The dress of the 1850s was very much a continuation of the preceding '40's fashion. It had a large, domed skirt made of rectangular widths of fabric, often flounced. Dresses with attached v-fronted bodices, were back-fastening, or they had a separate, front-fastening, jacket bodice. Bodice sleeves were usually open-ended in the pagoda style and these widened with the decade and were worn with embroidered white undersleeves or engageantes. Another sleeve also emerged during the late '50s - the bishop sleeve, a closed, full sleeve, gathered into a narrow cuff. The waistline was either at the natural waist or slightly below at the start of the '50s and rose to the natural level by 1860. The armhole was still dropped an inch or two below the shoulder. Flounced skirts were particularly favoured during the '50s. Often they were made from fabrics which were printed with a border pattern that fitted the flounces, a disposition.

The skirt, ever-expanding, was outgrowing the horsehair petticoat designated to maintain its volume. Eventually, in 1855-6, the cage crinoline emerged from Paris; made of steel, later to become watch-spring steel, it freed the wearer from the many hampering petticoats. It was, however, ridiculed in the press and was a potential hazard on public transport and near open fires. But many women, across the great social divide, loved it. In the 1850s, the crinoline, and therefore the skirt itself, had a very domed appearance. It is often stated that it was even all the way round but this is not true - the hoop was always slightly back-weighted. This 1858 Godeys' advertisement for a crinoline uses the term "bustle" to indicate the extra fulness at the rear, and a well known 1855 painting of Queen Victoria meeting Empress Eugenie clearly shows it.

The corset of the 1850s and 60s was less constricting than many that were to follow. The advantage of an enormous skirt is that it gives the illusion of a tiny waist without the need for tight-lacing; but many women did tight-lace, especially in the late '60s, and this became a contentious subject that was to recur in the fashion press of the Victorian period.

A new type of easy-to-wear woman's outfit was introduced in America by Mrs Amelia Bloomer in the early 1850s. It consisted of a three-quarter length tunic worn belted, over loose trousers, visible underneath. Needless to say, this attempt at dress reform was too ahead of its time to catch on and served only to eventually coin the deprecating word, "bloomers".

The look of the 1850s, though quite decorated was still demure. Hair was dressed relatively plainly, parted in front, with a modest bun or chignon set half way up the back, and the sides smoothly waved and gently puffed over the ears, occasionally with some ringlets showing at the sides in1850. As the '50s progressed, the bun descended to the nape of the neck, the hair over the ears became more puffed (and one or two sleek ringlets appeared at the back, from beneath the bun, especially for evening dress). This became the general style of dressing the hair during the late '50s and early '60s. In the late 1860s, the hair changed again, the bun rising a little at the back, the sides being taken slightly higher over the ears and less smoothly and very soon, the coiffure began to be dressed even more elaborately, in keeping with the clothes at the end of the decade.

Caps tended to be quite modest in size at the start of the 1850s and for evening were often restricted to a small cascade of flowers and ribbon from the chignon. Caps that were little more than a flat piece of lace that tapered at the ends and extended into long tails or lappets at the sides, were seated far back on the head and were worn into the 1860s. Bonnets were relatively small and shielded the face in 1850 but by the early '60s the spoon bonnet sat further back on the head showing more of the face and coiffure. The alternative and perhaps more youthful style was the hat. During the late 1860s the headdress became very small in comparison to the burgeoning hair and was often restricted to a tiny, forward-tilted hat or cap atop a high, sculpted coiffure.

Shawls were very fashionable outerwear during the 1850s but the jacket bodice was also developing into a stylish alternative. Short , close-fitting, bolero style jackets were called Zouave jackets. Paletots (semi-fitted jacket of hip to full length) and shaped mantles, as well as the perennial shawl and cloak, though becoming less fashionable, were the usual outerwear during the 1860s.

In the '60s, the skirt silhouette began to change. It was smoother, usually unflounced, far more back-weighted and less domed - we call this shape elliptical now. It was often made of gores rather than the plain rectangular pieces as before. At first, in the early '60s the full rectagular width of the skirt was cartridge pleated or flat pleated into the waistband. The skirts of 1864-5 have perhaps the widest hem circumference ever seen. As the fashionable outline grew less domed at the waist, it became easier to cut away extra fulness from the top of the skirt, giving shaped skirt gores. The gored skirt of the mid '60's usually has a plain front gore, one or two flat pleated side gores and a full, cartridge-pleated back width. By 1866, the skirt looked very triangular and very back-weighted, so much so that it often had a train, even for day wear.

Decorating the vast expanse of skirt was a problem in the 1860s. Braiding patterns, fringes and frills tended to be used, but generally on the lower half of the skirt only. Skirts of the mid-1860s were extremely wide at the hem. Some walking skirts were made more practical with a system of rings and cords on the inside to loop them up at the bottom. This revealed a decorated petticoat and even a glimpse of ankles in coloured stockings.

The bodice was also changing during the 1860s, with a waistline beginning to rise above natural level. It often had a waistband or a separate belt to emphasise this and from 1865 onwards the belt often had long tails attached at the back. The wide, pagoda sleeve was being replaced by the bishop sleeve, and as the '60s progressed, the full bishop sleeve was itself reduced in width to a plain, two piece sleeve, (like a coat sleeve), plain at the low armhole, generous at the elbow and tight at the wrist. Another kind of dress in the princess style, with no waist seam, came into prominence as the decade progressed.

Dresses rather like the suits of later years, also developed during the 1860s. They consisted of a matching jacket and skirt, often worn with a white bodice, chemisette or blouse and were much favoured as holiday or resort wear. The blouse, usually just called a bodice, often white, though sometimes coloured, was also worn with a contrasting skirt for informal, indoor, day wear. This costume could be accompanied by a Swiss belt. The Garibaldi blouse (an informal, scarlet flannel, military style) also became popular during the 1860s.

Evening bodices of the 1850s are almost indistinguishable from those of the late 1840s. They had low, oval necklines, short sleeves, and a pointed waist in front. Sometimes the short sleeves were puffed. During the late '50s, a point developed on the back of the bodice also. White muslin was particularly favoured for the evening, especially amongst the young. As the waistline rose and the points disappeared during the day in the '60s, they did so on the evening bodice also. Influenced by eighteenth to early nineteenth century styles, later '60s bodices developed square necklines which could be worn for day or evening.

At first, the dress fabrics of the 1850s continued in the generally light and muted tones of the previous decade, becoming a little richer as the dress expanded. During the '60s, the development of aniline dyes brightened and intensified the available spectrum. Magenta, acid green, bright blue, red, black and white were all popular during the 60s, and rich colours continued to be favoured for the extravagent dresses of the early '70s.

In 1867 the crinoline collapsed as fashionable women grew tired of its ubiquity. The look of 1867, then, was of a modest, triangular skirt, with or without train, worn with a short-waisted bodice, reminiscent of the Empire period. Briefly, it was thought that all skirt support would be abandoned, but a smaller form of the crinoline continued till the end of the decade and beyond. Horsehair petticoats returned, this time gored rather than rectangular. A great variety of little horsehair contraptions, forerunners of the bustle, or tournure, were worn with the petticoat or small crinoline.

Thus the silhouette did not remain plain, triangular and empire-like for long. The skirt began to fill out at the rump, expanding beneath the same high-waisted, mid-'60s bodice into a skirt that was quite smooth in front yet slightly domed and trained at the back. Overskirts, apron-like tunics and drapery also began to appear on this skirt adding to the volume, especially at the back - the new focus of attention. This was the elaborate and slightly uncomfortable-looking silhouette of the early bustle of 1870. The Victorian woman had discarded first romance, then sentimental demureness, for this new, elaborate and equally restrictive form of self expression.

Copyright Ladies Treasury 2002

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