The Evolution of the 19th Century Gown: A Visual Guide

Individual Images of Gowns via Met Museum
Individual Images of Gowns via Met Museum

The silhouette of women’s gowns changed a great deal over the course of the 19th century. Most of us can easily identify the lines of an early Regency gown or the shape of a late-Victorian dress with a bustle.  But what about those transitional years?  The 1820s, 1830s, and 1870s, for example.  Sometimes styles of these decades are harder to pinpoint.  With that in mind, I present you with a decade-by-decade visual guide to silk gowns of the 19th century.

*All of the images of gowns are courtesy of The Costume Institute at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.  If you click an image here, it will take you straight to their website where, in many cases, you can see multiple views of the gown as well as close-up images of stitching and trim.

1800

To usher in the century, here is an elegant striped silk British dress from 1800.

1800 British Silk Dress.(Image via Met Museum)
1800 British Silk Dress.
(Image via Met Museum)
1800 British Silk Dress.(Image via Met Museum)
1800 British Silk Dress.
(Image via Met Museum)

1810

A festive 1811 British ballgown of gold and lace fabric trimmed with pearls.  For reference, this is the decade of most of our Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer heroines.  Pride and Prejudice was published in 1813 and Heyer’s Regency Buck was set in 1811.  Which heroine do you suppose would look best wearing this gold confection?

1811 British Ball Gown.(Image via Met Museum)
1811 British Ball Gown.
(Image via Met Museum)
1811 British Ball Gown Sleeve Detail.(Image via Met Museum)
1811 British Ball Gown.
(Image via Met Museum)

 

1820

A lovely printed silk British dress  from 1820.  Note the addition of flounces, belt, and trimmings!

1820 British Silk Dress.(Image via Met Museum)
1820 British Silk Dress.
(Image via Met Museum)
1820 British Silk Dress.(Image via Met Museum)
1820 British Silk Dress.
(Image via Met Museum)

1830

A beautiful floral and striped silk British gown from 1836.  As a point of reference, this is the decade in which George Eliot set her novel, Middlemarch.  Perhaps the below gown is one that Rosamond Vincy might have worn?  Failing that, it could just as easily have been in the wardrobe of one of the characters in Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters (which was set in the same decade).

1836 British Silk Dress.(Image via Met Museum)
1836 British Silk Gown.
(Image via Met Museum)
1836 British Silk Dress.(Image via Met Museum)
1836 British Silk Gown.
(Image via Met Museum)

 

1840

An 1842 British gown of floral-patterned silk.  Gowns of the 1840s were often severe, but the pattern of this dress makes it appear much softer and more feminine than others of the decade.

1842 British Silk Dress.(Image via Met Museum)
1842 British Silk Gown.
(Image via Met Museum)
1842 British Silk Dress.(Image via Met Museum)
1842 British Silk Gown.
(Image via Met Museum)

1850

A very pretty 1850 British gown made of silk and flax.  The 1850s were the decade in which Elizabeth Gaskell set her novel North and South.  I wonder if Margaret Hale could have bought a gown like the one below in Milton?

1850 British Silk Flax Gown.(Image via Met Museum)
1850 British Silk and Flax Gown
(Image via Met Museum)
1850 British Silk Flax Gown.(Image via Met Museum)
1850 British Silk and Flax Gown.
(Image via Met Museum)

1860

A stunning Emile Pingat French silk ballgown, circa 1864.  Notice the increase in the width of the skirts.  During the 1860s, the popularity of the crinoline was at its peak! 

1864 Emile Pingat French Silk Ballgown.(Image via Met Museum)
1864 Emile Pingat French Silk Ballgown.
(Image via Met Museum)
1864 Emile Pingat French Silk Ballgown.(Image via Met Museum)
1864 Emile Pingat French Silk Ballgown.
(Image via Met Museum)

 

1870

A gorgeous green silk British dress from 1870.  By the late 1860s/early 1870s, the crinoline had fallen out of favor.  The size of skirts reduced to more manageable proportions, with the bulk of the fabric now drawn to the back of the dress in elegant—and sometimes elaborate—draping.  This is generally known as the “first bustle era.”

1870 British Silk Dress.(Image via Met Museum)
1870 British Silk Dress.
(Image via Met Museum)
1870 British Silk Dress.(Image via Met Museum)
1870 British Silk Dress.
(Image via Met Museum)

1880

A brown silk and velvet American gown from 1884.  This is what is known as the “second bustle era.”  Gowns were made of heavier fabric and trimmings, while the bustle itself grew to enormous proportions.  It was at its biggest by the middle of the decade, but reduced to a more modest size by 1890.

1884 American Silk Gown.(Image via Met Museum)
1884 American Silk Gown.
(Image via Met Museum)
1884 American Silk Gown.(Image via Met Museum)
1884 American Silk Gown.
(Image via Met Museum)

1890

For our final gown of the 19th century, here’s an 1893 silk and wool evening dress trimmed with rhinestones.

1893 Evening Dress.
(Met Museum)

In Closing…

I hope you have found the above to be a useful basic visual guide to the evolution of the 19th century gown.  Of course, there are infinite variations on each of these styles.  Fabrics varied.  As did prints, patterns, and colors.  And as for trimmings—some gowns were edged with pearls or jewels.  Some with fragile, expensive lace.  And some with fringe or even fur.  The only limit for a lady was her budget and her own good taste (or the good taste of her modiste!).

Mimi Matthews is the author of The Pug Who Bit Napoleon: Animal Tales of the 18th and 19th Centuries (to be released by Pen and Sword Books in November 2017).  She researches and writes on all aspects of nineteenth century history—from animals, art, and etiquette to fashion, beauty, feminism, and law. 

Coming September 19

The Lost Letter
A Victorian Romance

An impoverished beauty is unexpectedly reunited with the beastly earl who jilted her three years before. Will they finally find their happily ever after? Or are some fairy-tale endings simply not meant to be? Find out more…

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47 Comments on "The Evolution of the 19th Century Gown: A Visual Guide"

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Sarah Waldock
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An excellent post! I have been doing some research for Giselle Marks, and 1800 was a period in which stripes were definitely IN. Also checks, though the main impression tended to be of strong stripes with some cross-threads in many cases. Also polka dots which had been in for much of the previous decade. The first ever bustle era was in the 1770s, reprised to some extent in the early 1790s where there was a hint of the S-shaped figure that was reprised and reached its height with the Edwardian look. I can imagine some old lady saying of the… Read more »
Mimi Matthews
Guest

Glad you liked it Sarah :) The stripes do look lovely on those older gowns, too. I’m not surprised they were popular. I think when they classify the first and second bustle era what is really meant is the first and second Victorian bustle era. But you’re right – it was definitely around in the 18th century as well.

beppie2014
Guest

How I do enjoy your posts! This one is particularly useful and I’m filing it mainly for my own reference–it’s wonderful to have the decades so distinguished. Thank you for so generously sharing all your research, not only this blog but all the others.

Mimi Matthews
Guest

You’re very welcome, Beppie :) So glad you like my posts and find them useful!

Trev
Guest

Lovely images. Elizabeth Gaskell though!

Mimi Matthews
Guest

Glad you liked them. Are you not a fan of Elizabeth Gaskell?

Mary Scott
Guest

Thanks. Loved it. Great to see such a span so easily.
You seem to be a fan of Bronte, so you may find the following as interesting as I did.
Did you know that a poem by Charlotte Bronte, written when she was 17, was recently discovered in an old book:
“Mary thou dids’t not know that I was nigh
Thou dids’t not know my gaze was fixed on thee,
I stood apart and watched thee passing by
In all thy calm unconscious majesty.”
For more info, see an article in The Guardian Newspaper, dated Friday November 13.

Mimi Matthews
Guest

Glad you liked it, Mary :) And thanks so much for the poem! I think there was something about it on twitter, but I had not had a chance to read the actual article yet. I love when new work from much beloved authors is discovered!

Vickie
Guest

These dresses are so beautiful – I can imagine anyone that could afford to wear them must have felt the same. Thank you for your research and presenting them so well – everything you do is so lovely!

Mimi Matthews
Guest

Thank you so much :) I’m glad you enjoy my posts!

woostersauce2014
Guest

A good visual timeline of how fashiones changed through the decades during the 19th century. They seem to have more or less a common denominator though – lots of volume and the presence of a waist!

Mimi Matthews
Guest

I’m glad you liked it :) Gowns certainly did retain a lot of volume through much of the 19th century. It’s hard to believe that by the 1920s styles had evolved into skimpy flapper dresses!

woostersauce2014
Guest

It is but I suppose it did reflect the fact that more women were now entering the labour force either out of choice or out of necesity. Those clothes you mentioned were for women of leisure and to demonstrate wealth and status. The fashions that emerged out of the 1920s was the beginning of the democratisation of fashion which continues to this day.

Mimi Matthews
Guest

Precisely! And also the women’s rights movement at the turn of the century, the popularity of the bicycle, and so many other influences on women’s fashion. In some ways a lady’s gown was a barometer for the times.

woostersauce2014
Guest

Yes and of course with modern day clothes, the fact that we have pantyhose, washing machine friendly clothing and even those that don’t need to be ironed reflects the fact that women lead busier lives now. Someone also said that the invention of the zipper was revolutionary in terms of clothes.

Mimi Matthews
Guest

Very good points! And I remember hearing that about the zipper, too. Just think how many buttons it saved a lady from doing up and down everyday. And, for some women, it probably lessened the need for a lady’s maid – leading to greater independence.

woostersauce2014
Guest

Well said because with zippers it was easier to dress yourself and no need for a maid to help you. And of course zippers also saved on repairs, how many times does one have to sew a button back on? But a zipper? I doubt it.

Sarah Waldock
Guest

Although when modern nylon zippers break to many people this means throwing away the garment! any idiot can sew on a button but unpicking and setting in a zipper, especially in a fly, or in a figure-hugging gown with a looooooong zip all the way down the back, takes a bit of skill. And I loathe and detest doing it and that’s one reason I don’t do repairs for money on the side, only for neighbours in a quid pro quo barter system.

woostersauce2014
Guest

That’s the main downside agree and thankfully I’ve not had to repair a zipper because when they’ve broke usually the dress itself is very old and has lost its shape or has faded.

woostersauce2014
Guest

Whoops! Sorry for the typo!

Mimi Matthews
Guest

No worries :)

Maggie Craig
Guest

Loved this post, so interesting to see the transition. Looks like the crinoline was more cumbersome than many of the hooped petticoats of the 18th century, which men also complained about! I found one plaintive: “This is designed to keep us at a distance.”

I prefer the Regency styles myself but these paintings by Winterhalter and others of these huge gowns are fabulous. Keep up the good work!

Mimi Matthews
Guest

I’m happy you enjoyed it, Maggie :) Strangely, I think that once they switched to the wire cage crinoline, the big gowns weren’t so cumbersome – though they were certainly unpleasant for everyone in a lady’s path! And I agree with you about the Winterhalter paintings. He had a way of making everything beautiful.

Noirfifre
Guest

I agree that the 1860 dress is stunning! For some reason I see the dress from 1810 on Caroline Bingley from Pride & Prejudice.

Mimi Matthews
Guest

It’s certainly fancy enough for Miss Bingley!

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Lorna Fergusson
Guest

I absolutely love your blog, Mimi. Thank you for sharing these lovely images. The gold 1810 ballgown for me!

Anne
Guest

Wonderful post! Thank you! It’s hilarious, I saw someone at the food store last week dressed in pj’s and we have long had signs saying one needs shoes and a shirt for service!…..different times!

Sarah Waldock
Guest

Can I just add that I love the shell-shaped trim on the 1820s gown, but point out that the waist was falling by that time – it looks like a really fast transition from the high waist to the low, pointed waist of 1830, but actually the waist started to fall in fashion plates around 1818 and had largely descended to its natural place at about 1822 for most people.
And having beta-read ‘The Lost Letter’ I thoroughly recommend it as a good read.

Wendy
Guest
What a lovely post, Mimi! The 1842 British Silk Gown is definitely my favourite! It’s strange: I obviously know that nearly every decade of the 20th century produced a different style of dress, but I often don’t associate that same decade-specific clothing change with earlier centuries. I wouldn’t necessarily have thought there were so many different styles of dress spanning the 1800s. But it is interesting how all of these dresses you’ve featured are still much closer in style to each other than what we see between, say, 1900 Edwardian, 1920s Flapper, 1960s Mod, and 1980s … well, whatever that… Read more »
Jeanne Lombardo
Guest

Gorgeous gowns and fun fashion tour through the century. I think I am partial to the 1840 blue floral silk. Good discussion with woostersauce2014 below. It would be interesting to see a similar array of gowns a governess or other genteel “working woman” might have worn. And I expect the “fashion” for a scullery maid or other female laborer changed very little over the decades?

S. Janssen
Guest

My favorite style periods are Regency and Edwardian. Any thoughts or knowledge of the cultural or economic climate that led to the increasing amounts of yardage in the fashions?

Christa Jennings
Guest

Natural form doesn’t quite fit the decades format, as it spanned mid 1870s to early 1880s, but it was a very distinct period between the two bustle periods.

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