Women and Children’s Fashion: 1800-1849Now on the other hand, women’s fashion was constantly changing during the 19th century. The beginning of the century saw the popularity of the Empire style, which took its name from the Empire of Napoleon, who ruled France from 1799 to 1815. Women’s gowns had high waistlines and long straight skirts that fell to the ankles. The dress was typically made of a nearly transparent fabric with a solid petticoat and brassiere worn underneath. Sleeves could be either short or long. The style was said to resemble an architectural column. The Empire style freed women from tight corsets and hoop skirts. However, by 1820 the skirts were once again widening and their waistlines dropping, bringing the corset and hoopskirt back into fashion where they would stick around until the 1870s.
By the middle of the century lace dresses with tight bodices and long flounced skirts were very popular for formal occasions. Silk, velvet and satin were other popular fabric choices for formal wear. The basic outfit, though, for women living in towns or cities was a combination of the hooped skirt, blouse and bodice, typically made of linen, wool or cotton. The “leg-of-mutton”-sleeve,” which got its name from its resemblance to a leg of lamb, was popular throughout the 19th century and could be seen on gowns of all styles. Women wore overcoats made of flannel, cotton, tweed or water repellent cloth. Many coats had a cape collar that draped over the shoulders.
Rural women wore a much simpler dress made of wool or linen. Corsets and hoop skirts were not a part of their attire. The dress usually had very little adornment, maybe a simple collar, but that was the extent. An apron would be worn over the dress to protect it from the grime of housework. On Sunday, a woman would dress up her apparel with a shawl and clean apron.
Throughout the first half of the 1800s, children’s clothing was made at home and typically mimicked the pattern and style of the adult clothing with small variations that symbolized childhood. Infants in the early 19th century were as heavily clothed as young boys and girls. Their garments included diapers (known as napkins, secured by pins), bands, shirts, and petticoats. Over all of this the child wore a long, typically white, gown that usually extended a distance below the feet. The gown was not just for his christening ceremony, but for everyday wear. A cap, which could expand as a baby grew, and stockings completed the outfit. These items were typically fairly large and used drawstrings, all so that they would fit rapidly growing infants for several months. Toddlers, of both sexes, wore cotton or linen dresses—also called shifts—over pantalets until they were three or four years of age, when they would then start wearing clothing that differentiated their sex.
Girls wore shifts, petticoats, stockings and gowns. By the 1830s though, drawers were added to their dress. Most girls wore either an apron or pinafore over their clothes. Made of plain white or printed cotton, they were meant to protect a girl’s dress from soiling. Aprons tied around the waist while pinafores hung from the shoulders and covered most of the dress. Girls did not wear corsets until they turned eighteen, but by the 1840s crinolines were introduced as yet another undergarment a girl had to wear. Girls’ dresses were shorter than their mothers’, but as they got older the hems dropped closer and closer to their ankles.
“In the first decade of the 19th century young boys wore linen shirts with high-waisted trousers which buttoned on to a long sleeved, wide necked bodice; the combination was called a skeleton suit.” (Nylander) By the 1830s though this style went out of fashion and boys, through about the age eight, wore pantaloons or trousers with a shirt and short jacket called a “spencer.” This resembled his father’s tailcoat, but without the tails. As the boy grew, a vest, neck cloth, shoes and stockings would be added to his attire.
Just like their parents, girls and boys always wore hats. Boys wore caps. Top hats, the most popular choice of headwear for men from 1780-1870s, were worn exclusively by men. Girls wore bonnets resembling the shape and form of those worn by their mothers. By the time a boy or girl reached their teens they donned “grown-up” clothes their parents wore.
By the middle of the 19th century, with the aid of the sewing machine, clothing had begun its transformation from homemade to mass-produced. The ease with which shirts, pants, dresses and shoes could be mass produced and the rapid expansion of the railroad, connecting the east to the west and every town in between, made ready-made items affordable to everyone. Department stores would take hold in the second half of the century, when companies such as Sears-Roebuck and Montgomery Ward started producing catalogues which they shipped all over the country allowing people to order whatever they needed. The first half of the 19th century saw the end of homemade cloth, and by the end of the century even homemade clothes were becoming less and less common.