1800s fashion provides a fascinating window into the values, politics, and world events at the turn of the 19th Century.
Long gone were the extravagant bourgeois styles of the early to mid 1700s. Instead, fashionable gowns were simple and restrained, featuring empire waistlines and white or pastel flowing fabrics. Men put aside their powdered wigs and donned tight-fitted trousers, high-collared linen shirts, and buttoned waistcoats in neutral blacks, blues, and browns.
This major shift in fashion came from a renewed interest in Greek and Roman antiquity, as well as the egalitarian ideals and philosophies from the age of enlightenment. It’s helpful to look to the movements that shaped it to understand the massive upheaval in fashion from this era.
What did your ancestors wear in the 1800s?
The shared family tree on FamilySearch might have a wealth of information for you. Connect to the tree for free and see if you can find stories, records, photos, and more for your ancestors. Clues about where they lived and how they lived, paired with this article, can help you explore your own family’s fashion history and life story.
Movements that Shaped 1800s Clothing
The discovery of well-preserved ruins in Pompeii and the arrival of Greek marble sculptures in England revived interest in classical antiquity.
Inspired by early Greek and Roman clothing, women incorporated draping techniques into their dresses and opted for fine white or light-colored fabrics. For men, clothing was fitted to the body to emphasize masculine physique.
Age of Enlightenment
At the turn of the 19th Century, the world was still reeling from the French and American revolutions.
As a result, the upperclass didn’t want to be associated with the extravagant styles of 18th Century aristocracy. Egalitarian attitudes born from the age of enlightenment, which lasted from the 1600s to 1700s, encouraged more practical, attainable styles to help eliminate distinctions of social class.
Women’s informal, often corset-less dresses symbolized the ideals of freedom that emerged post-revolution. On the other hand, men’s clothing became less embellished and more practical as a way to signify their work ethic and solidarity with the working class.
Colonialism and the industrial revolution led to the mass production and widespread adoption of Western fashion. Clothing styles were less local and more international as trade and imperialism helped globalize the fashion scene. Although material like cotton became easier to produce and more affordable, it came at the cost of the slave labor in the United States and other parts of the world.
Despite the abandonment and erasure of many traditional folk clothing items, communities throughout the world retained local clothing customs or incorporated their unique local styles to Western garb.
Fashion in the Early 1800s—From 1800 to 1837
The first decade of the 19th Century set the stage for the stunning array of styles that would come after it. The neoclassical dresses, particularly the empire waist, remained popular throughout the mid 19th century during a period known as the Regency era. Today, these regency-style dresses are popularly showcased in movies based on Jane Austen novels.
Men’s clothing remained mostly the same throughout the century, if anything growing more restrained. The simpler attire was meant to convey a sense of masculinity and practicality. Much of today’s stereotypes about masculinity and men’s fashion stem from the shift in men’s style in the 1800s.
Early 1800s Women’s Fashion
Simplified, Light-Colored Gowns
Women’s fashion in the 1800s featured a low, squared-off neckline and an empire waist, which was 2 to 3 inches above the natural waistline and fell just below the bust. The front skirt hung in straight folds to the floor. Gowns were also full at the back, often sporting a small train to help create an elegant draping effect.
White was the color of choice for 1800s dresses, especially when it came to formal evening wear. However, pale pinks and other pastels were also common. Dresses were made of muslin, lawn, or finely woven cotton or linen, which had an airy, free-flowing construction (another callback to the unencumbered look of classical Roman and Greek clothing). Sleeves were commonly short and puffed.
Detailing was limited to delicate white embroidery or subtle woven patterns, although frills and tucks were later frequently added to the hem of the gown. These later embellishments added weight to the bottom of the gown, pulling the skirt into a straighter line at the bottom and sometimes created a conical shape.
These fashionable dresses were far less cumbersome than the boned stays and hooped petticoats of the early 1780s. The shift toward understated, less restrictive styles was meant to improve mobility and lessen the barrier of entry to high fashion for middle and lower class women. Still, the combination of expensive, often imported material and white coloring were frequently impractical for working-class women.
Instead, many rural and lower-class women embraced economical fabrics like durable types of cotton, which were more affordable and easier to clean. In the English countryside, the red cloak was a near universal garment for women and young girls alike.
Women in North America adopted the popular fashions of France, but with more durable fabrics and practical styling, such as eschewing long trains in the back of the gown.
Colorful Shawls and Fitted Jackets
At the start of the decade, corsets and undergarments like the petticoat and chemise were largely absent. Both this and the use of light fabrics necessitated extra layers, particularly for those in colder climates.
Women frequently paired their white dresses with a striking dark-colored shawl, usually made of cashmere, muslin, percale, or gauze. The finest of these shawls came from East India and had floral or paisley patterns. In another nod to classical antiquity, shawls were often delicately draped over the shoulders.
Spencer jackets were also popular. These fitted, short jackets typically stopped just below the armpits (same as the empire waistline), fastened high to the neck, and featured sleeves long enough to almost cover the hands. During the winter, a pelisse was also common, which was a coat-like garment with a raised waistline and long narrow skirt.
Classic-Inspired Hair and International Accessories
Inspired by the styles of Ancient Greek and Roman busts, women often wore hair in short curls that framed their face. Along with shawls, women adopted other accessories from the East, including parasols and fans.
Early 1800s Men’s Fashion
In the 1700s, perfume, rouged lips, powdered wig, high-heeled shoes, and jewelry were not uncommon in men’s fashion.
In France, sans-culottes (meaning without breeches or stockings) were adopted by revolutionaries who wanted to protest the conspicuous consumption of the past and dress more like the everyman.
In the United States, “silk stocking” was used as an insult against those people who represented bourgeois, aristocratic ideals. Breeches were replaced with close-fitting ankle-buttoned trousers, and coats with falling skirts and the lapel-less frocks became popular.
Where women invoked classical antiquity with light, gracefully draped fabrics, men were inspired by the Greek and Roman fixation on the male physique. As a result, men’s clothing became more restrained and definite in shape.
Tailors designed clothing that emphasized a masculine silhouette, adding padding to the shoulders and fitting shirts and coats at the waist. Wigs were few and far between, with most men adopting the short-haired styles inspired by the Greek and Roman busts.
The main accessories were muslin or silk cravats and tall top-hats.
Variations on Early 19th Century Fashion
Throughout the world, colonized nations adopted Western clothing trends and fashion. Often, the material and cut came at odds with the climate and availability of supplies in colonized territories. Those in hot or tropical climates were sometimes encouraged to wear Western clothing and its many layers out of propriety and modesty.
However, in other parts of the world, second-class citizens or servants would don fine Western garb to subvert and defy the expectations of those in power. Some people outright rejected Western trends, such as the Spanish Majos who opted for traditional, elaborate Spanish dress in defiance of French and British sensibilities.
Many people modified clothing to reflect their own unique local and cultural upbringing. For example, women in Scotland wore shawls with tartan patterns that represented their clan.
In parts of the United States, Native Americans incorporated jewelry, beading, and mixed styles of buttons and buckles that took after local clothing customs. Enslaved women would sew quilt-like patches of vibrant textiles into their Western garb, paying homage to traditional styles from their African origins.
1800s Fashion in the Victorian Era—from 1837 to 1899
Overall, early 1800s fashion and the styles that were part of it are more than sewn pieces of fabric. Each piece of clothing is a record in itself, an heirloom of history and a story of its wearer.
Partway through the 19th century, around 1837, the Victorian era began. This marks a significant split in the century from the early 1800s to late 1800s. You can explore the evolution of late 1800s fashion in the following articles, which detail the famous Victorian fashion of the second half of the century: