Dress in the Nineteenth Century

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Many cultural forces contributed to the stylistic changes of the nineteenth century. These included the industrial revolution, the French Revolution, changes in women's roles, changes in the political climate, the expansion of the United States, and artistic movements.

The industrial revolution produced not only technological but also social and economic changes that affected dress. The ability to produce textiles rapidly and less expensively facilitated participation in fashion. As industrialization brought more women into the workforce, giving them less time to make clothing for their families, by the end of the century, some garments were being mass-produced. Rural workers who migrated to urban areas needed different kinds of clothes.

As the United States expanded, it gradually took on a more important role in the Western world as a producer of raw materials and manufacturer of goods. Technological innovations and refinements made in the United States such as the patenting and distribution of the first commercially successful sewing machine, the development of the sized-paper pattern, and the invention of machines that could cut multiple pattern pieces contributed to the growth of mass fashion. Immigration brought skilled workers to work in the mass production of clothing, and immigrant consumers expanded the market for inexpensive ready-to-wear.

Although ready-to-wear fashion came later to Europe than to the United States, Europe remained the center of innovation in fashions. British tailoring set the international standard for menswear. And the beginnings of the haute couture in Paris at midcentury confirmed the preeminent place of Paris in women's fashion.

Charles Worth is considered to have been the father of the haute couture. He first came to public notice around 1860 when the French empress Eugénie began wearing clothes he had designed. His atelier was soon known around the world, and women from Queen Victoria to Parisian courtesans were dressed by Worth. Worth was instrumental in founding an organization of French couturiers, the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne, in 1868 that regulated the French high-fashion industry.

Political events on both sides of the Atlantic also influenced dress. For example, the restoration of the French monarchy spawned a host of fashions named after earlier royals and the Italian revolutionary leader Giuseppe Garibaldi inspired women to wear red blouses like those of his soldiers.

The nineteenth-century movement of Europe and America toward more egalitarian societies contributed to an overall revolution in men's dress. The lavishly decorated eighteenth-century suits with knee breeches worn by the nobility were, henceforth, replaced by dark, trousered, three-piece suits. The skill of its tailoring and quality of the fabric in these suits attested to the status of the wearer.

Through its ornamentation and obvious cost, women's clothing had to bear the burden of attesting to the wealth and social standing of the family. Thorsten Veblen (1857-1929) recognized this role for women in his classic study, Theory of the Leisure Classes. He noted that upper-class women's clothing showed that their husbands or fathers could afford to spend lavishly on elaborate clothing (conspicuous consumption) and, furthermore, these women could not do any menial labor when encumbered by such dresses (conspicuous leisure) (Veblen 1936).

At the same time, some women were beginning to question the roles assigned to them in nineteenth-century society. After the accession of Queen Victoria to the throne of England in 1837, the ideal Victorian matron was wife and mother of a large family who ran the household smoothly, supervised the servants, and led a sedate, scandal-free life. The example set by abolitionists working to free the slaves at the time of the American Civil War led some women to state that they, too, were held in a type of bondage. Some women active in the women's suffrage movement believed that women's clothing was a severe handicap to freedom of movement and physical activity. Attempts to reform dress and establish more rational styles for women such as the Bloomer costume were not especially successful at first. The Bloomer costume (named after women's-rights author and lecturer Amelia Bloomer, one of its more visible proponents) consisted of a shorter version of the full-skirted dress of the 1840s worn over a pair of full trousers gathered in to fit tightly at the ankle. The style was based on the dress worn by women in European health sanitariums (Foote 1980). Though abandoned by suffragettes after a few years, photographs show that the style was adopted by some American women settlers for the westward trek and the rigors of pioneer life. Variations of the style also showed up in gymnastics classes for young women, evidence of increased importance given to women's health and fitness.

By the 1890s, women were participating actively in many sports. Bicycling was especially popular and special dress, including bloomer suits called rationals and split skirts, had been adopted.

Throughout history, connections between the fine arts and dress can be found. In the nineteenth century, the pre-Raphaelites and participants in the aesthetic movement made conscious efforts to apply their philosophies to dress. In rejecting contemporary art forms, the pre-Raphaelites drew their inspiration from the art of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. The artists painted women in idealized costumes from these earlier periods, and women of the group began to wear styles based on the paintings while rejecting the tight corseting and wide skirts of the 1840s and 1850s. In the 1880s and 1890s, the ideas of the small pre-Raphaelite group inspired followers of the more popular aesthetic movement. Women wore no corsets, few or no petticoats, and large leg-of-mutton sleeves. Oscar Wilde, British writer, lectured about aestheticism in a softly-fitted velvet jacket and knee breeches worn with a wide, soft collar and loose necktie. While this costume was worn in protest, the protest was against the aesthetics of the time and not against the inconvenient and unhealthy aspects of dress to which feminists and health reformers objected.

Means of spreading information about current styles expanded. Magazines for women incorporated hand-colored, engraved fashion plates, making it possible for women of all socioeconomic levels to see styles from Paris and keep abreast of current fashion each month. Full-sized paper patterns were bound into some magazines in the late 1800s. The invention of photography in the 1840s provided another way of spreading style information.

Silhouette and style changes. The nineteenth century was marked by increasingly rapid style changes. Costume historians recognize this by dividing the century into a number of relatively short fashion periods that cover ten to twenty years. These periods were characterized by an incremental evolution of fashions year-by-year that eventually added up to a distinct new style.

The more somber styles worn by men throughout the 1800s showed only relatively subtle changes. One can see parallels in the cut of men's suits and the silhouette of women's dresses. When women's sleeves were large, men's tended to be enlarged; when women's waists were narrow, tailors made men's jackets with nipped-in waistlines. But it was in women's clothing that the more pronounced changes in style were evident.

The Empire period (1790-1820) is named after Napoleon Bonaparte, the first Emperor of France. For women, the high-waisted, relatively narrow silhouette first seen in the late 1700s continued to be the predominant line throughout this period. In fashion terminology, this high waistline placement is still known as an "empire waist."

The expanded trade with the Far East and the military campaigns of Napoleon in Egypt fueled fashions with Asian links. Imported cashmere shawls were all the rage. Napoleon tried to ban the importation of these shawls in order to protect the French textile industry. Soon European mills were copying them. The output of the mills in the town of Paisley, Scotland, was so prodigious that the shawls became known as paisley shawls.

Year by year, subtle changes appeared in the Empire styles until the high waistline had moved lower, approaching the anatomical waist, the skirt had flared out, and sleeves had grown larger, eventually becoming enormous. By the 1820s, that line was distinctive enough for costume historians to see this as a new period that they named after the art and literary movements of the same time: the Romantic period (1820-1850).

Differences in style between the late Romantic and the later Crinoline period (1850-1870) were subtle. In some costume histories, the period from circa 1838 to 1870 is known as the early Victorian period, Victoria having acceded to the British throne in 1837. The most distinctive aspect of the silhouette of this period was the increasing width of the skirt, the return of the waistline to its natural anatomical position, and a dropped shoulder line. Until the invention of the cage crinoline, or hoopskirt, in the mid-1800s, skirts were held out by heavy layers of starched petticoats that were often reinforced with fabric stiffened with horsehair (crin is French for "horsehair," and lin, "linen," hence the name of the fabric: crinoline). The originator of the nineteenth-century hoopskirt is unknown. The basic structure was a series of horizontal hoops of whalebone or steel of gradually increasing size that were fastened to vertical tapes. Far lighter than the many layers of petticoats, the hoop was an immediate success.

The hoopskirt itself went through numerous transitions, being first round, and then gradually swinging its fullest areas to the back. As the back fullness increased, the front flattened, and by 1870, the bustle had taken over as the preferred shape.

The silhouette of the Bustle period (1870-1890) might be divided into three distinct phases. In the first phase (1869-1877) the fullness at the back of the dress was supported by a bustle. Bustles were structures equipped with some device to hold skirts out in the back. The skirt shape was flat in front with a full, draped fall of fabric and ornamentation down the back. Most sleeves were three-quarters length or longer and were set in at the shoulder instead of being dropped below the shoulder on the arm, as in the Crinoline period. Bodices were tightly fitted. In the second phase (1878-1883), the bustle itself disappeared, garments were fitted closely from neck to hip in what was called a cuirass bodice, below which the skirt remained tight at the front. The decoration of the skirt dropped to below the hips in back. Many skirts had long, ornamental trains. In the third phase (1883-1890), the bustle structure returned with a vengeance, looking like a shelf at the back of the dress. Dresses had high, tightly fitted collars and very close-fitted bodices.

By the final decade of the nineteenth century, the back fullness of the Bustle period had diminished to a few pleats. The silhouette was hourglass-shaped, with enormous leg-of-mutton sleeves balancing a full, cone-shaped skirt that was wide at the bottom. The ubiquitous highstanding collar remained, however.

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