As already mentioned, clothing and fashion is a huge topic so I’ll just cover the basics of shirt, pants and dresses or as the title says from shoulder to ankle. I’ll cover from head to toe or “Hats, Shoes and Undergarments” in the near future.
One aspect I’d like to point out is when we look at the 1800s we have two distinct social classes: the upper class (who mainly lived in the city, though many lived in country towns) and the working class (including the rural farmers, servants, mill girls, shop owners…). While the rural working class’s fashions mimicked much of the upper class, work and situation in large part determined their style of clothing. The tailored outfits of the city men were impractical for the farmer, just as the farmer’s wife had no use for tight corsets. As I write today’s article I will talk about both rural and city fashion and hopefully provide you with a good idea of how they were both similar and different.
Men’s Fashion: 1800-1849
America adapted the latest fashions of England and France, which within months arrived in American cities. French and English magazines, such as Ackerman’s Repository, which featured fashion plates illustrating the newest style found their way to America and were the main sources for adapting new fashions. As the popularity of fashion plates grew American magazines adopted them. In 1828 the Cotton’s Athenaeum would publish the first American fashion plate. The latest styles would quickly make their way to the country side through letters from city friends and local dressmakers and tailors. Rural women then adapted these fashions to their own needs and tastes, combing city fashion with countryside sensibility.
Fashion, whether you were rich or working class, was extremely important in the 1800s society. “Dress” had a different connotation behind it in the 19th century. Fashion wasn’t just about sporting the latest styles, but an attitude toward how one perceived oneself and wished others to appraise them. The importance of this mindset is demonstrated by the many books published offering advice to both men and women on all means of proper etiquette and dress. Mrs. Farra’s The Young Lady’s Friend dedicates an entire chapter to dress, covering topics ranging from the “Standard of Beauty”, “Effects of Good Taste,” “Appropriateness Essential to Beauty,” to “Neat Habits.” Books such as the Laws of Etiquette and The Cannon of Good Breeding , the latter of which offered advice to men, were full of guidance:
There should be an adaptation of costume to the occasion, season, place and hour. There should be harmony between the stiffness of the coat and the company; a buckram’d collar at a pic-nic would be as much out of place as starchless linen in a drawingroom.
Fashion divided the rich from the working class, but both took pride, whether in silks or wool, in how they dressed and all that their attire implied.
It’s relevant to note that in the first half of the century all clothing was hand sewn. Certain items, such as shoes, stockings, gloves, men’s hats, neck stocks, shawls and handkerchiefs could be purchased at country stores and city shops, but all other clothing was homemade. The first American made sewing machine wasn’t patented until 1846, and its use didn’t become widespread until after the Civil War. It wasn’t until the latter half of the 18th century, with the invention of the power-driven sewing machine, that factory produced “ready-made” clothing would become available on a large scale. Women did all the sewing in the rural family while the more prominent city families hired dressmakers and tailors to sew their clothes.
While men’s fashion saw a major transformation at the end of the 18th century, throughout much of the 19th century it didn’t undergo any dramatic changes. Beau Brummel, an Englishman, dismissed the fancy, colorful suits of the 18th century for more conservatively colored and fitted suits. He preferred more neutral colors, such as tan, green, brown, blue, gray and black for his new style of suit—a style that was adopted by men in both England and America. The basic suit consisted of trousers, a waistcoat and a coat.
The biggest change in gentleman’s fashion from the 18th to the 19th century was the length of men’s pants. Breeches, the knee-length pants of the 18th century, went out of style and were replaced by pantaloons or trousers. A waistcoat was like a vest, and could be single or double breasted, usually with two pockets in front for a gentleman’s watch and fob. The coat was an item that men of all classes wore when they ventured out in public. Coats weren’t considered necessarily formal or “dressy” attire, but just what was “proper” apparel in public. Shirts were essentially undergarments and going about in shirtsleeves was considered out of the ordinary, and worthy of notice. There were several popular styles of coats. The frock coat was a long, full coat with flared shirts that hung to the knees. The morning coat, short in front with long tails in the back, was a popular coat for day or evening wear. The box coat was short with no waistline and much like the suits of today.
While the upper class could afford finely tailored garments in dark, expensive fabrics, the working man’s coat was typically of the same basic style but made in cheaper fabrics, often patched and faded and not as carefully fitted. The farmer or rural man’s wardrobe included shirts, trousers, (typically made of linen cotton or wool) a frock and overalls. A farmer’s shirt was a little different from fashionable well tailored upper class shirt and waistcoat. Their shirts extended to mid-thigh or even to the knee and were also worn as nightshirts. A version of the shirt used especially by farmers was the frock. It was cut like a large shirt, but was intended to be worn over all other clothing, and fell freely to the knees. Woolen frocks provided warmth without restricting men’s movement. In the summer they were replaced with light linen or cotton frocks. Overalls were another common garment for working men. These were loose trousers made of cheap heavy cloth, such as denim, worn to protect the garments under the overalls from being soiled. They were literally worn “over all”, including trousers, vest and shirt, and not instead of any garment. Long trousers or “pantaloons” were adopted by all but the most conservative men after 1800. These trousers were made with a high waist and straight loose fitting pants leg. The seat of a farmer’s trousers was often baggy to accommodate the length of the shirttail.
Continue on to Women: From Shoulder to Ankle 1800-1849