1860s Fashion | Effects of Innovation and Civil War

1863—Amasa Howe's Sewing Machine Patent Model

Fashion in the 1860s followed some of the same trends as in previous decades. The decade was also a time of change in the fashion world. Innovations such as the sewing machine and synthetic dyes changed the availability and styles of clothing, and events such as the American Civil War shaped fashion as well.

What Did Your Grandparents Wear?


Find out how your grandparents or great-grandparents dressed with FamilySearch Memories. You can search for photos of your ancestors shared by other users, or you can upload your own photos to preserve them. 


What Was Fashionable during the Civil War?

The Civil War in the United States had a major impact on fashion. While the sewing machine had been around for a few decades, the Civil War created a demand for mass quantities of military uniforms. As a result, sewing machines were kicked into high gear, also having the secondary effect of enabling mass-produced fashion clothing. Fashion items were readily available and cheaper, making it possible for more people to participate in trends. 

What Did Women Wear in the 1860s?

An American cage crinoline from the 1860s.
An American cage crinoline from the 1860s.
Metropolitan Museum of Art, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Fashion in the 1860s called for women to wear large skirts. The crinoline was a relatively new invention that was introduced in the 1850s. It was a caged skirt made with rows of hoops and designed to create volume without needing layers of heavy petticoats. As the crinoline became more popular, the stylish voluminous skirts became easier to wear and more affordable, making it possible for more women to participate in the trend.

As the decade wore on, the full circumference of dresses started to diminish, instead focusing most of the volume in the back. By the end of the decade, crinolines were made in half-hoops to achieve a voluminous back and flat front, leading to the famous bustle, which took over women’s dresses in the 1870s.

An example of a woman from the 1860s wearing a dress with a reduced-front crinoline underneath.
An example of a woman from the 1860s wearing a dress with a reduced-front crinoline underneath.

An example of a woman from the 1860s wearing a skirt with a bustle.
An example of a woman from the 1860s wearing a skirt with a bustle.

One major benefit of the wide skirts was the effect it had on corsets. Corsets no longer needed to fit over the hips because wide skirts hid the hips. Skirts were also worn more loosely because large skirts made waists appear slim by comparison.

The bodice also shifted away from the matching tops and bottoms of the 1850s, instead opening avenues for blouses with different colors. With both matched and unmatched tops, necklines often fit closely around the base of the neck, and sleeves were full and flowing, with cinched wrists. Shawls often accompanied the dress.

A collage of images showing women's fashion from the 1860s.
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Two views of an elegant woman in the style of clothing from the 1860s.
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Two mannequins showing the typical style of dress for a lady and gentleman in the 1860s.
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A woman's cape from the 1860s.
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A woman's cape from the 1860s.
Showing two fashion examples for women from the 1860s.
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Showing a woman's bonnet, cap, and night dress from the 1860s.
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Showing a woman's bonnet, cap, and night dress from the 1860s.
A breton jacket from 1867.
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A breton jacket from 1867.
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What Did Men Wear in the 1860s?

An example of a man's 3-piece suite from the 1860s.
An example of a man's 3-piece suite from the 1860s.

Men’s fashion in the 1860s revolved around the 3-piece suit. One major difference that set these suits apart in the 1860s was the relaxed cut. Rather than wearing fitted suits, men often wore suits that were slack and loose.

The lounge coat in particular became a mainstream fashion choice for men. Coats were previously fitted and seamed at the waist, but the lounge coat had a straight, loose cut. Trousers also became wider.

The fitted, tailored coats of previous decades were reserved for formal occasions. These coats included the morning coat, a fitted coat that tapered out at the waist, and the tailcoat, a similarly tapered coat, with longer tails in the back.

Men’s hair was typically short and neatly combed. Facial hair was common, from short beards to mustaches to the iconic mutton chops. On formal occasions, men finished off the look with a silk top hat.

A collage of images, including some of gentlemen from the 1860s.
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A collage of images, including some of gentlemen from the 1860s.
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A collage of images, including some of gentlemen from the 1860s.
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What Did Children Wear in the 1860s?

Three children from the 1860s playing with a hoop.

Infants wore long, white gowns until they became mobile, when they started wearing shorter gowns that made it easier for them to walk. Both boys and girls wore these gowns until boys were “breeched” at around age 5, when they began wearing breeches.

Older boys wore long trousers, with a lounge coat like their fathers. As the decade went on, shortened knickerbockers became popular for boys. The famous sailor suit, with a square neckline, was also a common choice. 

Rather than the formal top hats worn by adults, boys often wore either felt caps or kepi caps, a military hat more popular as a result of the Civil War. 

Young girls also dressed like their mothers, echoing the voluminous skirts. However, girls wore shorter skirts and petticoats to achieve volume instead of the caged crinolines. Their sleeves could also be short and off-shoulder in contrast with their mothers’ full-length sleeves and high necklines.

As a final touch, young girls often wore matching capes or Zouave coats, a short coat with loose sleeves. They also wore curls in their hair.

A collage of images, including some of children, from the 1860s.
1860s-fashion-children-1.jpg
A collage of images, including some of children, from the 1860s.
Illustration showing a child's apron from the 1860s.
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Illustration showing a child's apron from the 1860s.
Illustration showing children from the 1860s and the type of clothing they might wear.
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Illustration showing children from the 1860s and the type of clothing they might wear.
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The sewing machine wasn’t the only invention that shaped fashion in the 1860s. Synthetic dyes were introduced in the late 1850s, really taking hold in the 1860s to change the landscape of colors available in clothing. The use of synthetic dyes made it easier to achieve bright colors, making bright colors all the rage in 1860s fashion. 

Despite the new colors that were available, menswear continued to come in contrasting dark and light neutral colors. Suits were often worn with a dark coat and vest and light pants. However, full suits were also fashionable in tan or beige colors. 

What Did Your Ancestors Wear in the 1860s?

Can you imagine your ancestors wearing some of these clothes? Use FamilySearch Memories to find out how your ancestors dressed in the 1860s. You can search for photos of your ancestors shared by other users, or you can upload your own photos to preserve them. 


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