Vanity Fair

Fashions of the 19th Century

shot silk dress

Bronze shot silk dress with bell shaped sleeves; c. 1849-1850

Even the briefest glance at the garments displayed here reveals the incredible richness and variety of fashions produced during the nineteenth century. In this period of rapid change, dress, particularly that of women, transformed significantly over time. This era, perhaps more than any other, is representative of the endless possibilities for sartorial innovation and novelty.

Though we often associate the nineteenth century with highly decorative and complicated clothing, the era began with a period of extreme simplicity in women’s dress. High-waisted white muslin gowns were worn from the late eighteenth century to around 1815. After this time female dress began to take on a more romantic feel. By the 1820s brighter colours and richer fabrics had returned, along with the natural waistline. From this period onwards, a romantic approach dominated the development of female fashion. In terms of men’s clothing, the excesses of the dandies during the early part of the century were soon curtailed and style was dominated by high-quality tailoring, robust fabrics and sober colours. Only limited opportunities for individuality could be explored in accessories such as waistcoats, neckwear and hosiery.

As with every era, nineteenth century fashion was strongly influenced by its social and economic context. The century witnessed unprecedented upheaval as industrialisation gathered pace. In terms of cloth manufacture, the nineteenth century saw the mechanisation of key industries such as spinning, weaving and dyeing, while widespread use of the sewing machine from the 1860s had a huge impact on garment production. Though severe social polarisation was a characteristic of the period, new economic opportunities also led to the emergence of a large and influential middle class – a social group who were conspicuous consumers, particularly in terms of clothing. Driven by the self-improving ethos of the time, the era also witnessed a fascination with history, which had a strong bearing on fashion. Design movements such as the Gothic revival had very obvious influences on dress, but other historical styles were also evident.

For much of the nineteenth century women’s roles in society were very limited. Their clothing reflected this in its highly decorative and complex nature, and movement was also severely hampered by both garments and underwear. It was only towards the end of the century that small amounts of ground were gained. Women began to be better educated, were more actively involved in public life, and participated in sporting activities. These developments triggered some changes in female clothing, but significant progress would not be seen until the early twentieth century.

You will notice that although men are represented, this article concentrates on wealthier women’s clothing. It is often the case that women’s garments survive in much greater numbers than those of men, and this is the case with the Olive Matthews Collection. Those higher up the social scale were more likely to put aside old clothes rather than altering them and wearing them until they wore out.  

Early 19th Century Style

white muslin dress

Embroidered white cotton muslin dress; c.1803

The elegant high-waisted white dress dates from the early 1800s. It forms part of the fashion for plain white muslin gowns that began in the late eighteenth century. This style was a radical departure from the formal, stiff-bodiced, full-skirted look that preceded it, and there are several explanations for its popularity. Firstly, the late eighteenth century saw a great interest in Classical art, design and history. These ancient ‘democratic’ cultures offered intriguing alternatives in terms of lifestyle, design and politics. From 1789 French Revolutionaries adopted aspects of these principles as part of their cause. In fashion terms, when the old order was swept away, previous ‘aristocratic’ garments were replaced by styles that were thought to resemble the clothing seen on ancient Greek statues. Since Paris still maintained influence over European fashion, these styles quickly spread.

The Neoclassical look was to last in its purest form until around 1815, when peace with France heralded a new, more Romantic approach. Waistlines remained high until the early 1820s, returning to their natural level by about 1827, but stiffer fabrics and bolder colours began to take hold quite quickly, as can be seen from the garments shown here. There was increased surface decoration, especially towards the hem, emphasising the new A-line shape. Sleeves began to widen to an exaggerated form during the second half of the 1820s, dropping to the lower part of the arm from around 1830. They were kept in place with cane structures or ‘sleeve plumpers’ filled with swans’ down. Sleeves reached their widest point in 1836, and from then on began to collapse. This was achieved by pleating the excess fabric to the upper arm.  

Women’s Fashions in the Victorian Era

Silk dress

Tan ribbed silk moire dress; 1875

Queen Victoria ascended to the throne in 1837, and her reign soon heralded a new fashion style. By 1840, a much more sombre and demure silhouette had taken over. Darker colours became the norm, and women tended to look like drooping violets; their clothes cut to promote a downward curve. Bonnets with long brims hid most of the face, and wide bell-shaped skirts were held out with as many as five layers of hot, itchy petticoats.

By the mid 1850s skirts were supported by the crinoline cage. Despite being highly impractical, new manufacturing techniques made crinolines affordable and they were worn from the top to the bottom of society. The production of the first man-made dyes meant that bright colours gained great popularity. The first was a vivid purple, called ‘Perkin’s Purple’ after its inventor, Sir William Perkin, but many other colours were to follow. The fashion for the crinoline lasted until around 1867. By this date it had flattened in front, heralding the era of the bustle. At the same time, the widespread use of the sewing machine led to the adoption of complicated construction techniques and a profusion of trimmings. The 1870s silhouette slimmed down significantly, and was emphasised by the tight-fitting ‘cuirasse’ bodice and the new ‘princess line’ which followed the figure without a waist seam.

The 1880s saw a new and more extreme version of the bustle, which grew in size and extended like a shelf behind the body, bobbing up and down as the wearer walked. The 1890s saw emphasis shift to the top half of the figure, with wide puffed sleeves. Black now became an acceptable colour for fashionable clothing, especially for older women. Fashionable pieces can be recognised by the inclusion of elaborate beading and other trimmings which would not have been seen on mourning dress.  

“The Ghost in the Looking Glass”

When admiring the beautiful garments of the 19th century, it is easy to forget the work and sometimes the great hardship associated with their production. All of the pieces in this case, and several of those shown opposite, were entirely stitched by hand. Even after the advent of the sewing machine in the 1860s, the life of the dressmaker was still extremely hard.

There were over 20,000 dressmakers in London in 1850. Firms ranged from the high-class ‘Court Dressmakers’; making clothing for the rich and aristocratic, to the third or fourth rate houses who dressed a less wealthy working clientele. Very few garments were bought ready-made, even by people of modest means. As well as those employed by dressmaking firms, freelance needlewomen made up a further group. These women often suffered the greatest hardships, barely managing to make ends meet.

Needlework was often the only marketable skill that nineteenth century women possessed, and seamstresses worked extremely long hours for very little pay. Customers wanted their garments as quickly as possible, and firms would push their live-in employees to the limit to complete orders. It was not uncommon to work twenty hours a day during busy periods. Seamstresses often suffered from ill health as workrooms were usually cramped, badly lit and airless. The limited food was of poor quality, and sleeping quarters were overcrowded. Vulnerable freelance needlewomen usually relied on middlemen to supply them with work. Often unscrupulous, these middlemen pocketed most of the limited profits, making such needlewomen some of the poorest people in Victorian society. Despite widespread awareness of the problem, very little was done to alleviate hardship until the twentieth century.  

19th Century Underwear


Brown cotton sateen corset; c.1885 - 1895

The rapidly changing nineteenth century silhouette was only made possible by the creation of complex structural underpinnings which altered according to the prevailing fashion.

The century began with the simplest of underwear – often only a single petticoat, but this changed with the return to more romantic styles during the 1820s. Corsets reinforced with whalebone started to be worn generally once again, and the invention of metal eyelets allowed the laces to be pulled much tighter. Corsets continued to be modified according to the desired fashionable shape. They were also laced tighter from the 1870s onwards when women’s clothing fitted more closely to the body. It was normal to reduce the waist by at least two inches, but some went considerably further, despite the fact that most doctors disapproved of tight lacing. Though drawers were worn by some during the early 1800s, they did not become part of general wear until at least the 1830s. They were usually made from white cotton and extended to mid calf level, with wide legs and an open crotch for hygiene.

Under-structures for skirts were also a key fashion feature. Petticoats, sometimes stiffened, were worn throughout the period, but the crinoline cage is perhaps the most memorable addition to the Victorian wardrobe. It was fashionable for around eleven years from 1856 and consisted of a series of hoops, usually made from steel, held together with tapes. From around 1870 bustle structures took over, holding skirts out at the back only. They could be made from hoops as seen here, or might consist of stiffened frills or wire mesh. Bustles were worn during the early 1870s and, in a more pronounced form, for the majority of the 1880s. 

Images by John Chase Photography