The Evolution of the 19th Century Gown: A Visual Guide

Individual Images of Gowns via Met Museum

Individual Images of Gowns via Met Museum

The silhouette of women’s gowns changed a great deal over the course of the 19th century.  From the onset of the Regency to the end of the Victorian era, fashionable ladies saw Empire waistlines drop and classical simplicity give way to flounces, frills, and an abundance of trimmings.  Sleeves ballooned up and skirts ballooned out.  The crinoline morphed into the bustle and steam-molded corsets cinched the waist ever tighter.  Most of us can easily identify the lines of an early Regency gown or the shape of a late-Victorian dress with a bustle.  But what about those transitional years?  The 1820s, 1830s, and 1870s, for example.  Sometimes styles of these decades are harder to pinpoint.  With that in mind, I present you with a decade-by-decade visual guide to silk gowns of the 19th century.

*All of the images of gowns are courtesy of The Costume Institute at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.  If you click an image here, it will take you straight to their website where, in many cases, you can see multiple views of the gown as well as close-up images of stitching and trim.

1800

To usher in the century, here is an elegant striped silk British dress from 1800.

1800 British Silk Dress.(Image via Met Museum)

1800 British Silk Dress.
(Image via Met Museum)

1800 British Silk Dress.(Image via Met Museum)

1800 British Silk Dress.
(Image via Met Museum)

1810

A festive 1811 British ballgown of gold and lace fabric trimmed with pearls.  For reference, this is the decade of most of our Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer heroines.  Pride and Prejudice was published in 1813 and Heyer’s Regency Buck was set in 1811.  Which heroine do you suppose would look best wearing this gold confection?

1811 British Ball Gown.(Image via Met Museum)

1811 British Ball Gown.
(Image via Met Museum)

1811 British Ball Gown Sleeve Detail.(Image via Met Museum)

1811 British Ball Gown.
(Image via Met Museum)

 

1820

A lovely printed silk British dress  from 1820.  Note the addition of flounces, belt, and trimmings!

1820 British Silk Dress.(Image via Met Museum)

1820 British Silk Dress.
(Image via Met Museum)

1820 British Silk Dress.(Image via Met Museum)

1820 British Silk Dress.
(Image via Met Museum)

1830

A beautiful floral and striped silk British gown from 1836.  As a point of reference, this is the decade in which George Eliot set her novel, Middlemarch.  Perhaps the below gown is one that Rosamond Vincy might have worn?  Failing that, it could just as easily have been in the wardrobe of one of the characters in Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters (which was set in the same decade).

1836 British Silk Dress.(Image via Met Museum)

1836 British Silk Gown.
(Image via Met Museum)

1836 British Silk Dress.(Image via Met Museum)

1836 British Silk Gown.
(Image via Met Museum)

 

1840

An 1842 British gown of floral-patterned silk.  For literary context, Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre is set in the 1840s.  Although, I cannot imagine a governess in Jane’s precarious position wearing anything half so fine as the dress below!

1842 British Silk Dress.(Image via Met Museum)

1842 British Silk Gown.
(Image via Met Museum)

1842 British Silk Dress.(Image via Met Museum)

1842 British Silk Gown.
(Image via Met Museum)

1850

A very pretty 1850 British gown made of silk and flax.  The 1850s were the decade in which Margaret Gaskell set her novel North and South.  I wonder if Margaret Hale could have bought a gown like the one below in Milton?

1850 British Silk Flax Gown.(Image via Met Museum)

1850 British Silk and Flax Gown
(Image via Met Museum)

1850 British Silk Flax Gown.(Image via Met Museum)

1850 British Silk and Flax Gown.
(Image via Met Museum)

1860

A stunning Emile Pingat French silk ballgown, circa 1864.  Notice the increase in the width of the skirts.  During the 1860s, the popularity of the crinoline was at its peak!  To learn more about the controversial 19th century crinoline, click HERE.

1864 Emile Pingat French Silk Ballgown.(Image via Met Museum)

1864 Emile Pingat French Silk Ballgown.
(Image via Met Museum)

1864 Emile Pingat French Silk Ballgown.(Image via Met Museum)

1864 Emile Pingat French Silk Ballgown.
(Image via Met Museum)

 

1870

A gorgeous green silk British dress from 1870.  By the late 1860s/early 1870s, the crinoline had fallen out of favor.  The size of skirts reduced to more manageable proportions, with the bulk of the fabric now drawn to the back of the dress in elegant – and sometimes elaborate – draping.  This is generally known as the “first bustle era.”

1870 British Silk Dress.(Image via Met Museum)

1870 British Silk Dress.
(Image via Met Museum)

1870 British Silk Dress.(Image via Met Museum)

1870 British Silk Dress.
(Image via Met Museum)

1880

A brown silk and velvet American gown from 1884.  This is what is known as the “second bustle era.”  Gowns were made of heavier fabric and trimmings, while the bustle itself grew to enormous proportions.  It was at its biggest by the middle of the decade, but reduced to a more modest size by 1890.

1884 American Silk Gown.(Image via Met Museum)

1884 American Silk Gown.
(Image via Met Museum)

1884 American Silk Gown.(Image via Met Museum)

1884 American Silk Gown.
(Image via Met Museum)

1890

For our final gown of the 19th century, it seems only fitting to feature this 1890 black silk mourning dress worn by Queen Victoria herself.

1894 British Silk Mourning Gown.(Image via Met Museum)

1894 British Silk Mourning Dress.
(Image via Met Museum)

1894 British Silk Mourning Gown.(Image via Met Museum)

1894 British Silk Mourning Dress.
(Image via Met Museum)

In Closing…

I hope you have found the above to be a useful basic visual guide to the evolution of the 19th century gown.  Of course, there are infinite variations on each of these styles.  Fabrics varied.  As did prints, patterns, and colors.  And as for trimmings – some gowns were edged with pearls or jewels.  Some with fragile, expensive lace.  And some with fringe or even fur.  The only limit for a lady was her budget and her own good taste (or the good taste of her modiste!).  But do take note: not every style or color was suitable for every age, event, or time of day.  If you are a writer or researcher, I encourage you to consult a reliable reference book for more detail.  The following links may provide a starting point:

Nineteenth Century Fashion in Detail by Lucy Johnston

Fashion: The Definitive History of Costume and Style by DK Publishing

*Authors Note: I edited this post after its initial release, substituting one 1880s gown for another in order to better illustrate the second bustle era.  If you would like to see the original 1880s gown I used, you can view it at the Met Museum HERE.

Mimi Matthews is the author of The Pug Who Bit Napoleon: Animal Tales of the 18th and 19th Centuries (to be released by Pen and Sword Books in November 2017).  She researches and writes on all aspects of nineteenth century history—from animals, art, and etiquette to fashion, beauty, feminism, and law. 

© 2015-2017 Mimi Matthews

For exclusive information on upcoming book releases, giveaways, and other special treats, subscribe to Mimi’s Quarterly Newsletter by clicking the link below.

mimis-newsletter-icon-1

You can also connect with Mimi on Facebook and Twitter.


For more 19th century fashion, follow Mimi on Pinterest!

40 thoughts on “The Evolution of the 19th Century Gown: A Visual Guide

  1. Sarah Waldock says:

    An excellent post! I have been doing some research for Giselle Marks, and 1800 was a period in which stripes were definitely IN. Also checks, though the main impression tended to be of strong stripes with some cross-threads in many cases. Also polka dots which had been in for much of the previous decade. The first ever bustle era was in the 1770s, reprised to some extent in the early 1790s where there was a hint of the S-shaped figure that was reprised and reached its height with the Edwardian look. I can imagine some old lady saying of the bustle, as my mother said of pencil skirts in the 1980s “How dowdy and frumpish and old fashioned they look! why, that was what we were wearing when I was a girl!”

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mimi Matthews says:

      Glad you liked it Sarah 🙂 The stripes do look lovely on those older gowns, too. I’m not surprised they were popular. I think when they classify the first and second bustle era what is really meant is the first and second Victorian bustle era. But you’re right – it was definitely around in the 18th century as well.

      Like

  2. carolineshenton says:

    Lovely post, but just as a point of information, Jane Eyre, though published in 1847, narrates events which occurred at least a decade previously, and some internal references even suggest the 1820s or earlier…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mimi Matthews says:

      Glad you enjoyed it. Jane Eyre covers several years in Jane’s life (in some ways roughly mirroring Charlotte’s own life). It is my understanding that it spans into the early 40s. Though, I do believe dates for the setting have been the cause of some debate among literary scholars.

      Like

      • Dorothy says:

        Scott’s Marmion, mentioned as “a new production” in Jane Eyre was published in 1810. This fixes the intended date of the story fairly firmly. Having said that, the spiritual period in which the story sets itself in our imaginations is the 1840s! That’s the nice thing about imagination, it allows a person to do impossible things!

        Liked by 1 person

      • Mimi Matthews says:

        How odd! I wonder why I’ve always heard so many wrangling over the date of it? And I admit I completely missed the Marmion connection. This certainly puts a whole new light on Jane Eyre!

        Like

  3. beppie2014 says:

    How I do enjoy your posts! This one is particularly useful and I’m filing it mainly for my own reference–it’s wonderful to have the decades so distinguished. Thank you for so generously sharing all your research, not only this blog but all the others.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Mary Scott says:

    Thanks. Loved it. Great to see such a span so easily.
    You seem to be a fan of Bronte, so you may find the following as interesting as I did.
    Did you know that a poem by Charlotte Bronte, written when she was 17, was recently discovered in an old book:
    “Mary thou dids’t not know that I was nigh
    Thou dids’t not know my gaze was fixed on thee,
    I stood apart and watched thee passing by
    In all thy calm unconscious majesty.”
    For more info, see an article in The Guardian Newspaper, dated Friday November 13.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mimi Matthews says:

      Glad you liked it, Mary 🙂 And thanks so much for the poem! I think there was something about it on twitter, but I had not had a chance to read the actual article yet. I love when new work from much beloved authors is discovered!

      Like

  5. Vickie says:

    These dresses are so beautiful – I can imagine anyone that could afford to wear them must have felt the same. Thank you for your research and presenting them so well – everything you do is so lovely!

    Liked by 1 person

      • woostersauce2014 says:

        It is but I suppose it did reflect the fact that more women were now entering the labour force either out of choice or out of necesity. Those clothes you mentioned were for women of leisure and to demonstrate wealth and status. The fashions that emerged out of the 1920s was the beginning of the democratisation of fashion which continues to this day.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Mimi Matthews says:

        Precisely! And also the women’s rights movement at the turn of the century, the popularity of the bicycle, and so many other influences on women’s fashion. In some ways a lady’s gown was a barometer for the times.

        Liked by 1 person

      • woostersauce2014 says:

        Yes and of course with modern day clothes, the fact that we have pantyhose, washing machine friendly clothing and even those that don’t need to be ironed reflects the fact that women lead busier lives now. Someone also said that the invention of the zipper was revolutionary in terms of clothes.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Mimi Matthews says:

        Very good points! And I remember hearing that about the zipper, too. Just think how many buttons it saved a lady from doing up and down everyday. And, for some women, it probably lessened the need for a lady’s maid – leading to greater independence.

        Liked by 1 person

      • woostersauce2014 says:

        Well said because with zippers it was easier to dress yourself and no need for a maid to help you. And of course zippers also saved on repairs, how many times does one have to sew a button back on? But a zipper? I doubt it.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Sarah Waldock says:

        Although when modern nylon zippers break to many people this means throwing away the garment! any idiot can sew on a button but unpicking and setting in a zipper, especially in a fly, or in a figure-hugging gown with a looooooong zip all the way down the back, takes a bit of skill. And I loathe and detest doing it and that’s one reason I don’t do repairs for money on the side, only for neighbours in a quid pro quo barter system.

        Liked by 2 people

  6. Maggie Craig says:

    Loved this post, so interesting to see the transition. Looks like the crinoline was more cumbersome than many of the hooped petticoats of the 18th century, which men also complained about! I found one plaintive: “This is designed to keep us at a distance.”

    I prefer the Regency styles myself but these paintings by Winterhalter and others of these huge gowns are fabulous. Keep up the good work!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mimi Matthews says:

      I’m happy you enjoyed it, Maggie 🙂 Strangely, I think that once they switched to the wire cage crinoline, the big gowns weren’t so cumbersome – though they were certainly unpleasant for everyone in a lady’s path! And I agree with you about the Winterhalter paintings. He had a way of making everything beautiful.

      Like

Comments are closed.