Women: From Shoulder to Ankle

As I mentioned in Thursday’s post, I’m concentrating on fashions worn in Europe.

Women’s Fashion: 1850-1899

Women’s clothing for the last fifty years of the 19th century went through a myriad of changes and I can only give an overview here. But those changes can be summed up for the most part by silhouette. These varying shapes were brought about by use of the caged crinoline or hooped petticoat, the half-crinoline, the cuirasse bodice, the bustle, and leg o’ mutton sleeves.

1850s Bloomer style

Before I discuss those, I want to talk about the first attempt at changing women’s fashion into something less confining—Amelia Bloomer’s efforts in 1851. Her suggested outfit included a simplified bodice with a skirt that reached below the knee. Ankle-length baggy trousers with a lace frill were worn underneath. This costume gained hostility and ridicule with many thinking it an attack on a man’s position in life. In Costume & Fashion, British clothing historian James Laver calls the Bloomer movement a complete failure. “A few ‘advanced’ ladies adopted the costume, but the upper classes refused to have anything to do with it, and Mrs. Bloomer had to wait for almost fifty years before she had her revenge in the adoption of ‘bloomers’ for cycling.”

Caged crinoline. Punch Magazine, 1856

Caged crinoline. In the 1850s, women wore flounced skirts that had to be supported by wearing several petticoats. With the invention in 1856 of the caged crinoline, women had more freedom of movement. They could do away with the volumes of petticoats and wear the crinoline, a garment of flexible steel hoops worn alone or sewn into a petticoat. There were drawbacks, of course. Pantaloons had to be worn underneath in case of a high wind. Skirts became so wide, Laver says, that it wasn’t possible for two women to enter a room together or sit on the same sofa. “A woman was now a majestic ship, sailing proudly ahead, while a small tender—her male escort—sailed along behind,” Laver writes.

Wide skirts courtesy of caged crinoline, 1860

Gowns framed by half-crinoline, Godey's, 1869

Half-crinoline. After about 1862, the silhouette of the crinoline began to change, becoming straighter in the front until finally in 1868, the support was totally in the back. Skirts were long in the back with a train and were looped up and draped across the rear, a bustle being necessary to support it all. This style last only a few years, evolving into a style with the fullness lower on the legs and no bustle.

Punch Magazine, late 1870s, by George du Maurier

Cuirasse bodice. The 1870s saw the introduction of several different types of dresses.  The “Princess” style was a dress of all one piece, while another style consisted of a separate bodice and jacket. Corsets had been used all along, but with the advent of the cuirasse bodice in 1874, which

Dolly Varden dress

was tight and molded to the hips, women had to wear long corsets. The sleeves were also tight fitting. These gowns limited movement and became the subject of satire as the cartoon above depicts. Other styles of the 1870s included the “Dolly Varden” dress, thought of as a throw-back to the 18th century, and the tea gown, a loose-fitting (no corset!) gown for entertaining at home.

"Back shelf" bustle, 1885

Bustle. By the mid 1880s, the bustle came back in fashion. Sometimes referred to as the “back shelf” bustle, it stuck out horizontally from the small of the back. Technology had advanced the bustle from the very warm horsehair products to those of braided wire.  James Laver describes the Langtry bustle:

“There was also the ‘Langtry’ bustle, an arrangement of metal bands working on a pivot. It could be raised when sitting down and sprang back automatically into place when the lady rose to her feet!” (Laver, 198)

The Rational Dress movement began in 1881 by those concerned about the rigid, deforming corset and the many layers of drapery in current fashion. It brought about loosely fitting gowns, sometimes belted at the waist. The movement was, of course, ridiculed, but was successful over time “as women began to lead more active lives and rigid corsets thus became unfashionable.” (Laver, 200)

Walking suits with leg o' mutton sleeves, 1894

Leg o’ mutton sleeves. Still, the use of corsets prevailed into the 1890s when bodices were narrow and skirts long and bell-shaped. By 1894, sleeves had grown enormously to the style known as leg o’ mutton. “Some sleeves were so large,” Laver writes, “that cushions were necessary to keep them in place.” This style faded after a couple of years and tighter sleeves were adopted.

By the end of the century, the corset was elongated, bringing about the S-curve shape that remained popular for years.  Working class women wore simpler styles and sportswear became popular as attitudes changed about

Bike dress, 1896

women being involved in sports. The tennis dress and the bicycling outfit are two examples.

We hope you’ve enjoyed our miniseries on fashion in the 1800s. There’s more to be explored than we were able to touch on here. Following are our references in case you’d like to do a bit of research on your own.

References for Miniseries

1800s Clothing

Bassett, Lynne. “‘The Great Leap’: Youths’ Clothing in the Early Nineteenth Century” Old Sturbridge Village. 1997  < http://www.osv.org/explore_learn/document_viewer.php?DocID=856&gt;

Kalman, Bobbie. 19th Century Girls and Women. New York, New York: Crabtree Publishing Company, 1997.

Kalman, Bobbie. 19th Century Clothing. New York, New York: Crabtree Publishing Company, 1993.

Keller, Tom. “Calico Coats and Overalls.” Old Sturbridge Village. 2001  < http://www.osv.org/explore_learn/document_viewer.php?DocID=1986&gt;

Larkin, Jack. The Reshaping of Everyday Life 1790-1840. New York, New York: Harper and Row Publishers, Inc., 1988.

Laver, James. Costume & Fashion. New York, New York: Thames and Hudson Inc., 1995.

LeCount, Sarah. “Cordelia: How a Painting Helps Us Understand Historical Clothing.” Old Sturbridge Village. October 1984  < http://www.osv.org/explore_learn/document_viewer.php?DocID=2014&gt;

McCutcheon, Marc. Everyday Life in the 1800s: A guide for Writers and Students &Historians. Cincinnati, Ohio: F&W Publications, Inc., 1993.

Newell, Aimee. “Neat and Tasty: Getting Dressed in Rural New England.” Old Sturbridge Village. 2003.  <http://www.osv.org/explore_learn/document_viewer.php?DocID=2064&gt;

Nylander, Jane C. “Notes on Early 19th Century Clothing.” Old Sturbridge Village. 1980.  <http://www.osv.org/explore_learn/document_viewer.php?DocID=796&gt;

Old Sturbridge Village Clothing display December 2009

Schimpky, David and Kalman, Bobbie. Children’s Clothing of the 1800s. New York, New York: Crabtree Publishing Company, 1995.

Cloth and Factories

Fennelly, Cathrine. “Textiles in New England, 1790-1840.” Old Sturbridge Village. 1963.  <http://www.osv.org/explore_learn/document_viewer.php?DocID=1066&gt;

Walker, Amasa. “Amasa Walker’s Coat, Reminiscence.” Old Sturbridge Village. 1873. <http://www.osv.org/explore_learn/document_viewer.php?DocID=34&gt;


10 Responses to Women: From Shoulder to Ankle

  1. Danielle Hinesly says:

    My grandmother actually had special chairs from this time period that had one arm lower than the other. The lower arm is said to have been for women to set their long skirts over. Very cool.

  2. Tricia says:

    Oh, that is cool. I’d love to know the actual date of the chair!

  3. Tricia, the outfit I’m making is very similar to the “back shelf bustle” image you have in your post. I’m keeping it circa actual 1889 garments, with steampunk accessories 🙂

  4. Emilie says:

    Those caged crinollines always make me think of “The King and I.”:)

  5. Tricia says:

    Yeah, Emilie! And when all the girls wearing the new Western styles bowed down to the King and Anna realized they didn’t have the proper undergarments on. . . 😀

  6. QNPoohBear says:

    My grandmother had a Dolly Varden dress that was passed down through the family. All of us girls had to suffer the indignity of having our photos taken in the ugly dress. The great-granddaughters will be spared because the dress was given away and the age of the children modeling the dress kept getting younger as children got bigger into the 20th century.

    • Carol says:

      QNPoohBear, do you still have pictures of the granddaughters wearing the Dolly Varden dress? Would you be willing to share them? I’m working on a paper about the Dolly Varden fad to be presented in October, but pictures of actual garments are hard to find.

  7. Tricia says:

    QNPoohBear–Was the dress really that ugly? Or was it just worn out? Did you have to do the whole undergarment routine as well? 🙂

  8. […] undergarments for the time period. If you’re interested, you can find that information here. One thing I didn’t cover in that post was the development in the 1870s of suspenders (or […]

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