19th Century Fashion – By the Decade

We tend to define decades by many things – music, hairstyles, and of course, clothing. Think poodle skirts, Go Go boots, bell bottoms, and leg warmers. Here’s a picture of me in the 80’s – oh those high school years. How about that big hair and big earrings? At least this picture isn’t as bad as the one I had in 6th grade where my hair looked a little too much like the cinnamon buns that Princess Leia sported in Star Wars.

Fashion in the 19th Century was much the same. Certain styles came to define certain decades. In fact, historians often use these styles to help them date old family photographs. I thought it would be fun to look at a few of these examples. My current work in progress takes me out of my comfort zone of the 1880’s and back to the 1850’s, so I’ll start there.




I modeled one of my current heroine’s dresses after the one on the right. These models aren’t wearing hoop skirts yet, just stiffened petticoats or crinolines to give the skirts their bell-shape. Notice the deep V shape of the bodice. This was very typical of the late forties – early fifties. The sloping shoulders with no definitive seam. And of particular distinction, note the wide sleeve hems with the white cotton undersleeves.







Now you can think Gone with the Wind. Full hoop skirts have come into fashion. Also notice the short-waisted bodices. This Empire style waistline ended at the bottom of the ribcage instead of extending to the natural waist. The shoulders remained sloping in design and small, lace collars came into fashion.







A drastic change occurred in very little time. In about 2 years, hoop skirts disappeared, replaced by the bustle. Decorative emphasis moved the the back of the dresses. Skirt fronts hung straight down while the backs were gathered over bustles with flounces that would drape over the underskirt. The sloping shoulders were taken over by more fitted designs. The bustle disappeared by the end of the decade to make way for the very slender silhouette popular in 1880. But watch how the bustle regains popularity and surges to crazy heights.








Thankfully, the bustle’s popularity finally died a true death. However, all the extra fabric had to go somewhere, so in the 1890’s, they decided to move it to the sleeves. Ha!



If you had to chose an era to dress for, which decade would you choose?

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For those who love to smile as they read, bestselling author Karen Witemeyer offers warmhearted historical romance with a flair for humor, feisty heroines, and swoon-worthy Texas heroes. Karen is a firm believer in the power of happy endings. . . and ice cream. She is an avid cross-stitcher, and makes her home in Abilene, TX with her husband and three children. Learn more about Karen and her books at: www.karenwitemeyer.com.

45 thoughts on “19th Century Fashion – By the Decade”

  1. Love your picture!

    I think that I will choose the 1850’s. None of the dresses look comfortable to me but those look the least uncomfortable. The bustles may be best for my body type as my back side is flat but I would hate to stand all the time because I cannot see how they can sit!

    Guess it is a good thing that I am living now, right?

  2. I prefer a more fitted style typically, so I think the tamer 1880’s look best; however, I do not care for the constriction of my legs. If I remember rightly, hoops were lighter than crinolines, and so I’m betting one could run the best in a hoop skirt (and Scarlet O’Hara seems to manage just fine). Plus it would deter unsavory characters from my personal space.

  3. Connie – I agree that the bustle fasions were pretty until they got out of hand in the late 80s. Some of those pictures look like you could fit a small child under those things and no one would ever know. LOL.

  4. Sherri – Fashion was definitely an expression. Although sometimes I worry about the extremes it led to. Thankfully, the average woman still favored practicality over ridiculousness. Today is much the same. When I see some of the things that walk down the runway in fashion shows, I wonder who in their right mind would ever buy such a thing? The truly creative woman, however, can find inspiration in high fashion and tame it to her needs. Or be lazy like me and hang out in jeans and t-shirts.

  5. Hi, Racheal. I have to be honest…one of the reasons so many of my books were set in the early 1880’s was because I loved the clothes so much.

    I love your comment about hoop skirts preserving your personal space! I went to Charleston once, and one of the tour guides taking us downtown mentioned that the extra wide sidewalks were built that way intentionally so that two ladies in hoops could walk side by side as they did their shopping. Loved that tidbit!

  6. I love the fashion back then!! I think I would want to wear the dresses from 1861. I just find their clothing so regal but my only hang up would be the heat from all those layers. it was so hot in some places and to have to wear all of that wow. But I would feel like princess never the less.

  7. 1880’s would be my best shot, the simpler the better. Of course, just like I always say that I wouldn’t have wanted to live in any era before antibiotics, I wouldn’t want to live in any era with corsets, either! That’s the beautiful thing about fiction, though, isn’t it? We can visit the very best about these eras without the inconveniences! Thanks for a great post.

  8. Nicole – I’m an 1880’s gal, too. πŸ™‚

    Cori – I think fashion is a big part of what makes historicals so romantic to me. A fairy tale just isn’t a fairy tale without a gorgeous dress.

    Beth – I’ve always thought I wouldn’t want to live in an era before air conditioning – at least in Texas. Ha! I attended a workshop once where we all wore corsets for the hour. I was supprised by how confortable they were, as long as you didn’t lace them too tight. They gave great back support and made proper posture so much easier. Of course, bending over to pick something up off the floor was nearly impossible. Ha!

  9. I like the 1880 dress. It had to be easier to sit in this style compared to the hooped and bustled dresses. I would never suggest we go back to wearing such heavy fabric dresses, but modesty these days would sure be nice to see.

  10. I would choose the one from 1880, although none of them look very comfortable. i don’t see how women were able to do anything in some of these styles!!

  11. I rather like the 1880’s look. Not too extreme, and yet quite feminine.

    I also think your high school picture is very cute, Karen. Certainly in keeping with the 1980’s ladies.

    Keep on writing, my dear. Love & hugs.

  12. I love the late 70s and early 80s. I think the softer bustle is quite attractive and toward the end of the decade it had diminished to just about right. It is very true that not every woman wore their dresses to fashion. Practicality definitely won over for many of the women during that time–especially in the West. Wearing a bustle or a constricting skirt would have made everyday life very difficult to get anything accomplished. And riding a horse, as my tomboy, Calamity Jane-ish heroine would tell you, would be impossible. Ü I love the visuals here. Thanks for sharing!

  13. Marcia – Amen, sister! As the mother of a 15 year old daughter, I can say I miss the modesty of longer skirts. When we go shopping for dresses it’s nearly impossible to find anything that’s not a mini. I wanted to shout for joy when the summer “maxi” dresses started coming back in style. Now if we can just get a little more material up top as well…

  14. Tonja – These fashions were definitely styled for beauty not for practicality. I can see my Texas heroine’s dressing up in one of these dresses for Sunday, but for everyday–bring out the calico simplicity.

  15. Hi, Diane! You are one of the few who knew me back in those days. Ha! I wouldn’t necessarily want to wear them, but I sure wish I could FIT back into theose clothes.

  16. Kelli Ann – So great to see you here! You are so right about the horse riding. I can’t picture any of these outfits allowing a woman to ride. I guess that’s why they had to have separate riding costumes. Of course, our Texas gals wouldn’t be sportin’ such high-falutin’ styles anyway. Simple calico or even a split skirt would have to suffice.

  17. Hmmm. No corsets for me. Maybe the Regency Jane Austen type dresses with high waists would be ok. Or the Great Gatsby outfits in the 20’s. But definitely no corsets. Thanks for a fun blog, Karen.

  18. Elizabeth – I’m a big fan of Regency style dress, too. Probably because I have a strong desire to hide my not-even-close-to-flat belly. Which is also why I wouldn’t be too adverse to a corset, at least for dress up occasions. πŸ™‚

  19. I’d go for the 1880s – I just love that silhouette with the big bustle and all those ruffles!

  20. Hi Karen,
    I would probably choose the ’60s because I don’t like the bustle–especially the bustles of the late 80s. It made women look like the front part of a horse!

  21. LOL, Margaret! I couldn’t agree more. It’s like those guys that dress up in a horse costume, when I see those overgrown bustles, I keep waiting to see who will crawl out from beneath the back end. Not flattering.

  22. I’m with Beth – no corsets for me. And I can’t imagine wearing those costumes in the middle of hot humid summer. How on earth did they manage?

  23. I would choose the dresses from the 1961 era. I love all of the layers the dresses had! Might be kinda warm under there, though… Haha πŸ˜‰

  24. Karen, I had a sociology teacher that commented on how throughout history when the ladies skits were long, the necklines matched, as in very low (sometimes very, very low) and when skirts were short necklines were too, as in completely covering the neckline. I’ve found that to be an interesting and mostly true phenomenon!
    Hope I don’t offend anyone, but I couldn’t help hearing “Baby’s got back” on the 1887 one.
    I like the 1870-1880’s look.
    Such a fun post and question!

  25. Kaylea – Actually with the steel cages of the hoop skirts, the ladies didn’t have to wear as many petticoats so they were probably cooler than the dresses of the 40s and 50s. Could make for some embarrassing moments, though if a lady failed to control her skirt when sitting. Ha!

  26. Hi, Robbie. Thanks for your comment. I often wondered why, if the Regencies and Victorians were so concerned about modesty, they let their women show so much bosom at balls. The exposed chest only seemed to appear in the eveningwear, not in day dresses, but my goodness, with the added thrust of the corsets, there was very little left to the gentlemen’s imagination. You don’t dare show your ankle, but go ahead and flaunt your bosom. Crazy.

    Unfortunately, today we seem to break those rules and have too little coverage on both top and bottom.

  27. Hi Karen, what a wonderful and fashionable history lesson! I don’t know if I could handle a bustle…was it possible to sit down LOL. A corset seems most nightmarish. I like the empire waist…it was very popular when I was in high school and college, even my wedding gown. Regarding today: I don’t want to seem dowdy at all…sure, I’m a gramma but definitely not ready for muu-muu’s and housecoats. But a lot of today’s dresses are just too short for me. Ah, well. Maybe I should start sewing again. Really enjoyed the post and the pictures! Well done!

  28. I would definitely pick the lightest weight dress this time of year … but of all those styles I like the simplest the best. How interesting about the trouble a woman would have picking something up while wearing a corset. Sounds like a great reason to avoid housework πŸ™‚

  29. I love the 1880 picture… the dresses are beautiful and feminine, but not exaggerated. Those 1887 bustles were ri-diculous! πŸ™‚ Super fun post…

  30. A hard choice. The 1850’s or early 1880’s would be my choice. The dresses on the covers of your books are always so lovely. Any of those would be perfect. I look forward to seeing what your cover design is for your next book.

  31. Karen, I went to high school in the seventies.
    All my pictures are of me with long straight hair, parted in the middle…and wearing white lipstick and bright blue eye shadow.
    It’s so so so so bad.

  32. 1883 is a great looking dress…just enough frill for me. I particularly loved the bloomers and bike ridding ladies that came later…..

  33. Tanya – I agree with you about today styles being too short. And there’s no way I could ever picture you in a muu-muu and house coat. Ha!

    Martha – I hear you on the no bustles. I never quite understood why a woman would want her rear to look bigger. But maybe that’s why they liked it. She no longer had to ask “Does this make my butt look big?” because everybody’s butt looked big – and better yet – it was fashionable!

  34. Nancy – Maybe we should start a corset-wearing club just so we can get out of housework. Think it would work?

    Tamara – The early 80s were my favorite, too. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

    Patricia – Thanks for the compliments on my covers. When I sent in the picture to my publisher of the dress at the top of this post for my current work-in-progress, my editor wrote back that they were going to have a lot of fun with that dress for the new cover. I can’t wait to see what they come up with!

  35. Mary – You’ve got to post that pic sometime. I’m dying to see it. πŸ™‚

    Sharon – I like all that draping fabric, too. So pretty.

    Yvonne – You are right about those bloomer and bicycles. They came along in the 90s, along with those huge sleeves. Have you read Deeanne Gist’s Deep in the Heart of Trouble? That one has a bicycle-riding heroine. You’d probably like it. πŸ˜‰

  36. I love the pictures & your descriptions! Of these pictures, I would go for the 1871 bustle dresses. The hoops would be too annoying to me & those puffy sleeves, too!

  37. Sharlene – I think I read somewhere that they would often stuff those puffy sleeves with crumpled newspaper to help them keep their shape. Can you imagine? The crazy things we women will go through to be fashionable.

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