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.
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