A Brief History of 19th Century Women’s Fashion

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Fashions come and go over time, creating fads that sweep the nation and are dropped just as quickly. Fashion in the 19th century expressed some very unique styles.

Women’s fashion changes must faster than men’s styles. It is actually possible to date a historic photograph solely by examining a woman’s attire. You can pinpoint a decade, or even a more specific year by paying close attention to how a woman is dressed.

The following sections highlight typical styles of each decade, from the 1860s through 1900, beginning with a look at the corset, the foundation for all 19th century style.

The Corset

Corsets were worn for most of the 19th century and into the 20th century, creating the ideal hourglass shape under fashionable dresses. Little girls would begin wearing a corset as early as five years old.

Some museum collections even contain corsets for pregnant women. A hole was cut out in the center to accommodate their expanding bellies.

Corsets were disfiguring to women and caused many health problems. A woman’s body could not grow properly when it was contained inside a steel or bone cage. As a young woman grew, her body was shaped and contoured much like pruning a bonsai tree. The rib cage became very narrow, crowding vital organs together.

The famous scene in Gone with the Wind, when Scarlet is holding onto the bedpost as a servant pulls her corset strings tight, was typical for many women, not just in the upper classes. In order to achieve the ideal hourglass figure, women in all classes forced themselves into tight corsets.

Women’s Fashion in the 1860s

The Civil War era featured the iconic hoop skirt, supported by an undergarment made of a series of concentric circles. By the end of the decade, the skirt had grown to an elliptical shape that was a full six feet across!

The sewing machine was becoming more popular by the 1860s, making it faster and cheaper for dressmakers to create gowns. A dress’s main seams were sewn by machine, but elaborate Victorian details – like fringe, ruching, ruffles, braids, and beads – were still stitched by hand.

By the 1860s, aniline dyes had been invented, producing such brilliant colors as magenta, electric blue, and emerald green.

Women’s Fashion in the 1870s

In the 1870s, the large hoopskirts of the 1860s evolved into a bustle, which exaggerated the back of a woman’s silhouette. Women wore an undergarment that could be made of a steel cage or a large stuffed pillow in order to fill out the back of the skirt.

Dresses were draped in the rear, ending in a train even for daytime wear. Women often wore two piece skirts, with an elaborately draped shorter overskirt worn over a longer underskirt.

Women’s Fashion in the 1880s

In the 1880s, bustles were still popular, but they were even more extreme. The larger the bustle, the better! The typical bustle protruded even further out in the back, creating something that resembled a shelf. Dresses were often draped in a “waterfall” effect, with fabrics of coordinating patterns and colors.

Women’s Fashion in the 1890s

The “hourglass figure” became the ideal in the Gay Nineties. Skirts were still full, but they evolved into a graceful bell shape. The bustle continued to shrink and disappear.

The 1890s were also characterized by the absurd “leg of mutton” sleeves. It seems that the emphasis on the bustle of the dress shifted up to the sleeves, creating an exaggerated “poofy” look at the shoulders. The style reached a shattering crescendo in 1896, with impossibly high necklines and lots of lace.

Women’s Fashion in the 1900s

By the end of the 19th century, fashion had begun to soften a bit and was much less extreme than it had been in the previous decades.

Everyone wanted to look like the “Gibson Girl,” simple and elegant. Tailored suits with fitted jackets now complimented the graceful bell shaped skirts. Toward the end of the decade, the waistline was raised and not as tight, and skirts were becoming narrower.