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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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:
Additional articles in my Visual Guide to 19th Century Fashion series are available at the links below:
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!
Works Referenced or Cited in this Article
© 2015-2017 Mimi Matthews
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