles of the 1840s were popular with a center part and the hair brushed over the ears into a low bun at the nape. [23] In paintings and photographs of the time, many have puffed out the hair over their ears.

Bonnets were still standard headwear when leaving the home. However, in this decade the brim shortened, and the bonnet was worn further back on the head. [24] The caps of the previous decades shrunk, becoming little more than lace embellishments at the back of the head.

Hair from 1851. Photo source.

Footwear

For daytime, the classic lace or button up “granny boot” that we all think of as the quintessential Victorian shoe, was the standard. [25] For evening, low silk or leather slippers were worn.

Accessories

The accessories from the previous decade were still popular, including the reticule (especially with the scarcity of integral pockets), the parasol, the muff, and the fan. Gloves were also common for both daytime and evening.

The Dress Reform Movement

The satirical cartoonists weren’t the only ones discontent with the decade’s fashions. In 1851, a group of women in Seneca Falls, New York, Elizabeth Smith Miller, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Amelia Jenks Bloomer, introduced their reform outfit. It consisted of a calf-length skirt over “Turkish trousers,” which were promptly nicknamed “bloomers” after Amelia. [26] The dress reform movement also frowned on the tight-laced restrictive corset. The bloomer costume became linked with the early feminist movement. However, it never caught on and many people were offended at the idea of women wearing trousers. [27]

Amelia Bloomer in the 1851 reform outfit. 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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Copyright © 2021 Rebecca Shedd. All rights reserved.

[1] Tortora, Phyllis G. and Keith Eubank. Survey of Historic Costume, 5th ed. New York: Fairchild Books, 2010 p. 352, 358.
Cunnington, C. Willett. English Women’s Clothing in the Nineteenth Century: A Comprehensive Guide with 1,117 Illustrations. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 1990 p. 192.
[2] Severa, Joan L. Dressed for the Photographer: Ordinary Americans and Fashion 1840-1900. Kent, OH: Kent State UP, 1995 p. 90-91.
[3] Tortora, Phyllis G. and Keith Eubank. Survey of Historic Costume, 5th ed. New York: Fairchild Books, 2010 p. 361.
[4] Garfield, Simon. Mauve: How One Man Invented a Color That Changed the World. New York: W.W. Norton, 2000 p. 65, 78.
[5] Krick, Jessa. "Charles Frederick Worth (1825–1895) and The House of Worth". Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Retrieved 13 October 2012.
[6] Seward, Desmond. Eugénie: The Empress and Her Empire. London: Thistle Publishing, 2013 ch. 1-2.
[7] "Charles Frederick Worth". designerindex.net. Archived from the original on 26 December 2012. Retrieved 13 October 2012.
[8] Garfield, Simon. Mauve: How One Man Invented a Color That Changed the World. New York: W.W. Norton, 2000 p. 59-61.
[9] Cunnington, C. Willett. English Women’s Clothing in the Nineteenth Century: A Comprehensive Guide with 1,117 Illustrations. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 1990 p. 192.
Severa, Joan L. Dressed for the Photographer: Ordinary Americans and Fashion 1840-1900. Kent, OH: Kent State UP, 1995 p. 98.
[10] Bruna, Denis, ed. Fashioning the Body: An Intimate History of the Silhouette. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015 p. 178-179.
[11] 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. 41.
[12] Foster, Vanda. A Visual History of Costume: The Nineteenth Century. London: BT Batsford, 1984 p. 14.
[13] Severa, Joan L. Dressed for the Photographer: Ordinary Americans and Fashion 1840-1900. Kent, OH: Kent State UP, 1995 p. 99.
Lynn, Eleri, Richard Davis, and Leonie Davis. Underwear: Fashion in Detail. London: V&A Publications, 2010 p. 170.
[14] Severa, Joan L. Dressed for the Photographer: Ordinary Americans and Fashion 1840-1900. Kent, OH: Kent State UP, 1995 p. 95, 155.
[15] Johnston, Lucy, Marion Kite, Helen Persson, Richard Davis, and Leonie Davis. Nineteenth Century Fashion in Detail. London: V&A Publications, 2005 p. 178.
[16] Severa, Joan L. Dressed for the Photographer: Ordinary Americans and Fashion 1840-1900. Kent, OH: Kent State UP, 1995 p. 175.
[17] Foster, Vanda. A Visual History of Costume: The Nineteenth Century. London: BT Batsford, 1984 p. 83.
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. 37.
[18] Tortora, Phyllis G. and Keith Eubank. Survey of Historic Costume, 5th ed. New York: Fairchild Books, 2010 p. 363.
[19] 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. 37.
[20] Tortora, Phyllis G. and Keith Eubank. Survey of Historic Costume, 5th ed. New York: Fairchild Books, 2010 p. 365.
[21] Severa, Joan L. Dressed for the Photographer: Ordinary Americans and Fashion 1840-1900. Kent, OH: Kent State UP, 1995 p. 96.
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. 37.
[22] 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. 192.
Severa, Joan L. Dressed for the Photographer: Ordinary Americans and Fashion 1840-1900. Kent, OH: Kent State UP, 1995 p. 103.
[23] Severa, Joan L. Dressed for the Photographer: Ordinary Americans and Fashion 1840-1900. Kent, OH: Kent State UP, 1995 p. 155.
[24] Shrimpton, Jayne. Victorian Fashion. Oxford: Shire Publications, 2016 p. 12.
[25] Laver, James. Costume and Fashion: A Concise History, 5th ed. London: Thames & Hudson, Ltd, 2012 p. 184.
[26] Fischer, Gayle V. Pantaloons and Power: A Nineteenth-Century Dress Reform in the United States. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 2001 p. 79.
[27] Laver, James. Costume and Fashion: A Concise History, 5th ed. London: Thames & Hudson, Ltd, 2012 p. 181-182.
Fischer, Gayle V. Pantaloons and Power: A Nineteenth-Century Dress Reform in the United States. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 2001 p. 3, 83-85.

6 Comments on “The Writer’s Guide to 1850s Women’s Fashion”

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