American Victorian Costume in Early Photographs

American Victorian Costume in Early Photographs

by Priscilla Harris Dalrymple


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Over 280 rare photographs document the clothing of ordinary men, women, and children from the 1840s through the 1890s, in what appears to be their Sunday best. Bustles, hoops, pantalets, shirtwaists, top hats, waistcoats, bowlers, other Victorian-era attire, as well as hairdressing and tonsorial styles. Introduction to fashions of each decade.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780486265339
Publisher: Dover Publications
Publication date: 03/01/1991
Series: Dover Fashion and Costumes Series
Pages: 128
Sales rank: 824,397
Product dimensions: 9.00(w) x 12.00(h) x (d)

Read an Excerpt

American Victorian Costume in Early Photographs

By Priscilla Harris Dalrymple

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 1991 Priscilla Harris Dalrymple
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-31970-4


The 1840s

Women's fashions have, perhaps, never been as prim and demure as they were at this time, although at evening parties the shoulders were bared expansively and the hair was often worn in bouncy corkscrew curls and adorned with flowers and other embellishments. But the typical daytime gown had a long, pointed bodice and a full, dome-shaped, floor-length skirt supported by as many as five or six petticoats. (One might be of crinoline, a stiff fabric made from flax and horsehair.) Dropped shoulders sloped into long, tight sleeves, impeding movement. Center-parted hair was pulled back severely to cover the ears, and a bun was frequently worn at the back. Sometimes hair forms were used to give great width to the sides. It took an exceptional woman to cope with all this and still look attractive. There were a few ameliorating factors, however. Bonnets, which were deep-brimmed (limiting side vision) and joined under the chin, could be very charming. Sometimes they were decorated inside the brim with flowers, and all sorts of other trimmings were used on the outside to good effect. Collars were of dainty lace, parasols and the fingerless black lace gloves known as "mitts" were flirtatious accessories, and capes and mantles could be worn becomingly.

Pale, muted colors were consistent with the lack of exuberance of line. Godey's Lady's Book describes ensembles: "pale pink and black striped gown, mantle of lace, pink roses and ribbons, pale green parasol; pink silk gown with stripes, green mantle, pale yellow bonnet; slate-blue checked silk dress, white fringed shawl, pink bonnet, green parasol" and so on. The colors were more harmonious than the description would lead one to believe. Vegetable dyes were all that were available, and they produced soft, grayed tones that blended well.

In the late forties women's sleeves began to widen and skirts sometimes had flounces. The bodice was shorter and not necessarily pointed. Corsets were still an indispensable part of the wardrobe, but Godey's noted with satisfaction that "happily for the rising generation of young ladies, the custom of tight-lacing is comparatively little practised."

Indoor caps were worn by married women and older spinsters in the house. On visits they were often carried, to be put on after the bonnet was removed, or they were simply worn under the bonnet en route. These caps, usually made by the lady herself, ranged from the simplest, plainest variety to elaborate confections of lace, ribbons and flowers that must have delighted the wearer and her admirers alike.

Little girls followed their mothers' fashions, with V-shaped vertical tucks in the bodice, dropped shoulders and tight sleeves, but their skirts were much shorter. Older girls had progressively longer skirts. White ankle-length pantalets (often lace-trimmed), white stockings and low black shoes usually completed the outfit. A girl's hair was always parted in the middle, and generally worn either in corkscrew curls or short, straight and combed behind the ears.

Small boys also wore dresses in much the same style as their sisters', or skirtlike tunics and pantalets, until they were "breeched" when the child was age four or five. Often the only clue to the sex of a child in a daguerreotype is how the hair is parted. If it is on the side, it is male. (A possible variation, for both boys and men, was to part it on both sides, and brush the center hair up, or back, into waves or curls.) Once out of skirts, boys wore pants, usually of ankle length, that buttoned to the shirt—a practical arrangement in which the buttons were simply moved down as the boy grew—and sometimes a short, simple jacket.

An undeniably charming style for little girls and boys, shown time and again in both paintings and images of the era, were wide-necked dresses that bared the neck and shoulders. At a time when houses had no central heating, and infant and child mortality was so high, one would like to think that this reckless apparel was saved for special occasions. To the contrary, there is evidence that it was frequently worn, whatever the season. It did not lack for critics, however; Godey's decried it as a "pernicious fashion ... uncomfortable as well as injurious," but to no avail. Julia Dent Grant writes, "the children's arms and legs were bare in those days ...," and she, like countless other parents, found that her child "looked very pretty with his dimpled knees and shoulders."

A gentleman of the forties would wear a dark frock coat (which resembled a short, lightweight, fitted overcoat being worn indoors), trousers that had neither crease nor cuff, and a very tall top hat of silk or beaver. Practically his only chance to express some individuality lay in his choice of a waistcoat, for which figured and bright-colored fabrics were still in style. Collars were either the very high, stiff "parricide" type, with points that projected over the cheeks, or the later, turned-down style that was popular with younger men. Cravats and neckcloths were wrapped and tied in a variety of ways. Hair was parted on the side, often curled forward over the ears and worn fairly short. Sideburns were popular. Sometimes a beard was worn below the chin, but the face itself was usually cleanshaven. The aim of most men was to appear dignified and sober, and in this they certainly succeeded.


The 1850s

Women welcomed a marvelous innovation in the mid-fifties. Hoops of fine steel—lightweight, flexible and strong—allowed them to dispense with the heavy and cumbersome layers of petticoats previously required to maintain the shape of the skirt. Now only one petticoat was needed, the skirt over the hoops tilted and swayed provocatively with every movement and the wearer felt light and free. Admittedly, the hoops presented a few inconveniences—small pieces of furniture, for example, were often unwittingly overturned as the voluminous, ruffled, dome-shaped skirt swept by, and there was definitely a space problem on settees, carriages and pubic conveyances—but nothing stemmed the hoopskirt tide. All classes of women, except the very poorest, wore them whenever possible— and at times when it seemed quite impossible. Of a newlywed couple in a wagon train setting out on the perilous journey west, Helen Carpenter comments in her 1857 diary, "The bride wears hoops ... we have read of hoops being worn, but they had not reached Kansas before we left.... Would not recommend them for this mode of traveling ..."

Fashion was important. Although under severe conditions, such as on the frontier, life was so harsh that "to get clothing sufficient to protect the body from the cold of winter and the heat of summer was the only thing thought of," in less trying circumstances most women made a valiant effort to keep up, as best they could, with the current styles, which often meant ripping apart and remaking an old dress when they could not afford a new one. In fact, in 1855, Godey's cautioned young women against too great a preoccupation with clothes, and chided them for frittering away their time "on flounces and opera music."

Flounces were the latest trend. Some skirts had as many as 24, although three or four were more common, and the plain skirt was still amply in evidence. An already very wide skirt, if flounced, seemed even wider, making almost any waist seem small in comparison, so corsets did not have to be quite so constricting. The bodice was less elongated than in the forties. Sleeves gradually became shorter and much wider, sometimes falling in tiers and flaring out to reveal dainty white undersleeves, or "en-gageantes." These were often lace-and-ribbon trimmed, and were considered an article of lingerie. Lace collars were worn with a brooch, and sometimes the bodice was open to the waist to reveal a pretty chemisette.

Dresses were frequently made with two interchangeable bodices—one for day wear and the other, with a low neckline and usually a wide bertha, for dressy evening events. The revival of the French court, and the influence of the beautiful and fashionable Empress Eugenie, sparked a new emphasis on rich fabrics and lavish trim, which American fashion plates (predominantly of French origin) were quick to illustrate. However, Godey's took care to reassure those of its readers who considered anything French slightly immoral that the magazine had engaged an artist "to reform the foreign fashions, as far as health and delicacy require." Nevertheless, the whole look was one of greater luxury and extravagance.

Bonnets were smaller and moved toward the back of the head as the decade progressed. Wide-brimmed straw hats were also worn in summer for informal occasions. Shawls, cloaks, capes and even the hooded burnoose were worn as outer garments, plus various fitted and semifitted coats— all of which had to be constructed with the tremendous spread of the hoopskirt in mind.

A few brave women, led by Amelia Bloomer, tried unsuccessfully to popularize a more practical garment—a calf-length, hoopless dress worn with long Turkish trousers. The name "bloomer" found a niche not in trousers, but in gymnastic outfits that had a full, pleated leg, tight at the bottom or at or above the knee. Mrs. Bloomer's concept failed completely to be accepted as everyday wear. A contemporary writer refers in horror to women who sink "down to the lowest depth of bloomer-ism, smoking, and talking slang." A lady simply would have no part of it.

For men, frock coats and top hats continued to be worn much of the time. Coat, waistcoat and trousers began to match and a variety of coats became available—short, double-breasted or loose. Straw hats became acceptable in town, and a low-crowned, wide-brimmed hat called a "wide-awake" was introduced. There was considerable variety and exuberance in neckwear—cravats might be modest or flamboyant, and bow ties were popular. Fancy vests—figured or dotted satin among the most popular— also added verve to the scene. High collars were very much in evidence despite the fact that turned-down collars were more up-to-date. Full beards began to be seen now and then. Coat collars and lapels decreased in size, and braid trim was sometimes used on coat and trousers. It was becoming fashionable to button only the top button of the coat. Trousers remained creaseless and cuffless.

Dresses for little girls and boys, frequently in plaids or checks, now had somewhat shorter skirts and less vertical emphasis in the bodice, and the accompanying pantalets were also more abbreviated. Some of the time, girls wore hoops under their skirts like their mothers. Once breeched, boys frequently wore Zouave or bolero jackets with shirts buttoning to contrasting fly-front trousers. Plaid stockings and low boots were a popular novelty for both sexes, as was the use of braid trim and tassels in boys' outfits. Hair styles remained the same as in the forties.


The 1860s

Hoopskirt mania continued unabated in the early sixties, war or no war. For evening wear skirts could measure as much as five or more yards around at the hem, but by the middle of the decade, the front of the gown was flattening out somewhat, with the greatest fullness moving toward the back. A lady wearing a cape or cloak and a little "spoon" bonnet on the back of her head, its brim pointing heavenward, presented a peculiarly triangular appearance. Flounces disappeared, leaving skirts plain or decorated with applied trim in a geometric pattern. The sewing machine, invented in the forties but just beginning to have an impact, made this kind of work much easier for those who could afford it. Wide sleeves were still worn, but began to give way to more moderate styles such as the bishop sleeve, full but tight at the cuff. Pointed bodices were being supplanted by shorter, rounder ones, worn with belts.

Separates provided a means of being resourceful as well as fashionable. A beautiful and economical style, according to Peterson's Magazine in 1862, was the full-sleeved Garibaldi shirt (inspired by the immense popularity of this champion of Italian freedom) which "will answer to wear with two or three old dress skirts, after the bodies are no longer fit for use/' The various short jackets currently in vogue, such as the Zouave, could serve the same purpose, "enabling a lady to give greater variety to her costume, without being extravagant.'

A refreshing addition to the scene, as the decade progressed, was the ankle-length dress—albeit still worn with hoops. This outfit was intended for such activities as walking, archery, croquet and ice-skating, the last-named so universally enjoyed that one newspaper referred to it as "our national winter exercise." An 1860 Winslow Homer engraving shows ladies having to hold up their long skirts by hand while ice-skating; in a similar Homer scene, executed six years later, not only are they skating vigorously in shorter skirts that need no lifting, but in the background a game of crack-the-whip is in progress, with the lady on the end about to be spun off on a wild trip across the ice.

In the second half of the sixties dresses began to be more elaborately decorated. Ruffles, pleats, scallops, fringe and buttons were popular. Skirts, except for sport, remained floor-length and sometimes had trains. The hoopskirt grew smaller, and peplums or overskirts became an essential part of the costume, showing an increasing tendency to be pulled up and gathered toward the back, an effect that was often heightened by a sash with a large bow. By the end of the decade, this emphasis on the rear of the gown had developed into a true bustle, with its own artifical support, and the enormous hoopskirt was only a memory.

The bonnet no longer reigned supreme. Small hats were now perched on the top of the head, and little pillbox hats were worn at a rakish angle on the forehead, leaving room for an increasingly large chignon at the back, often enclosed in a decorative snood. Wide-brimmed straw hats were seen in summer. As the decade progressed, masses of false hair were added and curls might be worn on the forehead. Eventually quite elaborate hairdos, complete with two or three very long sausage curls hanging down over one shoulder, were stylish.

Now and then the bonnet still proved to be more than mere decoration. Julia Grant tells about an incident during the Civil War when she and various other members of Lincoln and Grant's entourage were on the James River in Admiral Porter's gig (an open longboat) in a supposedly safe area. Suddenly the alarming news came that Confederate sharpshooters had been spotted on the shore and had them within rifle range. The admiral immediately reassured his nervous passengers and crew that, despite this, they were in no actual danger. "These Southern fellows are all too gallant. They would not fire on a boat with women in it. These ladies' bonnets will protect us."

The masculine silhouette finally showed some ripples of change, becoming less close-fitting and shapely. Two new styles introduced in the late fifties slowly began to take hold. One was the suit, with coat, trousers and waistcoat (or sometimes just two of these elements) matching. The other was the sack coat, boxy in cut, with no waist seam and a rather bulky sleeve. Both were appropriate for informal wear. Plaid and checked trousers were fashionable. Frock coats and top hats were still very much on the scene. Beards were becoming more common, as were turned-down collars and narrow bow ties, although there was no general uniformity. For example, a photograph of the class of 1860 at Union College, Schenectady, shows 11 men and 11 different styles of hair, collars and ties!

Girls' clothes continued to follow the basic trends of women's fashions. One popular outfit was the Garibaldi shirt worn with a full skirt that had a wide band of contrasting-color material near the hem. There were also "high" and "low" Garibaldi dresses (a reference to the neckline) that were cut along the same lines. Boys, too, wore the shirt with full Garibaldi pants, cut off below the knee either straight or like knickers. Military-type caps and capes were frequently seen. Horizontally striped stockings and boots were popular. Hairstyles for both sexes were similar to those of the previous decade, and little children continued to be dressed alike until the boys were breeched at around four or five years.


Excerpted from American Victorian Costume in Early Photographs by Priscilla Harris Dalrymple. Copyright © 1991 Priscilla Harris Dalrymple. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

The 1840s
The 1850s
The 1860s
The 1870s
The 1880s
The 1890s
Notes on the Images

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