The 1840s ushered in a decade of gowns designed in what some 19th century historians describe as the “Victorian Gothic” style. Gone were the wretched gigot sleeves of the late 1820s and early to mid-1830s. In their place were tight, formfitting sleeves which made it impossible for a lady to raise her arms above a certain level. Meanwhile, corsets were cinched to the utmost and skirts grew larger, further limiting a lady’s movements. As fashion historian C. Willett Cunnington states, the 1840s was a decade in which the restrictive design of women’s gowns “symbolized a ladylike dependence on others.”
*Please note: These are primarily visual guides – fashion CliffsNotes, if you will. For more in depth information, please consult the recommended links.
Beginning the decade, bodices came to a distinct point at the waist. Skirts were dome-shaped and, for evening wear, were often heavily flounced or trimmed. In addition, the rich fabrics that we now associate with Victorian fashion were becoming popular. Though not all fabric used was strictly modern. The below gown from 1840 is made of ivory silk dating back to 1760!
Gowns were set low on the shoulder, with sleeves tight to the arm . Bishops sleeves were also quite fashionable. An August of 1840 issue of Godey’s Lady’s Book describes two day gowns of particular beauty that season:
Fig. 1.— Coloured silk skirt, the bottom trimmed with three folds, figured mull spencer, bishop sleeves, with sash to match the dress. Chip bonnet, ornamented with flowers.
Fig. 2.— White skirt trimmed with a broad flounce— spencer similar to that in figure 1— pink sash— straw bonnet, ornamented with roses and pink ribands.
Moving into the year 1841, sleeves in day dresses were substantially tighter and skirts were becoming plainer. However, according to Cunnington, the most significant change in 1841 was the way that the skirts were set on the bodice. He writes:
“…the most important innovation, beginning to appear in the spring, is ‘a new method of setting the skirt by gauging it round the top as far as the points of the hips; by this means the excessive fullness (which otherwise would be disposed in pleats or gathers) is formed exactly to the shape.”
For this new, fuller style of skirt, a bustle was introduced. Very different from the late-Victorian wire cage bustles that we are more familiar with, the 1840s bustle was simply a padding of wool. As Cunnington explains:
“During the first half of the decade, in skirts of heavy materials, there was frequently inserted a padding of wool between the dress and the lining just over the back of each hip, to increase the bustle effect. Towards the end of the decade when flat pleating tended to replace the gauging this padding was no longer needed.”
The below images show both a side view and a 3/4 view of the 1841 silk day dress above. In these images you can clearly see the bustle effect.
Proceeding into 1842, The Court, Lady’s Magazine, Monthly Critic and Museum reports that ladies had overcome their “natural antipathy to short sleeves.” This was especially true in evening dress, as evidenced by this image of an 1842 silk gown.
Another innovation of the 1840s was the dress with two, interchangeable bodices (usually one for day and one for evening). As Cunnington explains, these bodices could be “roughly tacked on to the skirt band as required.” The below image of an 1842 gown is an example of this new trend. It is made in three separate pieces: bodice, skirt, and pelerine (a cape or mantle).
Advancing into 1843, there were very few changes in the actual design of gowns. Sleeves remained tight, as did bodices. Skirts were very full and, according to Cunnington, tended to “lengthen almost to the ground.”
Though there were few changes in the structural design of gowns, the 1843 edition of Godey’s Lady’s Book reports that there were many new materials for dresses, including:
“…silks with a very narrow satin stripe— shaded or changeable satins — double levantines— or thick twilled silks— Scotch plaid velvets— oriental velvets— gros de Tours— embroidered India muslins— and very rich white Thibets damasked with satin flowers.”
The below image is a lovely example of stripes with a floral pattern. As you can see on the 1843 gown shown above, when taken as a whole, this pattern is really quite subtle.
The fashion in gowns for 1844 continued much as the previous year, however, the use of luxurious fabrics abounded even in dresses for at home wear. In the 1844 edition of Godey’s Lady’s Book, for example, the fashion plate and gowns for the month of April include a morning dress made of cashmere. Below is the actual image from Godey’s and the accompanying description of styles and fabrics for each gown.
Fig. I. — A dress of rich lavender gros des lndes; the skirt full and corsage half high; sleeves are made perfectly plain, and over which is worn a splendid mantilla of white figured tulle, encircled with a broad volant of lace. Transparent white bonnet entirely covered on the exterior with a magnificent white lace; the crown prettily decorated on the right side with a demi garland of white roses.
Fig. 2 —Dress of striped Balzarine; skirt decorated with two broad volants put on nearly plain; corsage high, trimmed with folds from the shoulder to the point of the waist; straight and tight sleeves; finished with a ruffle at the top of the sleeve and with a cap and folds to match the waist. Straw bonnet trimmed with plain ribbon.
Fig. 3. — A morning dress of white cashmere: the front of the skirt trimmed with a facing of pink; tight and high corsage, finished with a square collar, full hanging sleeves, bordered and faced to match the skirt. Under dress of mull muslin, trimmed round the bottom with two embroideries. Cap of light spotted lace, decorated with roses – this, cap is considered the neatest of the season, and is universally admired.
One notable change in 1844 was in the sleeves. The tight, close-fitting sleeves of the early part of the decade, though still a feature of many fashionable gowns, were gradually giving way to a looser, bell-shaped sleeve, as seen in the image below.
By 1845, the focus was beginning to shift downward toward the skirts. Elaborate trimmings, including flounces, scallops, and even ornamental buttons were not uncommon. Meanwhile, rounded waists were gradually becoming more acceptable again, though pointed waists still prevailed in most fashionable gowns.
In evening gowns, sleeves were short and bodices were tighter than ever. Necklines and sleeves were often trimmed with lace or tulle, as in the below image of an 1845 dress and train of embroidered silk satin.
Entering 1846, Cunnington reports that the Gothic silhouette of the early part of the decade was softening, the sharp angles of dresses being “further diminished by an abundance of trimming.” Gowns were made with rich fabrics and adorned with fringe, lace, frogging, buttons, and bows.
In evening gowns, the 1846 issue of the New Monthly Belle Assemblée describes elaborate styles in skirts for the season, stating:
“Some satin robes, made with double skirts, have the upper one trimmed with lace. Some of the most novel of these dresses have the lace very broad, and looped on one side by a bouquet of flowers, or an ornament of jewelry.”
This certainly did not mean that plain gowns had gone completely out of style. For day wear, simpler gowns with subdued flounces and trimmings were still quite popular with many ladies. As an example, I give you the below gown – which harkens back to the Romantic styles of the 1830s.
Advancing into 1847, the elaborate trimmings of the previous year still held sway, both in evening and in day wear. As an example of how excessive some of the trimmings could be for simple at home or walking dresses, the 1847 edition of the Ladies Cabinet of Fashion, Music, & Romance describes two stylish day gowns:
No. 1. MORNING DRESS. French grey silk pelisse robe; the corsage made quite high, and trimmed with a pelerine lappel cut in sharp dents. Long tight sleeves, with deep cuffs to correspond. The front of the skirt is ornamented with folds placed crosswise, and forming a tablier; the folds are cut in dents, and ornamented at each corner with buttons; they are lightly embroidered, as are also those on the corsage and sleeves, chapeau of straw-coloured taffeta glace; a round shape, trimmed with white marabouts and white ribbons.
No. 2. PUBLIC PROMENADE DRESS. Muslin robe; a high full corsage, and demi-large sleeves; the skirt is trimmed with three deep flounces; they are festooned at the edges, and embroidered in detached sprigs. White crape capote, a close shape; the garniture is composed of folds of white and pink shaded ribbon, and knots of the same on the exterior; brides of the same. Pink taffeta mantelet, rather more than a half-length, high in the neck, and made with a hood, which, as well as the round of the mantelet, is trimmed with a ruche to correspond.
In addition to even more elaborate trimmings, skirts in 1847 had become markedly fuller. They now required so much fabric that the material could no longer be gauged to the waist as in the previous years. Instead, it was once again pleated and gathered.
During 1848, the silhouette of women’s gowns changed little from the previous year. However, Cunnington reports that there was an inclination to “introduce in day dresses the funnel-shaped opening to the sleeve.” In addition, by the summer of 1848, skirts grew shorter and “the foot became once more visible.” The 1848 afternoon dress below is a wonderful example of the funnel-shaped sleeves and excessive trimmings that were popular that year.
Closing out the decade, Cunnington states that gowns were merely “marking time.” In other words, fashion had not really progressed much. Bodices remained tight, sleeves were slender or slightly bell-shaped, and skirts were enormous. This silhouette was so popular that, except for minor changes in sleeves and the size skirts, it would continue on into the next two decades.
I hope you have found the above overview to be helpful in navigating your way through the often restrictive, Victorian Gothic gowns of the 1840s. Again, I remind you that this is just a brief, primarily visual, guide. If you would like to know more about the changes in fashion during the 1840s, I encourage you to consult a reliable reference book. The following links may provide a starting point:
Additional articles in my Visual Guide to 19th Century Fashion series are available at the links below:
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