Three Dresses from the Early 1800s; Understanding the Fashion Trends Part One

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.

This green silk pelisse robe was worn by Sarah Wiseman of Paglesham at her wedding in 1813:

The green silk pelisse robe worn by Sarah Wiseman at her wedding in 1813.

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.

Like many 18th century dresses, this wedding gown from 1735 his been remodelled and updated at least twice. In its final incarnation, it reflects the short, puffed sleeves and bell-shaped skirt of the 1830s. This image is from the Two Nerdy History Girls website. It was originally a pale green Chinese silk with hand embroidery.

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.

The dress worn by Queen Victoria to her wedding in 1840.

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.

Queen Victoria’s dainty wedding slippers. They were little more than gloves for her feet.

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.


Filed under Bling, Characterization, History, Steampunk, Steampunk Aesthetic, Victorian-era Fashion

4 responses to “Three Dresses from the Early 1800s; Understanding the Fashion Trends Part One

  1. Kathy Wilson

    Nice overview, however, your observations about not needing a corset in the early 1800’s is incorrect. Austen and her contemporaries DID wear corsets — no respectable woman would go without one. They simply didn’t have the extreme shaping that became popular during the mid-century and beyond. Corsets were more than shaping garments, they were the supporting structure for the rest of the outfit.

    • Some women did wear corsets, but they weren’t considered completely essential as later on. Empire line dresses would be ruined by a corset, particularly in the short period when muslin (see-through!) dresses were all the rag with the fashionable set. Then again, who said high fashion was ever respectable?

      • I really latched onto your comment that mentions “who said high fashion was ever respectable”, who decides that? As the mother of three daughters who sometimes want to wear what I don’t find acceptable I really have to wonder about this. “But it’s all the rage, it’s what’s in now. Your just old fashioned”. I am so tired of hearing that.

      • I imagine this situation has been around for centuries. I have two adult daughters, and when they were children, most of the little girls’ clothes were being influenced by Britney Spears ‘barely there’ school of fashion. A simple shopping trip was a nightmare, as many of the clothes were highly sexualised. Hence the ‘who ever said high fashion was respectable’ comment.
        From my own viewpoint, I grew to really loathe low-rider jeans, when I do NOT have the figure to wear them. High fashion isn’t interested in making comfortable or sensible clothing … and never has been. Hence the dress reform movements of the 19th century. Maybe we need a dress reform movement for the 21st century.

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