The Victorian Age officially began in 1837, when 18-year-old Victoria ascended the throne of England. In 1840, she married Prince Albert in a much-publicized ceremony. Her choice of an elegant, silk, white wedding dress (a nontraditional choice in 1840 bridal attire) did not go unnoticed. To this day, brides in Western countries are often married in white dresses. Fashions worn by Victoria and Albert projected a dignified restraint, as did the 1840s clothing worn throughout the Western world. A study of 1840s fashion is also a study of life in the 1840s and how individual choices, technology, entertainment, and more influenced clothing then—and even now.
Do you know what your own ancestors wore in the 1840s?
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.
1840s Fashions Influenced by Entertainment
Victorian virtues of modesty, morality, and meekness pervaded both 1840s entertainment and fashion. Morality literature of the time period included A Christmas Carol and Jane Eyre.
Jenny Lind, a singer who performed in sold-out tours across Europe (1840s) and the United States (1850s), was acclaimed for her demure, modest elegance on the stage. Her adoring fans purchased Jenny Lind-inspired fashions, from collars and other clothing accessories to pianos and furniture. The Victorian sense of refinement without ostentation translated to muted, serene color choices in clothing, as opposed to bright or gaudy.
1840s Fashions Influenced by Parisian Fashion Plates
Fashions of 1840s England, Canada, the United States, continental Europe, and other Western-oriented countries were heavily influenced by designers in Paris, France. Parisian 1840s fashion illustrations (called plates) appeared in women’s magazines, such as the French Le Follet, Courrier des Salons, Journal des Modes.
Godey’s lady’s book and ladies’ American magazine was a popular U.S. women’s magazine in the 1840s that adapted the French fashion plates to American tastes. Design elements of Queen Victoria’s 1840 wedding dress appeared in French fashion plates as early as 1837, foreshadowing 1840s fashion preferences.
1840s Fashions Impacted by Technology
Thanks to the Industrial Revolution, many of our 1840s ancestors could purchase fabric in a variety of patterns. However, people with little means or no access to premade cloth still made their own fabric at home.
In the 1840s, sewing machines for home use were still in the future. Clothing was most often sewn by hand at home or, for the more affluent, by tailors or professional seamstresses. As mentioned above, many people imitated the illustrations in fashion magazines. The expense or time required to make or buy clothes meant that working-class men and women might own 2 outfits—1 for work and 1 for “Sunday best”—accessorizing as needed. For the same reasons, outdated or worn clothing was often repaired, dyed, or remodeled.
1840s Women’s Fashions
In the 1840s, women’s fashions included floor-length dresses with dropped shoulders. Big balloon sleeves, popular in the 1830s, were exchanged for arm-hugging styles. In addition, a long, fitted bodice that ended in a V-point just below the natural waist replaced the 1830s empire waist. Women’s necklines in this decade were often either high or shoulder-revealing.
Women also couldn’t move easily wearing 1840s clothing, due to stays, tight corsets and styles that restricted arm movements and bending at the waist. Dress skirts increased in fullness and weight throughout the decade, supported underneath by multiple petticoats and crinoline hoop skirts.
For outings, women wore shawls or pelerines (short shoulder-covering capes), and overdresses, with a bonnet or hat. A pink bonnet lining might add a “glow” to the skin, in place of make-up. Hairstyles were long, parted in the middle, and pinned up in buns in back or over the ears. Long curls sometimes hung on either side of the face. For footwear, flat, ballerina-style shoes helped complete an ensemble to create a romantic, demure look.
1840s Men’s Wear
Western men’s clothing styles in the 1840s followed similar trends as the decade overall. Flamboyant, colorful, curvy 1830s designs gave way to a long narrow look of respectable restraint. Shoulders and waistlines were dropped. A dark frock coat with a waistline was often worn for daytime business attire. Later in the 1840s, “sack” jackets without a waistline became popular informal wear for many men. Shirts were generally white linen or cotton, with turned-up collars, embellished with a dark tie or cravat tied in a bow.
Men’s pants did not need to match jackets in the 1840s style, and were often light colored, tweed, or plaid. Men frequently wore full-length trousers during this decade, although the aristocracy still used knee breeches for hunting, riding, and ceremonies. Laborers wore sturdy cotton work pants and work boots. A fly gradually replaced the fall-front fastener used in previous decades.
1840s vests (also known as waistcoats) could be bright hues, plain or patterned, and were often of silk. They allowed men a bright pop of color in otherwise restrained attire. Long, double-breasted great coats or caped-shoulder coats were worn by many men to combat bad weather.
For headwear, silk top hats were preferred for men. A broad-brim felt hat was acceptable in the countryside. Whether for hats or other items of clothing, the formality expected in 1840s men’s attire varied by occasion, occupation, social status, and region.
1840s Children’s Clothing
In the 1840s, male and female babies initially wore long dresses, which were later shortened for crawling. Toddlers and very young children continued to wear dresses (which is why today sometimes young boys in period portraits are mistaken for girls). Children’s 1840s clothing began to correspond more with adult fashions around age 5, but with some differences.
Young girls wore clothing similar to adult women’s, except that their dresses were knee-length and worn with full-length, white cotton pantalettes. Girls (and very young boys) wore wide-brimmed bonnets, tied with ribbon. By age 12, 1840s girls wore dresses of mid-calf length. By the time they hit the teenage years, girls generally transitioned to adult women fashions.
Young boys in the 1840s wore long tunic shirts and trousers. Albert Edward, 4-year-old son of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, set a new dress style for young boys when he appeared in a sailor suit in an 1846 portrait. This became a popular style for a time after. As they got older, around age 10, boys in the 1840s donned short, tight-fitting, button-up “roundabout” jackets and white shirts. By mid-teens, 1840s boys could dress in frock coats and top hats, like their fathers.
1840s Fashion Constraints
The 1840s fashions described in this article applied broadly to Westernized countries, with regional adaptations. Access to materials, life circumstances, and economic restraints limited choices for the impoverished and enslaved. The quality, quantity, and style of clothing allotments available to enslaved people in the United States depended on whether they worked in the home or in the fields, the disposition and circumstances of the enslaver, and sewing abilities within the enslaved families.
Finding Photos of 1840s Ancestors
Photos that show your family’s 1840s fashion sense may not exist because photography was only invented in 1839. However, studios quickly appeared during the 1840s, using the daguerreotype format. Clothing and props displayed in these affordable and popular images often provide clues to a person’s occupation, interests, age, station in life, marriage status, ethnicity, or disabilities.
If you are fortunate enough to own early family images, consider uploading them to FamilySearch Memories for other descendants to enjoy.
If you don’t have any old family photos, you can see what photos FamilySearch might have to offer. FamilySearch has the largest worldwide, shared family tree. Easy to access with a free FamilySearch account, you can either search for your ancestor’s names individually or connect to the wider tree and explore all of the ancestors available. Either way, this allows you to see if other relatives have uploaded any images, stories, or other information about your relatives from any decade, including the 1840s.