Women’s fashion of the 19th century showed strong British influence. Until the 1820s, the French set women’s fashion trends and Britain led the way in men’s fashion. But early in the century, the French lost the battle of the waistline for women’s dresses. Women preferred the lower V-shaped British waistlines that led into the Romantic Era and later into the hour-glass-shaped styles with full skirts and sleeves seen during the time of the U.S. Civil War and beyond.
French designers determined the fashion trends of the early 19th century with a focus on classic Greek styles. Women’s dresses flowed freely, draping without the structure of padded hemlines, shaped sleeves or purposeful undergarments. Any defined waistlines were simple and round, high and under the breasts. At the end of the Napoleonic Wars, however, fashion took a dramatic turn toward British styles.
In Britain during the Regency Period, a woman’s dress marked her social standing and was paramount to her success at court. Strongly influenced by the romantic writings of Lord Byron and Sir Walter Scott, women’s fashion trended toward more romantic styles. While classic lines remained, the waistline dropped, creating a more distinct waistline with a V-shaped bodice combined with a fuller skirt and gigot de mouton sleeves. Also called mutton, melon, Gigot and balloon sleeves, these consist of a puffy upper sleeve and narrow forearm, creating a ‘leg of mutton’ look.
Crinolines and Bustles
By 1840, Oudinot-Lutel in Paris created the first crinoline petticoat or underskirt and the focus became further widening of the skirt. While corsets created the thinner waistlines, sharp contrast was created through structural cages in the underskirt called crinolines. Crinolines created a hoop-skirt effect that evolved from circular to oval. The bustle, a padded skirt emphasizing the rear, made its debut in 1860. Throughout the remaining century, skirts moved away from the crinoline to the bustle and then eventually reduced and discarded the bustle as well.
Return of Mutton Sleeves
Further emphasis of the hour-glass shape came from mutton sleeves. These first emerged in the 1830s with the puffy upper sleeve and narrow forearm. The trend was short-lived early in the century but made a strong comeback in the 1890s.
Men’s fashion choices remained basic throughout the century. Like women’s styles, waistlines were emphasized with waistcoats and long jackets pinched at the waistline and flaring outward. Combined with vests, woolen trousers and accessories like colorful scarves, men dressed for their two main activities — walking and riding. A top hat and walking stick completed the look.
References and ResourcesFashion Era: Victorian Fashion History for Women
Vintage Fashion Guild: 1800s
San Jose State University Gallery: 19th Century Paris: Women's Fashion
University of Texas at Austin: HIstory of the Hoop-Skirt
Fashion Era: 4 Men's Fashion Through Fashion Plates 1800-1900