At the start of the 19th century, fashionable women’s clothing styles were based on the Empire silhouette; gowns were closely fitted to the torso just under the bust, falling loosely below. Think of any of Austen’s heroines, and you have a very good idea of the style. There was no need to wear a corset as the outline of the waist was hidden in the drape of the dress. It was heavily influenced by the neoclassical style of the previous century.
A pelisse was a military-inspired coat popular with fashionable women in early 19th-century Europe. A pelisse was originally a short fur trimmed jacket that was worn hanging loose over the left shoulder of Hussar cavalry soldiers; in the Regency era women adopted the fashion as a long coat, and by the Victorian era very little or none of the braid and fur trimmings remained. White wasn’t a fashionable colour for wedding dresses until Queen Victoria married in white, which is why Sarah’s wedding coat is green.The pelisse coat had the close-fitting sleeves and the then-fashionable Empire waist. Pelisses lost any resemblance to their military origins as skirts and sleeves widened in the 1830s, and they fell out of favour as the increasingly enormous crinolines of the mid-1800s caused fashionable women to turn to loose-fitting capes and cloaks. However, military styles remained an influence on women’s fashions.
In the middle of the 1820s, fashions moved away from the neo-Classical fashions of the Regency era and into the corseted, full skirts and complicated undergarments that would dominate the fashions for the rest of the 19th century.Note that most of the sleeve ornamentation is around the top of the sleeve, near the shoulders. The embroidery of this dress reflects the rich colours favoured by the Victorians. Bold colours and patterns were certainly fashionable in this era. As new dyes were invented during this era, colours became more and more flamboyant.
This dress was made from a very expensive fabric, and so has been remade over and over as styles changed. Many dresses underwent the same process, partially as a cost-saving exercise, and partly because the lush luxury fabrics were just too pretty to discard. Even as the sewing machine was being invented, and cheaper fabrics became available thanks to industrialisation, dressmakers were still making over dresses from previous decades. I can’t help but see a connection here between Steampunk Enthusiasts, taking second-hand clothing and making it into Steampunk couture.
Queen Victoria was married to Prince Albert in a white dress, made from heavy silk satin, with trimmings and a veil of beautifully patterned lace from Devon. Posies of orange blossoms, one of the bridal symbols of fertility, were pinned to the dress and orange blossoms also made up her wreath, which she wore instead of a tiara. For her ‘blue’ item for luck, she wore a sapphire brooch that was a gift from Albert. It was made in the very latest style, and was copied by just about every fashionable bride after the event.
In the 1840s, gowns were designed to have narrow, sloping shoulders; waists were low; the sleeves were ornamented around the wrists, while the skirts were even wider than in the 1830s, and more bell shaped. The fuller skirts were achieved through layers of petticoats. The bustle and crinoline were invented to replace the weight of all those petticoats. The skirts had no pockets, so women carried a small bag by necessity.
From the viewpoint of a woman living through the first half of the 1800s, the change in fashions was just as dramatic as the change from the styles of the Fifties through to the Eighties. As a Steampunk Enthusiast, I don’t have to make my outfits to be historically accurate. But the variety of styles thought the 19th century means that there is a style to fit any figure.