The Dress & Beauty of Women in the 1800s

By Mark Fitzpatrick

The 1800s saw a massive shift in female fashion, especially in Europe and the Americas. The new trends in fashion came in an aesthetic shift within the 19th century, especially toward femininity and the social and class roles of women. Although clothing varied from rural areas to urban centers, the ideal look for women in the United States and other Western countries in the 1800s is defined by similar characteristics.

Corsets became a common dress application in the 1800s.

Victorian Era

Although it did not begin until arguably around the 1850s, the biggest fashion and beauty shift for women came when the Victorian Age began. The Victorian Age can be defined as the first time aristocratic clothes, such as those worn by the royalty of Europe, could be mass produced through the sewing machine and industrialization. This led to the mass production of skirts, corsets and camisoles, which became part of everyday life. It should be noted, however, that class differences still showed throughout this time. Hand-woven clothing was considered higher class than industrialized clothing.

General Clothing Design

Dresses and skirts developed across the 1800s to focus on a tight, upper section for the body and large skirt for the legs. Therefore, the dress centered on the waist region usually above the belly button, giving a stick-like frame. However, the legs became completely covered with large, bushy blouses, some of which were noted for their heavy weight. The era also saw dresses uniformly covering the arms and shoulders of women.

Hair and Headgear

Most often, women during the 1800s stylized their hair upward to match the thin upper part of the dress body. If a woman was to wear a hat, the bonnet was the most popular choice throughout society. However, in urban areas, larger hats that appeared like mushroom tops became more popular. Bonnets became synonymous with elderly women because of their reference to the early 1800s.

Greater Social Significance

The Victorian Era recapitulated the idea of women as home-care givers. Hence, the Victorian model of women's clothing symbolized women as members of care-givers and wives in society. A woman was to be an austere image for the husband, family and community at large, representing the ideals of beauty and responsibility at home. Modest dressing that including some impractical limitations, such as abnormally large dresses, symbolized feminine beauty at a time when suffragist and feminist movements began springing up across the 1800s.