The 1860s was the most significant decade in 19th century women’s fashion. It began with skirts having reached their maximum size of the century and ended with the yards of fabric that had once been draped over enormous wire crinolines being drawn to the back and draped over a wire bustle. This was a dramatic change in silhouette, further accentuated by the popularity of tightly laced corsets and the gradual raising of hemlines to expose a lady’s feet – and her ankles!
This was also the decade of the American Civil War. It had no direct effect on the evolution of fashionable dresses, however, in consideration of reenactors (many of whom make their own costumes), I’ve included extra images in this article. As a result, it may be a bit longer than previous installments in this series.
*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 majority of gowns were now machine made and, thanks to the invention of aniline dyes, fabrics came in a new range of colors, including mauve and magenta. Meanwhile, crinolines were at their absolute largest. Hemlines could be as much as 10 to 15 feet in circumference.
Although large skirts were still all the rage, the first signs of change were beginning to be visible. According to fashion historian C. Willett Cunnington, skirts were now very slightly gored on each side. This goring had the effect of flattening the front. The new shape was relatively subtle, but it nonetheless necessitated that crinolines be altered to fit. Addressing this change in undergarments, an article in the 1860 edition of Godey’s Lady’s Book reports that “the best people” preferred “the trailing bell shape” of wire crinoline.
In the below side view of an 1860-1865 gown, you can clearly see the change in shape as the fabric of the skirts flattens in the front and “trails” in the back.
There was not a great deal of change in the area of sleeves in 1860. Pagoda sleeves with puffed undersleeves were still widely worn, as were close fitting long sleeves that ended at the wrist. The latter type of sleeve is shown in the below image of a gown from 1860-1865. The side image of this gown also shows the subtle change in the shape of the skirts.
Moving into 1861, hemlines were made shorter in the front to allow for freedom of movement when walking. Skirts, though still very full, continued to drift toward the back of the gown. An 1861 issue of Godey’s Lady’s Book explains:
“…three points of gores are added at the bottom of the under skirt, one between the widths at each side, and one behind. These points make the lower part of the skirt spread well, and form a train.”
When it came to fabrics, the ladies of 1861 were rather spoiled for choice. For daywear, there were terry velvets and poplins. While for eveningwear, Godey’s declares:
“For young ladies, thulle [sic], white and colored crape, gauze, tarleton, and other diaphanous fabrics, are the most suitable. Still, the rich silks in stripes of contrasting high colors, in moire, and particularly watered silks, in stripes of large and small waves, or brocaded silks with plain grounds, and Jacquarded figures, seem to be most sought after.”
Striped fabrics were particularly popular, with Godey’s reporting:
“The novelty of the season is the Chevron dress…This dress has diagonal stripes of rose de chine, about an inch and a half in width, meeting in the centre of the breadth, and between these stripes are bouquets of roses with their foliage, which has a charming effect. We have had this design in silk, but this is the first appearance of diagonal stripes on muslin.”
Solid color fabrics had not fallen completely by the wayside. In fact, when trimmed with rich lace, silk fringe, or other embellishments, they could still be quite striking. A perfect example of this is the 1861 lace-trimmed, black silk dress below. Note that the skirt is drawing toward the back. It even has a stylish bow where, in future, the bustle will be.
Proceeding into 1862, skirts were still the primary focus. However, instead of directing their attention to the size of their crinolines, Cunnington reports that English ladies were more interested in displaying their petticoats. He writes:
“The coloured petticoat was far too ravishing to remain hid, so that the device of the hitched-up skirt became common.”
Tightly fitting jackets, especially Spanish bolero jackets, were very much in style and many fashion plates of the day show gowns with voluminous skirts, narrow waists, and buttoned up bodices topped with smart little coats. The below 1862 French silk gown is one example of this fashion.
An article in the 1862 edition of the Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine reports that simplicity was the order of the day when it came to traveling clothes, seaside wear, and country fashions. Trimmings were spare, but elegant and, as the article states:
“Any young lady industriously inclined could, at a very trifling cost, arrange for herself a pretty sea-side costume, by purchasing a few yards of piqué or alpaca, and some narrow black worsted braid.”
The below image of an 1862 American cotton promenade dress illustrates this principle perfectly. It is both simple and elegant and is an ideal ensemble for the seaside.
Advancing into 1863, the Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine reports that “fancy jackets and waistcoats appear to be more in vogue than ever.” Addressing popular colors, the magazine states:
“The following colours are destined to be very fashionable: —Mexican blue, nankeen, dove-colour, Chinese green, with varieties of purple, and all shades of grey and of buff, and such undefined tints”
The below gown in a lovely shade of blue is one example of the fashionable shape and color of dresses in 1863.
This very pretty green gown is another example of the rich colors popular that year, as well as of the shape.
According to the 1863 edition of the Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine, dresses were made longer “with perfect trains behind.” The below images show the side view of the green and blue gowns above. You can clearly see the beginnings of the bustle shape that would eventually overtake the crinoline silhouette.
The fashions in 1864 did not change greatly from the previous year. Skirts were now heavily gored. Jackets and waistcoats continued to be very popular. And for daywear, sleeves were long and shaped to the arm.
For eveningwear, sleeves were short and bodices were cut low off the shoulders. Ball gowns were often trimmed with tulle and lace on the neckline and sleeves, as seen in the below image.
As for the length of hemlines, the 1864 edition of Godey’s Lady’s Book reports:
“Skirts are made quite short in front, and all the fullness is thrown to the back, which is made very long.”
The front of the skirts continued to flatten as the bulk of the fabric moved toward the back. This is plainly visible in the purple dress below.
Colors were vibrant even in daywear. A striking example of this can be seen in the below image of a rich green silk taffeta dress.
With more fabric at the back of the gown, the train grew longer, pooling on the floor behind. You can see examples of this in the below images which show side views of the purple and green gowns above.
By the spring of 1865, fashion magazines were foretelling the end of the crinoline. An April article published in the 1865 edition of Godey’s Lady’s Book reports:
“It is said that a radical change is soon to take place in fashions. Crinoline is to be discarded, skirts to be gored almost tight to the figure, and very short. Waists are also to be short, and heart-shaped in front, and worn with wide belts and large buckles. We give this merely as an on dit; we think the costumes of our grandmothers are not likely to be adopted very soon by us.”
In fact, by the close of the year, the most fashionable ladies in society had abandoned the crinoline in favor of gored horsehair petticoats. For the average lady of style, however, crinolines were still generally worn. This did not prevent the continued change in silhouette. For example, in the below image of a white satin ball dress trimmed with ribbons, you can see how the majority of flounces and adornment are toward the back of the dress.
On some gowns, the elaborate trim on the skirts foreshadowed the heavy tassels and fringe that would come to adorn the bustled gowns at the end of the decade. We get a glimpse of this in the breathtaking 1865 silk ball gown below.
Not all dresses were as heavily embellished. Many day dresses, like the lovely silk taffeta gown below, remained relatively simple.
Entering 1866, Cunnington reports that “the principle of two colours in one dress is further developed.” While the Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine states:
“The one universal law imposed by fashion at present is that of the gored skirt. It gives great elegance to the figure, throwing all the fullness of the dress to the back, so as to form a graceful train, while in front the dress is quite plain, and short enough to let the feet show.”
The below image of an 1866 afternoon dress illustrates both the fashion in contrasting colors as well as the current style in long, graceful trains.
Though trimmed out less than the train, the front of the gown was not always completely devoid of adornment. An example of this can be seen in the below front facing image of the same afternoon dress shown above.
The fashion for hitching up skirts to reveal a decorative petticoat had generally fallen out of favor by the end of 1866. However, some examples of it can still be seen in both British and American fashion magazines of that year. The below image is from the 1866 Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine. It is particularly interesting because of the almost Steampunk-style way the overskirt of the morning promenade dress on the far left is hitched up with metal buckles. As the accompanying description reads:
“A dress of grey poplin or gros-grain silk, looped up with tirettes composed of velvet and steel, and fastened with steel buckles.”
For evening dresses, Cunnington reports that bodices were cut very low off the shoulders, with “shoulder straps or bows of ribbon.” Sleeves grew smaller and, in some ball gowns, appeared to disappear altogether. Many gowns sported a close-fitting belt or a ribbon sash. In the below image of an 1866 silk taffeta evening dress, you can see how the ribbon at the waist is tied in a large bow at the back, emphasizing the increased size of the skirts at the back of the gown.
At the beginning of the year, the 1867 edition of Godey’s Lady’s Book pronounced:
“The fiat has gone forth — short dresses are to be fashionable, and hoops are to be reduced in size. Already do we see a number of short-skirted, collapsed individuals perambulating our streets, but so far the custom is not general. It is, however, struggling hard for supremacy, which it is bound ere long to obtain.”
However, with long skirts, Godey’s concedes that “ample crinoline must of course be worn, to give a graceful sweep to the dress.”
There were those who still clung to their crinolines, but in fashionable capitols like Paris and London, most of the stylish female denizens embraced the new silhouette.
With tight fitting, buttoned bodices, sleeves shaped to the arms, and skirts artfully draped behind, the new style in gowns, such as the French silk visiting dress shown above and below, emphasized a lady’s assets in a way that the previous years of crinoline had failed to do. Cunnington refers to this new era in fashion as the “Epoch of Curves,” writing:
“We perceive, in this year, the different methods by which the curve is about to be exploited as a device of sexual attraction. The bulk of the dress moves further and further to the rear, taking on an undulating shape.”
1868 ushered in what is commonly known as the “first bustle era.” As for the crinoline, Cunnington reports:
“…the crinoline is now small and hooped only behind and at the bottom, becoming, in fact, a crinolette.”
Day dresses were now categorized into morning and afternoon costume. According to the 1868 issue of Godey’s Lady’s Book:
“For morning wear, dresses are mostly made high in the throat, but for afternoon toilette they are made as described, or with square neck, when a fichu is not worn.”
Day dresses had shorter skirts and did not have a train. The Metropolitan Museum classifies the below dress as an afternoon dress, however, given the style of the skirts, I am inclined to think that it is actually a morning gown.
Afternoon costumes generally had a train and were appropriate for a variety of activities, including, as Cunnington explains, “carriage, flower shows, concerts, and similar occasions.”
Trains were embellished with pleats, ribbons, bows, silk fringe, tassels, and decorative buttons. The below image shows the train of the same dress as above. You can see the dramatic effect achieved by heavy fringe and a few artfully placed bows.
Gowns in two contrasting solid colors were still quite popular. Often, the sole contrast was in the trim, with ribbons, bows, and fringe being a different color from the body of the gown. As you can see in the below images of an 1868 silk taffeta day dress, the effect of this contrast could be quite delicate and lovely.
Closing out the decade, an article in the 1869 issue of Godey’s Lady’s Book reports that, short skirts suitable for walking were “the only dress worn in the promenade.”
As for trains, Godey’s states that, though the length of fabric in a gown’s train was the same as the previous year (generally eighty inches from waist to the floor), trains appeared to be longer than ever, owing to the way fabric was draped over the hoops in the crinolette.
Further enhancing the shape of a lady’s gowns, Godey’s describes the new style of structural undergarment:
“A skirt of hair-cloth gored and trained, with three deep flounces on all but the front width, is by many substituted for the steel spring skirts.”
The previous years in women’s fashion had been almost exclusively focused on the skirts, but by 1869 attention was drawing upward. Bodices of gowns were now heavily adorned, corsets were very tightly laced, and, according to Cunnington, there was “a prevalence of huge sash bows” at the back. Not all gowns were made of heavy fabric trimmed with fringe and bows, however. For spring and summer, cotton was still quite popular and, when made in the new style, managed to look very sweet and pretty. The below gown is an 1869 cotton muslin summer day dress.
One recurring criticism in the final years of the decade was that elements of current fashion mimicked fashions from the court of Louis XV of France. In fact, by 1869, Cunnington states that lady’s fashions were a “frank revival” of the styles in the Louis XV period. As a frame of reference, below is the back view of a gown from 1745.
A suitable coda to this transitional decade in 19th century fashion is provided by C. Willett Cunnington – who, incidentally, appears to become a bit more cynical and more than slightly misogynistic as the decades progress. Addressing himself to the new, curvaceous silhouette in gowns, he writes:
“Above all, every device is employed to emphasise the diminutive waist. It was determined, in short, that the new weapon for man’s undoing should be the curve, of all weapons perhaps the least original but the most effective.”
I hope you have found the above overview to be helpful in navigating your way through the gowns of the 1860s. 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 1860s, 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:
**Author’s Note: I suspect that the years provided by the museums on a few of the images are not correct. For instance, the 1867 visiting dress and the 1861 black silk dress both look like they are from a later period to me. However, when writing an article, I stick to facts backed up by solid, verifiable research and, in this case, I preferred to rely on a museum expert’s knowledge over my own. Having said that, if you are a costumer or reenactor, I would encourage you to use your own best judgment.
© 2015-2017 Mimi Matthews
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