The 1850s in Fashionable Gowns: A Visual Guide to the Decade

<Individual Images of Gowns via V & A Museum and Met Museum.)

The 1850s ushered in a decade of bright colors, exotic fabrics, and womanly curves.  Gone were the restrictive Gothic gowns of the 1840s.  In their place were distinctively feminine frocks with flowing, pagoda-style sleeves and impossibly full skirts supported by the newly introduced wire cage crinoline.  This was a decade during which fashion was influenced by the Crimean War, the emergence of the modern sewing machine, and the increasing independence of women themselves.  No longer content to be mere drawing room ornaments, ladies of the 1850s were beginning to break free from their domestic prisons and assert their rights in the outside world.  

*Please note: These are primarily visual guides – fashion CliffsNotes, if you will.  For more in depth information, please consult the recommended links.  

1850

Beginning the decade, the basic shape of gowns changed little from the late 1840s.  Waists remained small and sleeves and skirts continued to grow ever larger.  Rich fabrics were still quite popular and, according to the 1850 edition of the New Belle Assemblée, velvet was “far more in vogue” than silk.  The below gown from 1850 is a gorgeous example of velvet and silk combined.  Note the extremely full sleeves and pleated skirts.

1850 British Silk Dress.
(Image via Met Museum)

For day dress, two and three-piece ensembles consisting of jacket, bodice/waistcoat, and skirt were very much in fashion.  You can see examples of both in the image below.

1850 Stockholms Mode-Journal Illustration.

1850 Stockholms Mode-Journal Illustration.

Wide pagoda sleeves with false undersleeves (often made of lace, muslin, or cambric) were a common feature throughout the decade.  The below images show two varieties of 1850s undersleeves.  Both are made of cotton.

1850s British Cotton Undersleeves.(Image via Met Museum)

1850s British Cotton Undersleeves.
(Image via Met Museum)

1850s American Cotton Undersleeves.(Image via Met Museum)

1850s American Cotton Undersleeves.
(Image via Met Museum)

1851

Moving into the year 1851, waists were pointed and sleeves were long and funnel-shaped.  According to Cunnington, for daywear “the bare arm must never be exposed in the promenade.”  For eveningwear, however, short sleeves were preferred.  They were often trimmed with lace or silk fringe as seen in the early 1850s evening gown below.

1850s French Silk Evening Dress.(Image via Met Museum)

1850s French Silk Evening Dress.
(Image via Met Museum)

Though lace and fringe were still popular, 1851 saw the introduction of a velvet ribbon stamped to look like lace.  The 1851 issue of the New Belle Assemblée reports that such decadent trimmings were paired with equally decadent gowns, writing:

“Some of the most elegant are composed of velvet; ruby, green, and a bright shade of violet, are favourite hues…Some are trimmed with black lace, and a stamped velvet ribbon…Others are trimmed with passementerie, in imitation of embroidery in relief; these garnitures are equally novel and elegant.  Ruches of ribbons, disposed in zigzag, are also employed, and so are flat fancy trimmings, but neither are so much in vogue as the two first garnitures I have mentioned.”

The below image shows the gown that Queen Victoria wore to the opening of the Great Exhibition in 1851.  Made of Spitalfields silk, it perfectly embodies the silhouette of the early 1850s, complete with pointed bodice, scooped neck, and lace trimmed skirt and sleeves.

1851 Silk Dress worn by Queen Victoria to the opening of the Great Exhibition.(Image via Royal Collection Trust)

1851 Silk Dress worn by Queen Victoria to the opening of the Great Exhibition.
(Image via Royal Collection Trust)

1852

Proceeding into 1852, Cunnington reports that skirts were no longer “rigidly dome-shaped.”  Instead, they flowed outwards “on all sides.”  In addition the combination of jacket, waistcoat, and skirt for daywear was now seen in eveningwear as well.  This fashion, known as “waistcoat style” was yet another example of Victorian women asserting their independence.  As Cunnington states:

“…in the years ’51 and ’52 woman boldly annexed the masculine waistcoat and flaunted it in its owner’s face.”

The below image from an 1852 fashion magazine clearly shows the masculine influence on women’s style that year.  Note the coat and vest combination, softened by lace undersleeves and trimmings.

1852 Stockholms Mode-Journal Illustration.

1852 Stockholms Mode-Journal Illustration.

Elements of women’s fashion may have been masculine in design, but there was no mistaking the beauty and femininity of the flowing lines, rich fabrics, and colors.  To that end, the May 1852 issue of Godey’s Lady’s Book reports on the increasing popularity of patterned silks in a variety of beautiful shades:

“The spring silks are principally of mode colors, striped, plaided, and waved.  The stripes are sometimes of embroidery patterns, in different colors.  India silks are in every variety, of beautiful shades, and will be very much worn as a neat and inexpensive dress.  Pale violet, blue, green, and mode colors predominate.  Their advantage is, that there is no up or down, right or wrong side, and will bear turning, and even washing in clear soapsuds.”

The below image of an 1852 afternoon dress provides one example of the patterned silk fabrics that were so much in favor that year.

1852 American Silk Afternoon Dress.(Image via Met Museum)

1852 American Silk Afternoon Dress.
(Image via Met Museum)

1853

Advancing into 1853, the waistcoat style of the previous two years gave way to the “caraco corsage” or caraco body.  Previously worn in the 1840s (and the 18th century!), the caraco was a thigh length jacket with an open front.  It was usually worn over a chemisette.  Describing this new style in gowns, the 1853 issue of the Ladies Companion and Monthly Magazine writes:

Illustration of Gowns, Ladies Companion and Monthly Magazine, 1853.

“The waists are not shorter; basques are still worn, and almost all the skirts are made separate from the bodies; some people, when at home, wear a tight-fitting corsage, with basques different from the skirt; but this is not considered in good taste; it is only with a caraco that this may be done, or with a corsage caraco; that is to say a corsage which is not tight to the shape, and which is trimmed with lace or fringe: the plainest are those with rows of velvet or galon.”

The caraco was not the only throwback to the 18th century.  The 1850s saw a general revival of Louis XV styles.  A profusion of lace and trimmings decorated day dresses which were made in even richer materials.  With the increase in the width of skirts, there was even some rumbling in Victorian fashion magazines about whether or not the 18th century pannier would be re-introduced.

The 1853-1854 silk day dress on the below left is a very good example of how gowns of the 1850s were influenced by 18th century style.  Compare it to the 1853 silk evening dress on the below right.  The contrast between the two is not as extreme as that between day and evening dresses in previous decades.

1853-1854 Silk Day Dress with Evening Bodice.(Image via FIDM Museum)

1853-1854 Silk Day Dress with Evening Bodice.
(Image via FIDM Museum)

1853 French Silk Evening Dress.(Image via Met Museum)

1853 French Silk Evening Dress.
(Image via Met Museum)

1854

Colors and trimmings in fashion for 1854 were heavily influenced by the beginning of the Crimean War.  According to Cunnington:

“There was a distinct liking for ‘Oriental’ effects and Turkish style in a host of details.  The rich conglomeration of colours favoured in Eastern embroidery, with Turkish tassels, crescent brooches and ornaments, displayed our sympathy with our ‘gallant ally’— of the moment.”

Below is an 1854 day gown of wool and silk.  It’s stunning color, print, and tassel trim is one example of how fashion was influenced by the war.

1854-1856 Wool and Silk Day Dress.(Image via FIDM Museum)

1854-1856 Wool and Silk Day Dress.
(Image via FIDM Museum)

When it came to the silhouette of gowns, however, the shape was much as it had been in the previous year.  The only change was the ever-increasing size of the skirts.  As Cunnington states:

“…not even the onset of a war could arrest the inevitable growth of the skirt by which the modern woman of the day was unconsciously symbolising her increasing importance in the world.”

You can see the increase in skirt size in the below image of an 1854-1856 silk dress.  Notice the heavy used of teal-colored fringe on the jacket bodice and the scalloped edge on the flounces of the skirts.

1854-1856 British Silk Dress.(Image via Met Museum)

1854-1856 British Silk Dress.
(Image via Met Museum)

1855

By 1855, skirts had grown even larger.  Often trimmed with row upon row of stiff flounces, they stood out from the body over layers of petticoats and heavy crinolines.  Bodices were tight to the shape and wide sleeves with lace or cambric undersleeves continued to be fashionable in day dresses.  The 1855 silk carriage dress below artfully combines some of the most popular features of that year.  In addition to wide sleeves and full, flounced skirts with scalloped edging, it is heavily trimmed with lace, ribbon, and buttons made of metal and glass.

1855 British Silk Carriage Dress.(Image via National Gallery of Victoria)

1855 British Silk Carriage Dress.
(Image via National Gallery of Victoria)

Rich fabrics and colors remained all the rage.  In addition to silks, taffetas, and velvets, there was silk plush and cashmere.  Meanwhile shades of deep green, dark olive, and Sevres blue only served to enhance the luxuriousness of gowns for both day and evening.  The 1855 issue of Godey’s Lady’s Book describes two gowns of particular beauty:

Illustration of Gowns, Godey's Lady's Book, 1855.

Illustration of Gowns, Godey’s Lady’s Book, 1855.

Fig. 1. — A carriage dress of the richest deep green taffeta, woven alternately with velvet stripes a still darker shade.  Skirt plain and full, the material being too rich to admit of trimming.  Jacket corsage, high at the throat, and fastened by small fancy buttons, bretelle trimming, a chain-work of narrow gimp cord, edged with heavy fringe, which also surrounds the basque, and makes four rows upon the loose open sleeves, completely covering them.  A plain low corsage, with a fall of black guipure from the jockey, or sleeve cap, transforms this into an elegant dinner or evening dress.  Bonnet of apricot-colored taffeta, with plumes a deeper shade.  Small muff of ermine, scarlet cashmere shawl.

Fig. 2. — Dress of deep Sydenham Pekin, of a rich Greek pattern in. black.  Cloak of dark olive green velvet, trimmed with sable, or ostrich plumes, colored in imitation of fur.  The Czarina cloak is in itself a comfortable garment, with a double cape, forming a sleeve to protect the arm; and, being thickly wadded and quilted, is suitable for very cold weather.  Bonnet of white taffeta, with a deep fall of blonde, turned back from the brim.

Illustration of Gown with Open Sleeves, Godey's Lady's Book, 1855.

Illustration of Gown with Open Sleeves, Godey’s Lady’s Book, 1855.

I cannot close out the year without mentioning a new variation in sleeves.  The image on the left, taken from the 1855 issue of Godey’s, shows a jacket with sleeves which are open from the shoulder to the wrist to expose the cambric undersleeve.  The cuff of the sleeve is then turned up just enough to show the fall of the undersleeve at the wrist.  Also notice that the dark, velvet jacket is worn with a lighter colored poplin skirt.  This combination of dark jacket/caraco with a light colored skirt was quite common in 1855 and considered to be very fashionable.

1856

1856 is most notable for being the year that the wire cage crinoline was introduced.  Made of hooped wires secured by fabric tape, this technological marvel could accommodate skirts that were fuller and heavier and, as a result, during the years from 1856 through 1866, skirts grew to their largest proportions yet.  The increase in the size of the skirts is plainly visible in the below image of a mid-1850s silk dinner dress.

1855-1859 British Silk and Cotton Dinner Dress.(Image via Met Museum)

1855-1859 British Silk and Cotton Dinner Dress.
(Image via Met Museum)

The wire cage crinoline notwithstanding, the fashion in gowns was relatively unchanged from the previous year.  Sleeves remained full and the 1856 edition of Godey’s Lady’s Book advised that – unless they were made of thicker silk or a striped pattern – skirts should have three to five flounces.  In addition, Godey’s reports:

“Very pretty fancy trimmings are now put on the fronts of skirts.  This fashion is at once elegant and distinguished.

The 1856-1858 striped silk taffeta gown below is trimmed on the front of the skirts with six rows of tassels.  The same trimming is used on the bodice and sleeves.

1856-1858 American Silk Taffeta Dress.(Image via MFA Boston)

1856-1858 American Silk Taffeta Dress.
(Image via MFA Boston)

1857

The end of the Crimean War brought about a burst of change in women’s fashion.  The most noticeable was, of course, the further expansion of the skirts.  It now took as much as eighteen yards of fabric or more to complete a gown.  Short sleeves were still preferred for evening dress and, though satin was making a comeback, silk was still the most common fabric for ball gowns.  The below evening dress from 1857-1860 is made of silk and trimmed along the neckline and sleeves with gold silk fringe.

1857-1860 American Silk Evening Dress.(Image via Met Museum)

1857-1860 American Silk Evening Dress.
(Image via Met Museum)

Yet another change in 1857 was the new fashion for highly contrasting colors.  As Cunnington reports:

“A few years back a pretty woman would not have dared to go out in the toilets of to-day; at present she actually wears, on either side of her skirt, mountings of a different colour from the dress itself and in the most glaring contrast to it.”

The below image of an 1857 printed twill day dress gives some idea of how contrasting colors were used to fashionable effect.  Note that the basic silhouette of the gown has not changed from the previous years.  The sleeves are still large with light-colored, cotton undersleeves and, on heavily patterned fabrics, the skirts were devoid of trimmings.

1857 Printed Twill Day Dress.(Image via FIDM Museum)

1857 Printed Twill Day Dress.
(Image via FIDM Museum)

For even greater color contrast, I give you the below image of an 1857-1860 silk and embroidered gold court ensemble.  Made of pumpkin colored fabric with a blue train, it is a truly a work of art.

1857-1860 Italian Silk and Gold Court Ensemble(Image via Met Museum)

1857-1860 Italian Silk and Gold Court Ensemble
(Image via Met Museum)

1857-1860 Italian Silk and Gold Court Ensemble
(Image via Met Museum)

1858

During 1858, women’s skirts grew to enormous proportions and, thanks to the wire cage crinoline, women of every class could now sport this extreme silhouette.  As a result, factory girls and housemaids alike fell victim to skirt-related accidents and outlandish reports were circulated of society ladies whose skirts had burst into flames during a party or caused the wearer to be blown off a cliff.

Woman Blown off a Cliff, The Dangers of Crinoline, 1858.

Woman Blown off a Cliff, The Dangers of Crinoline, 1858.

Pamphlets were published on the dangers of crinolines and caricatures abounded of ladies knocking gentlemen off of sidewalks or crushing them with their skirts.  (For more on the wire cage crinoline, see my article HERE.)

Crinolines on an Omnibus by Charles Vernier, 1850s.

Crinolines on an Omnibus by Charles Vernier, 1850s.

Flounces and trimmings did not generally suit the new style in larger skirts.  This did not mean that such embellishment had fallen completely by the wayside.  A wide double or triple flounce was still fashionable and, as evidenced by the 1858-1860 printed cotton dress below, could still be quite attractive.

1858-1860 British Printed Cotton Summer Day Dress.(Image via Victoria and Albert Museum)

1858-1860 British Printed Cotton Summer Day Dress.
(Image via Victoria and Albert Museum)

A double flounce in evening gowns was also a popular choice.  The below 1858 evening dress with short sleeves is made of striped silk with a wide double flounce.

1858-1859 American Silk Evening Dress.(Image via Met Museum)

1858-1859 American Silk Evening Dress.
(Image via Met Museum)

Fashionable ensembles that converted from day to evening with the removal of a jacket or detachable bodice were also very much in style.  The below 1858 silk gown is one example of this trend.  It is shown on the left with a removable velvet and fringe-trimmed jacket and on the right with short, tulle-trimmed sleeves.

1858 American Silk Ensemble.(image via Met Museum)

1858 American Silk Ensemble.
(image via Met Museum)

1858 American Silk Ensemble.(image via Met Museum)

1858 American Silk Ensemble.
(image via Met Museum)

1859

Closing out the decade, skirts grew short enough in front to reveal a lady’s foot.  According to Cunnington:

“The effect of this threatened maneuver on a generation of males who for nearly twenty years had never caught sight of a woman’s ankles, except by a fleeting accident, must have been overwhelming, like the first introduction of poison gas in war.”

Gowns frequently had a belted waist and, in day dresses, bodices were typically buttoned all the way up to the neck.  When it came to sleeves, the wide, pagoda style of the previous years was reduced into a narrower bell-shaped or “funnel style” sleeve (as seen in the 1859 cotton day dress below).  In some gowns, the sleeves were slit all the way up the arm, revealing the puffed undersleeves beneath.

1859-1861 Silk Plaid Taffeta Day Dress.(Image via MFA Boston)

1859-1861 Silk Plaid Taffeta Day Dress.
(Image via MFA Boston)

Evening dresses continued to be short-sleeved, with the 1859 edition of Peterson’s Magazine reporting:

“Rich silks of plain colors, poplins, and plaid silks and poplins of very light colors, are all fashionable.  Velvet trimmings woven in the material are very much worn, and have a rich, massive appearance suited to the season.  Granite or speckled silks in various shades of grey are also fashionable.  These are trimmed with bright colors, such as cherry, bright blue, bright green, collar and cuffs or plaids.”

The below 1859 ball gown of silk taffeta is one example of a fashionable plaid print.

1859-1860 American silk taffeta evening dress via MFA for article

1859-1860 American Silk Taffeta Evening Dress
(Image via MFA Boston)

A suitable coda to this fashionable decade is provided by the 1859 issue of Godey’s Lady’s Book.  Pausing for a moment from their advice on stylish fabrics and colors, they address the new fashion in huge skirts, writing:

“Generally speaking, young ladles are now presenting a very formidable appearance of amplitude…We do not, by any means, then, ask our young ladies, in defiance of fashion and foolishness, to grow ‘beautifully less;’ but we would suggest to them to let these expansions become intellectual as well as superficial. It surely would be ridiculous to carry a narrow mind and contracted heart under that monstrous outward show.”

IN CLOSING…

I hope you have found the above overview to be helpful in navigating your way through the pagoda sleeved, wire cage crinoline supported gowns of the 1850s.  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 1850s, I encourage you to consult a reliable reference book.  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

English Women’s Clothing in the Nineteenth Century by C. Willett Cunnington

Additional articles in my Visual Guide to 19th Century Fashion series are available at the links below:

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

The 1820s in Fashionable Gowns: A Visual Guide to the Decade

The 1830s in Fashionable Gowns: A Visual Guide to the Decade

The 1840s in Fashionable Gowns: A Visual Guide to the Decade

The 1860s in Fashionable Gowns: A Visual Guide to the Decade

The 1870s in Fashionable Gowns: A Visual Guide to the Decade

The 1880s in Fashionable Gowns: A Visual Guide to the Decade

I’m off for New Year’s Day this Friday so there will be no Animals in Literature and History post this week.  I hope you all enjoy the rest of your holiday.  I wish you each a very Happy New Year.  See you in 2016!

1860 Christmas and New Year Card.
(Image via Victoria and Albert Museum)

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. 

Sources

Cunnington, C. Willett.  English Women’s Clothing in the Nineteenth Century.  London: Faber and Faber Ltd., 1939.

Godey’s Lady’s Book.  Philadelphia: Louis A. Godey, May 1852.

Godey’s Lady’s Book.  Vol. 46-47.  Philadelphia: Louis A. Godey, 1853.

Godey’s Lady’s Book.  Vol. LI.  Philadelphia: Louis A. Godey, 1855.

Godey’s Lady’s Book.  Vol. LII.  Philadelphia: Louis A. Godey, 1856.

Godey’s Lady’s Book.  Vol. LV.  Philadelphia: Louis A. Godey, 1857.

Godey’s Lady’s Book.  Vol. LVII.  Philadelphia: Louis A. Godey, 1858.

Godey’s Lady’s Book.  Vol. LVIII.  Philadelphia: Louis A. Godey, 1859.

Ladies Companion and Monthly Magazine.  Vol. III.  London: Rodgerson and Tuxford, 1853.

New Monthly Belle Assemblée.  Vol. XXXII.  London: Norfolk Street, 1850.

New Monthly Belle Assemblée.  Vol. XXXIV.  London: Norfolk Street, 1851.

Peterson’s Magazine.  Vol. 35-36.  Philadelphia: C.J. Peterson, 1859.


© 2015-2017 Mimi Matthews

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29 thoughts on “The 1850s in Fashionable Gowns: A Visual Guide to the Decade

  1. Lucy says:

    This post has made me want to re-watch the BBC adaptation of Cranford, which is full of these dresses (and a hilarious incident with a cat and a lace collar). Happy new year, Mimi 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mimi Matthews says:

      Thanks, Terry 🙂 So glad you enjoyed it! And you’re absolutely right about Victorian fashion for relaxing around the house. Morning gowns and dressing gowns were often quite elaborate.

      Like

  2. woostersauce2014 says:

    Love this post and seeing how gowns change year after year with many of these changes fairly subtle. It made me laugh seeing all those cartoons about the dangers of crinolines and that even health and safety was already of some concern during those days.

    Hope you had a good Christmas and a Happy New Year.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. tammayauthor says:

    A really nice visual review of fashions in the 1850’s. I actually really love these dresses with the sleeves like that (tapered halfway up and then loose the rest of the way). My favorite is the 1853 silk dress (the one with the V-neck). Absolutely stunning.

    Tam

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Sean Munger says:

    Reblogged this on http://www.seanmunger.com and commented:
    I’ve never reblogged anything from Mimi Matthews’s blog before, but as soon as I saw this fascinating article I knew I had to share it. Mimi has been doing a series on fashion history in the 19th century. The evolution of clothing and fashion is an important element of social history, and I found it intensely interesting when I had to delve into it to research my novel Doppelgänger (I was researching the 1880s, not the 1850s). Since I don’t do a lot of fashion history on my own blog, I thought this would be an interesting look. She also has companion articles for other decades of the 19th century as well. Great job!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Adrienne Morris says:

    Loved this. My only question would be how you equated the rise in heavy hoops as an assertion of female independence. I see them as just another attempt by women to attract men since men (in general) have always been attracted to women with the hour glass figure–large hips etc) presumably as a sign of healthy childbearing bodies. I wonder if women were not just trying to attract more men. 🙂

    I know there were many jokes made at the expense of women’s bustles when they came into fashion (women competing for the biggest and best–even a song—The Saratoga Bend–for the way women walked carrying the bustle.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mimi Matthews says:

      Glad you enjoyed it, Adrienne 🙂 And very good questions. The view that the expanding size of women – in terms of their clothing – was linked to their demand for more space and notice in public life did not originate with me. It’s a popular view held by a lot of 19th century scholars. I write more about it in my article on the 19th century wire cage crinoline. Also, the fact was that, during that era, men almost universally despised the crinoline and the extreme silhouette that it created. There is a lot more about this in my crinoline article, too.

      Like

      • Adrienne Morris says:

        That’s what I find so amusing. Women use fashion to attract men but never really ask the men what they think 🙂 Even today surveys come out occasionally asking men if they like lipstick or whatever and they usually say no (to whatever the latest trend is). I think women really do it to compete with each other.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Mimi Matthews says:

        Some women (and men!) do use fashion to compete with each other. For many, though, I think it is not a matter of competition, but a matter of self-expression. This is especially true for ladies in an era where so many forms of self-expression were stifled. In addition, fashion (from the fine textiles, to delicate sewing, to unique ways of draping fabric) is also an art form and there are many of us who appreciate it purely for its own sake.

        Like

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