There were many important, transitional years for women’s fashion during the 19th century. For example, in a single decade sleeves might transform from slender and straight to enormous gigot or leg o’mutton style sleeves. While skirts which began a decade flowing loose around the legs might end the decade standing several feet wide atop a crinoline. In my previous post on the evolution of 19th century gowns (available HERE), I gave a brief, decade-by-decade visual overview of the ever-changing silhouettes of women’s silk dresses in the 1800s. For the transitional years, however, a single image can never sum up an entire decade. With that in mind, I bring you the first in my new series of visual fashion guides to those decades of the 19th century during which women’s fashion underwent the most extreme change.
I begin with the 1820s, a decade which stood between the Regency era (1811-1820) and the Victorian era (1837-1901). This decade is notable in fashion as providing a bridge between the classic, high-waisted Empire styles of the early 19th century and the large sleeved, full-skirted styles of the mid-19th century.
*Please note: These are primarily visual guides – fashion CliffsNotes, if you will. For more in depth information, please consult the recommended links.
According to an 1820 edition of La Belle Assemblée, popular sleeves for evening dresses at the beginning of the year were “short and full.” Meanwhile, flounces or borders of lace, ribbons, and flowers were all the rage. Below is a British ball gown made of silk satin and silk net, embroidered with metal and trimmed with blonde lace.
Describing two ball gowns of particular beauty in February of 1820, La Belle Assemblée states:
“One is of a figured satin of an entire new manufacture, with the figures woven among the satin in such a manner that they are transparent; round the border is a beautiful festoon of roses and their foliage in rich clusters; they are smaller than nature, but faithfully coloured from it. The other ball dress is almost equally attractive by its chaste simplicity: it is of fine white net over white satin, and is finished at the border by two flounces of net, richly embossed with white satin in elegant fancy flowers and foliage.”
While at the end of the year, La Belle Assemblée describes a “superb evening dress of light lavender-coloured figured satin” with a “festoon flounce” caught up with rosettes and sleeves made of fine net “clasped all the way to the wrist.” An example of a somewhat similar style can be seen in the below image of an American striped, silk ball gown with long, sheer sleeves.
Moving into the year 1821, there is not a great deal of difference in style from the previous year. La Belle Assemblée states that for November of 1821:
“The most favourite dresses are of plain barége silk, with several rows of the same material, bouillonés, either in horizontal lines, or in bias: sometimes, however, flounces in large quiltings are preferred, or full wadded bands in bias.”
As for the sleeves on evening and ball gowns, short and full still prevailed. La Belle Assemblée notes:
“To have the sleeves as short as possible, and to ruck the gloves down below the elbow, let them be as long as they will, seems to be the most important points a woman of fashion has to observe.”
Proceeding into 1822, The Lady’s Monthly Museum reports that silk dresses for the evening continue to be in favor. These dresses are ornamented with “full wadded rouleaux, in half festoons” with short, full sleeves. Also popular during this decade were short, puffed sleeves combined with close-fitting long sleeves, as seen in the below right image of an 1822 British silk visiting gown.
As we advance into 1823, La Belle Assemblée reports that silk is still the chief fabric for evening dress. Short, full sleeves are still quite fashionable as well. As for flounces and trimmings, there is no single popular style. La Belle Assemblée declares:
“Nothing is more versatile than the manner of trimming gowns: festooned flounces, with rosettes between each space, wheat-sheaves, the Indian lotus, rows of quatre-foils; in short, every device that taste and fancy can form; they are all, however, though sometimes embossed, lightly and delicately disposed over the border of the dress, and, with the exception of satin, which is often made use of in these trimmings to mark them well out, are made of crape, gauze, and other slight materials.”
The 1824 edition of La Belle Assemblée reports that “waists are of a charming, moderate length.” In addition to gradually lowering waistlines, 1824 also began to usher in slightly fuller skirts. An example of both is evident in the silk Wedding gown below. Also, take note of the hem of this gown which is finished in what the the Metropolitan Museum of Art refers to as a three-dimensional “hem sculpture.”
When it came to sleeves in 1824, a big change was on the horizon. At the end of the year, La Belle Assemblée mentions the advent of sleeves en gigot, writing:
“The capacious sleeves, justly named, en gigot, gave to these loose disguises of a fine form, the appearance of a waggoner’s frock, merely confined round the waist; and as such, they actually struck the country people, who live remote from Paris, when they first saw them, on the arrival of some great ladies at their châteaux.”
By 1825, according to La Belle Assemblée, “the reign of white dresses” was at an end. As for sleeves, a mild revolution in fashion was taking place. No longer strictly for the ladies of Paris, sleeves en gigot became popular with ladies in the rest of the fashionable world as well. Reporting on the new styles in gowns for 1825, La Belle Assemblée observes:
“The dresses are most elegantly finished, as to their ornaments of lace, flounces, and embroidery; but they are all made in the blouse style, with sleeves en gigot.”
La Belle Assemblée did not initially embrace this change in sleeves, lamenting that sleeves in gigot were “in the shape of a leg of mutton! which they certainly resemble.” They even went so far as to remind their readers that they were not responsible for the new fad, writing:
“We repeat, that as we do not invent the fashions, we must give them with all their incongruities, as well as varieties.”
Despite initial chagrin over sleeves en gigot (or leg o’mutton sleeves as they were now sometimes called), by 1826 they were everywhere – and not only in the world of high fashion. As an example, I refer you to the below 1826-1827 British cotton day dress from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Short sleeves were still sometimes worn at evening parties and, according to the 1826 edition of La Belle Assemblée, were “finished round the arm by a quilling of tulle” or other trim. As for skirts, La Belle Assemblée reports that by the end of 1826:
“The durable and always elegant fashion of trimming the skirts of the gowns with flounces, was still the most prevalent mode.”
By 1827, the subtle changes in gowns of the first half of the decade were clearly visible. Waists were lower, skirts and sleeves were fuller, and according to the 1827 edition of La Belle Assemblée, it now took a full 12 to 14 yards to make an evening gown. For day dresses, like the 1827 cotton morning gown below, La Belle Assemblée reports that “patterns are new, and in very charming variety” and that printed muslin and chintz were the favored fabrics.
Describing the style in sleeves and trimmings for evening gowns of the year, La Belle Assemblée states:
“The sleeves, though short, are immensely wide, and when they are long, they are in the gigot shape, and more capacious than ever. Flounces, full, pointed, and headed with superb ornaments at the top, take up a prodigious quantity of silk; and if a full-dress gown, made low, with short sleeves, will sometimes require fourteen yards of silk to make it handsome; it is not unusual for a pelisse, handsomely trimmed with pelerine capes, mancherons, and Bavarian straps, to take thirty yards.”
During 1828, the silhouette of women’s gowns continued to grow bigger and bigger. The 1828 edition of La Belle Assemblée observes that “very wide sleeves were worn with morning dresses” and that:
“The favourite mode of trimming dresses is by one very broad flounce round the border.”
For evening gowns, sleeves, if short, were plain and full. Meanwhile, the body was generally made high across the bust and low in the shoulders.
By 1829, gowns were adorned with broad hems that were, according to the 1829 edition of La Belle Assemblée, “generally without any ornament.” Bodices were made “tight to the shape” and the sleeves, whether short or long, were still very full. Many gowns with long sleeves finished at the wrist with a close-fitting “gauntlet cuff.”
This does not mean that flounces, frills, and excessive trimmings had gone by the wayside. La Belle Assemblée reports that many gowns were trimmed with broad flounces of blonde lace and that “frills of blond surround the tucker part of most evening dresses.”
I hope you have found the above overview to be helpful in navigating your way through the often confusing, transitional fashions of the 1820s. Again, I remind you that this is just a brief, visual guide. If you would like to know more about the changes in fashion during the 1820s, I encourage you to consult a reliable reference book. The following links may provide a starting point:
I leave you with this 1829 caricature by George Cruikshank which sums up how many in the 19th century felt about the fashions of the decade – especially the controversial gigot sleeve.
A Victorian Lady’s Guide to Fashion and Beauty
What did a Victorian lady wear for a walk in the park? How did she style her hair for an evening at the theatre? And what products might she have used to soothe a sunburn or treat an unsightly blemish? Mimi Matthews answers these questions and more as she takes readers on a decade-by-decade journey through Victorian fashion and beauty history. Find out more…
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