The Writer’s Guide to 1860s Women’s Fashion

The 1860s is a study in contrasts when it comes to fashion. The new bright synthetic dyes and the increasing embellishment and detail competed with expectations for modesty and austerity that reigned during the United States’ Civil War. The biggest statement of the decade’s fashions, however, was the incredible widths that skirts attained.

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

Silhouette

At the beginning of the decade, the fashionable silhouette was a fitted bodice with sloping shoulders and sleeves set below the natural shoulder, a fitted bodice, and a wide, floor-length skirt. The cage crinoline was circular and even all the way around.

Around 1862, the shape of the cage crinoline became elliptical, pushing more of the skirt’s volume to the back. A series of subtle changes to the shape were seen throughout the following years.

By 1868, the fashionable shape was almost flat in the front with most of the volume in the back. [1] The cage crinoline was modified into the crinolette, which only had hoops in the back. [2] This predicted the First Bustle Era.

An 1861 fashion plate of day dresses. Photo source.
An 1869 fashion plate of day dresses. Photo source.

Innovations & Influences

The use of the sewing machine by both home seamstresses and factories exploded. Although Isaac Singer had begun commercially selling his machine 1851, it wasn’t until the 1860s that it was used widely. The massive need for uniforms for the Civil War was a large contributing factor. [3] The amount and variety of readymade clothing for women expanded due to the speed and efficiency of the sewing machine. [4] As a result of this, the new cage crinolines were accessible to women of all social classes because they were cheap and fast to produce. [5]

Other chemists followed in the footsteps of William Perkins and began producing a rainbow of intense synthetic dyes. Two such colors were magenta and solferino, both named after towns in Italy. [6]

The influence of Charles Worth rocketed up through this decade. Even though he had opened his fashion house in 1858, it wasn’t until the 1860s that he cemented his reputation. Princess Pauline von Metternich is credited with helping launch his career. She ordered two gowns from him after reviewing a book of designs sent to her by Worth’s wife, Marie. She only paid 300 francs each after Marie said Worth would make a gown at any price. Her new white tulle evening gown caught the attention of Empress Eugenie, who requested an introduction to the designer.

Princess Pauline in 1860, likely wearing her Worth dress. Photo source.
An 1869-70 evening dress dyed magenta. Photo source.

Underwear

The linen or cotton chemise was still the base layer for all classes of women. It was generally short-sleeved and knee-length. With the introduction of the cage crinoline, drawers, pantelettes, and modesty skirts had become more common.

The corset was an essential support garment and helped to nip in the waist. The wide skirts of the decade made the waist look small by comparison. As result, tight lacing was not necessary. [7] At the beginning of the decade, corsets shortened since the waistline had returned to the natural waist and there was no need to restrict the hips. [8] However, as the volume of the skirts moved to the back and more emphasis was placed on the hips, they lengthened again and became more heavily boned. The dramatic curves were achieved through the shape of the panels and steam molding the boning. Toward the end of the decade, Edwin Izod invented a steam heated copper torso on which a corset soaked in starch was placed to dry. [9] Tight lacing became more common although concerns about the detrimental effects to women’s’ bodies were raised. [10] The split busk was also introduced during this decade. It meant the front fastened with a series of metal loops and posts. This innovation made it was far easier for women to put on their corsets themselves without the help of another person.

The cage crinoline of the previous decade was worn until the introduction of the elliptical cage crinoline, which was in turn replaced by the crinolette. Petticoats were still necessary to provide structure, although not as many needed to be worn.

An 1865 cage crinoline made of steel wire and linen tapes. Photo source.
A crinolette and a split busk corset. Photo source.

Day Dress

Bodices or jackets buttoned in the front and had high necklines and long sleeves. The sleeves, which had begun to widen during the 1850s, reached their widest and were known as pagoda sleeves. False sleeves known as engageantes were worn beneath them. As the decade progressed, they became slimmer and were constructed with a curve like men’s sleeves. [11] The necklines were often embellished with detachable collars and wide belts, known as Swiss waists, were popular. [12] Young women began wearing blouses or shirtwaists instead of bodices.

The wide skirts were embellished, sometimes quite heavily with trim, braid, contrasting fabric, pleats, buttons, and tassels. Around 1865, it became trendy to pull up the skirt to show off the petticoat underneath, which was often a coordinating color and as heavily embellished as the skirt. [13]

Elements of military uniforms were incorporated, such as with the Zouave jacket of the 1850s. Another style was the “garibaldi” blouse. It was usually red with black braid or embroidery and was frequently paired with a Zouave jacket and Swiss waist. [14]

Day dresses from 1864. Note the pulled-up skirts and blouses. Photo source.

Eveningwear

The almost-of-the-shoulder evening bodices of the previous decade were still popular as was the bertha. Silk was by far the most popular fabric. Short gloves or fingerless mitts were worn.

Empress Elizabeth wearing an evening dress, 1865. Photo source.

Outerwear

Shawls were popular since fitted jackets didn’t work over the large skirts. Jackets, such as the paletot, increased in popularity. [15] Mantles were also worn and frequently trimmed with braid or tassels. [16]

Hairstyles & Headwear

The simple hairstyles from the previous decades were still worn at the beginning of the 1860s. The hair was parted in the center and brushed back into a bun. “Spaniel curls” over the ears were still popular. [17] A decorative hairnet known as a snood was worn over the bun.

As the decade progressed, the popular hairstyle became cascades of curls paired with braids and a chignon. The snood fell out of use. [18] False hairpieces were often used to achieve the fashionable looks. For evening, hair was lavishly arranged and embellished with feathers, jewelry, or flowers. [19]

The bonnet had been the standard from previous decades but in the 1860s it became acceptable to wear a small hat instead. [20] Bonnets became smaller and often the brim didn’t cover the face anymore. Hats were worn in the center of the head but with the higher hairstyles that were more voluminous and complicated in the back, hats were tipped forward over the forehead. [21]

Hairstyles and hats from 1868. Photo source.

Footwear

Shoes were usually calf-height with low thick heels. They either buttoned or laced. For evening, silk slippers were worn.

A red silk boot, 1865-75. Photo source.

Accessories

Fans, parasols, and muffs were popular. Gloves were worn for most occasions, except when dining. Reticules were necessary since integral pockets were uncommon.


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Copyright © 2021 Rebecca Shedd. All rights reserved.

[1] Laver, James. Costume and Fashion: A Concise History, 5th ed. London: Thames & Hudson, Ltd, 2012 p. 188.
[2] Cunnington, C. Willett. English Women’s Clothing in the Nineteenth Century: A Comprehensive Guide with 1,117 Illustrations. Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, 1990 p. 230. Takeda and Spilker (2010), p. 99.
[3] Tortora, Phyllis G. and Keith Eubank. Survey of Historic Costume, 5th ed. New York: Fairchild Books, 2010 p. 358.
[4] Tortora, Phyllis G. and Keith Eubank. Survey of Historic Costume, 5th ed. New York: Fairchild Books, 2010 p. 358.
[5] Shrimpton, Jayne. Victorian Fashion. Oxford: Shire Publications, 2016 p. 13.
[6] Cunnington, C. Willett, English Women's Clothing in the Nineteenth Century, Dover Publications, Inc. New York 1990 ISBN 0-486-26323-1, page 208
[7] Mitchell, Rebecca N., ed. Fashioning the Victorians: A Critical Sourcebook. London: Bloomsbury, 2018 p. 94.
[8] Tortora, Phyllis G. and Keith Eubank. Survey of Historic Costume, 5th ed. New York: Fairchild Books, 2010 p. 361.
[9] "1860s corsets". vam.ac.uk. Archived from the original on 2011-01-08. Retrieved 2010-06-20.
[10] Routledge History of Sex and the Body, 2013, p. 196
[11] Severa, Joan L. Dressed for the Photographer: Ordinary Americans and Fashion 1840-1900. Kent, Ohio: Kent State UP, 1995 p. 194-197.
[12] Tortora, Phyllis G. and Keith Eubank. Survey of Historic Costume, 5th ed. New York: Fairchild Books, 2010 p. 363.
[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. 51.
[14] Cunnington, C. Willett. English Women’s Clothing in the Nineteenth Century: A Comprehensive Guide with 1,117 Illustrations. Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, 1990 p. 211.
Tortora, Phyllis G. and Keith Eubank. Survey of Historic Costume, 5th ed. New York: Fairchild Books, 2010 p. 366.
[15] Severa, Joan L. Dressed for the Photographer: Ordinary Americans and Fashion 1840-1900. Kent, Ohio: Kent State UP, 1995 p. 203-204.
[16] Tortora, Phyllis G. and Keith Eubank. Survey of Historic Costume, 5th ed. New York: Fairchild Books, 2010 p. 366.
[17] Cunnington, C. Willett. English Women’s Clothing in the Nineteenth Century: A Comprehensive Guide with 1,117 Illustrations. Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, 1990 p. 244.
[18] Severa, Joan L. Dressed for the Photographer: Ordinary Americans and Fashion 1840-1900. Kent, Ohio: Kent State UP, 1995 p. 205-206.
[19] Tortora, Phyllis G. and Keith Eubank. Survey of Historic Costume, 5th ed. New York: Fairchild Books, 2010 p. 367.
[20] Cunnington, C. Willett. English Women’s Clothing in the Nineteenth Century: A Comprehensive Guide with 1,117 Illustrations. Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, 1990 p. 238.
[21] Severa, Joan L. Dressed for the Photographer: Ordinary Americans and Fashion 1840-1900. Kent, Ohio: Kent State UP, 1995 p. 206-207.

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