The 1830s began with very exuberant, romantic and almost doll-like fashions. Dresses were usually made from lighter weight fabrics in light colours, with moderately full skirts flat-pleated to the bodice at a slightly raised waist, often with a waistband, and with full gigot or leg-of-mutton sleeves, narrow at the wrist and wide at the top, finely pleated into a low, off-the-shoulder armhole. The bodice was usually straight across at the waist and often horizontally gathered at the bust accentuating the bust and shoulder line. A wide collar or pelerine of lace or matching dress fabric further emphasised the shoulders. Lace turn-back cuffs were worn at the wrists. The ankle-length, dress skirt, often decorated up to knee level, was held out by petticoats, one of which may have been corded for extra volume.
Hair was worn in a knot, high on the head, with sculpted curls and loops at the side, and caps were shaped to complement this style with a high crown to accommodate the knot and frills at the side that required the side curls to hold them out. Outdoors a bonnet was worn over the cap, again with a high crown and with a deep brim that curved outwards from the face to allow the side curls to show. Despite the relatively wide skirt, the general emphasis was clearly on the top half of the body.
As the 1830s progressed, sleeves became very full at the top, (balanced in part by the widening skirt hem), but in 1836 they began to collapse. By 1837, when Victoria acceded to the throne, fashionable sleeves had collapsed and were caught down in pleats or gathers to the top arm. Wide collars continued to be worn with these modified gigot sleeves which lingered on into the early 1840's; and less fashionable women (such as Emily Brontė) even continued to wear the full gigot into the '40's. But the fashionable sleeve by 1840 had become plain and tight and the armhole was still low and tight.
Skirts widened and lengthened to the ground during the 1830s and continued to widen during the '40's, even when sleeves had become tight. It became increasingly necessary to wear a number of petticoats, at least one of which had to be stiffened with cording or with horsehair (crinoline), to hold out the domed skirt. The fashionable dress bodice of the early 40s was usually plain and tight, like the sleeve, though sometimes gathered at the waist in front. It had also dropped down to the natural waist and extended into a point in the front, the gathers, if there were any, meeting there and emphasizing the point. The plain, full skirt, was often cartridge-pleated or gauged to the waistline rather than pleated. This was necessary because of the widening skirt and because thicker, heavier fabrics were increasingly favoured.
Hair was dressed lower on the head and smoothly on the sides, sometimes with long, smooth ringlets, and this smaller coiffure required a much smaller cap and a smaller, more demure bonnet. In fact the whole fashionable look of the early 1840's was of sobre, wilting demureness. The smaller, close bonnet, though easier to keep on, did restrict the view of the wearer, adding to the look of demureness.
During the '40's, the waist dropped on some bodices to slightly below the natural waistline. The point of the bodice lengthened and was often emphasised by gathers. The sleeve did not remain plain and tight for long and by the late '40's the wrist began to open and expand into the pagoda sleeve that would endure until the early 1870s in one form or another. Open ended sleeves required undersleeves or engageantes for modesty. The skirt continued to expand during the 1840's and the skirt of 1845 is noticeably wider than that of 1835. Like the sleeve, it did not remain plain for the whole decade but began to be decorated with a shorter overskirt or by flounces. These helped to add width.
The jacket bodice developed during the 1840s as an alternative style for day wear. It gave a slightly more masculine and authoritative air and was often tempered by a very feminine blouse underneath, filling in the neckline and the sleeve ends. (In years to come, the blouse would emerge as a bodice in its own right). By 1850, the jacket bodice had become popular. Worn over a flounced skirt, it added another layer to the flounces. The alternative dress bodice style was long, pointed and usually with gathers in front, drawn from the shoulders down to the point, in a fan-shape. Sometimes this fan-front was made separatly and applied to an otherwise plain bodice. Not all bodices of the late 1840s were joined to their skirts. Certainly jacket bodices could not be; and thus two-piece dresses came into fashion, though usually matching if they were not a jacket costume.
The separate bodice and skirt allowed matching day and evening bodices to be made for the same skirt, thus saving on the most costly item of the dress - the voluminous skirt.
Evening bodices throughout the '40's, whether joined to the skirt or not, were made with short tight sleeves and a very low decolletage that defied the fashion for demureness during the day. During the early '30's, not all evening dress decolletage had been quite so revealing and 1830's short evening sleeves had been full puffs a continuation of the preceding Regency style. Long sleeves could also be worn on some dinner dresses but not for full ball dress.
The low evening bodice neckline was usually trimmed with a lace or matching fabric bertha collar. This was a favourite style of collar even for plain, high-necked, day bodices by the '40's and made in matching dress fabric was applied to the outside. Bertha collars could be plain, pleated or gathered. The wide pelerines of the 1830's were no longer worn with these styles, though some dresses of the 1840's still had a separate matching capelet.
The corset once again came into prominence during the early Victorian period. A small waist was important during the 1830s, and during the '40s when the waistline lengthened, it was more so. Corsets were therefore indispensable for fashionable women. The corset of the 1830s was very much like that of the early nineteenth century, i.e. quite long, with a long wooden front busk to flatten the stomach and shoulder straps to keep the garment from sliding down. This helped to maintain the bust at a high level. It fastened with lacing up the back only. During the '30s, the front clasp/busk was introduced, allowing the corset to be fastened at the front and further laced up the back, to get a tiny waist if necessary. The shoulder straps also disappeared as waists grew tighter. Many less fashionable women must have continued to wear the old-fashioned style for a lot longer.
The very plain style of dress of the early 40s did not remain
for long. As the sleeve became fuller again, albeit at the
opposite end, the bodice more decorated and the skirt flounced,
fashion by 1850, clearly favoured decoration once more. Dress and
its decoration are a method of self expression and decoration
would continue to feature strongly in Victorian fashion. But the
woman of 1850, with her voluminous skirts hampering her gait, her
corseted figure, her bodice with restrictive armholes and her
close bonnet that obstructed her view, was very much a passive
and well-behaved creature by necessity.
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