Why Did We Do That? (Or Evolution of Fashion Part 3)

Why Did We Do That? (Or Evolution of Fashion Part 3)

In my last post we went through the glory years of Regency fashion (and the first years of the Darcys’ marriage!). But while the dresses of the later half of the 1810s were quite lovely, they signaled a transition into fashion that was going to go to extremes, first with sleeves and then with skirts.

This dress from the fashion museum at Bath shows the transition still underway. It features lots of trim, puffier sleeves, and a lower waistline with ruching at the bosom. The ruched area tapers towards the waist, a trend that will evolve to eventually form a point, for the next few decades will be all about accentuating the waist in various ways.

1824 embroidered cotton dress, Fashion Museum Bath. As the museum notes, this dress is hand-embroidered but by the end of the decade, machine embroidery had been invented and was in use.

At the beginning of the decade, undergarments were still very similar to what had been worn in the previous two decades. As this 1824-25 portrait below shows very clearly, it was still the fashion to separate the breasts, and stays were still constructed in order to do that.

Harriott West, Sir Thomas Lawrence; as part of separating the breasts it was popular to put a brooch between them, as she wears in the painting

Petticoats and pantalettes continued to provide additional layers below the outer dress, although as you can see we’re moving away from those more transparent fabrics so they become less necessary for that purpose.

1820 half petticoat, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

As the decade continued, the petticoat took on a new purpose: to help provide shape for the dress. As the example below shows, sleeves on the petticoat helped provide volume for the increasingly puffier sleeves of the outer dress.

1822 petticoat with sleeves, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Aside from the other trends I’ve noted, you may have noticed some geometric patterns in the trim of some of the later gowns I’ve shown, and this continued to extremes. These zigzag designs were called “vandykes,” a misspelling of the Dutch portrait painter whose subjects sometimes wore similarly geometric lace collars. The gown below shows an extreme example of this.

1824-25 taffeta dress, DAR Museum, Washington DC

The dress below shows a bit of vandyke trim, as well as the increasing sleeve size and extreme emphasis on a narrow waist that was coming in by the end of the decade.

1829 wedding dress, Gloucester Life Museum

Sleeves would go to even greater extremes, though, for this was the era of leg of mutton sleeves.

Left, 1830 silk day dress, and right, 1835-38 wool day dress.
1835 green silk dress with puff sleeves and a point creating emphasis on the waist, Fashion Museum Bath

To support these sleeves, the petticoat was not enough, and so ladies wore “sleeve plumpers” as part of their undergarments.

1830s long stays, with sleeve plumpers and petticoat, DAR Museum, Washington DC
1830-35 sleeve plumpers with long stays and petticoat, Wikipedia

As these examples show, stays continued to separate the breasts into the 1830s. As waistlines moved down, however, short stays were no longer an option. Long stays helped maintain a smooth line and a slim waist, and they’re going to get even more uncomfortable shortly.

This display at the Fashion Museum Bath shows a good summary of the evolution of dresses during the period we’ve been looking at

I’ll leave you with one last dress, of Queen Victoria’s. It shows a couple of things: first, that although we might think of her as a thick-waisted old widow dressed in black, she was actually quite tiny before she had all of those children; and second, tartan plaid was popularised by her as a pattern (now far enough away from the Jacobite rebellion, Victoria and others like Sir Walter Scott led a more romantic view of Scotland). As this and previous dresses have shown, materials have changed from the lightweight muslin and lace net to always be quite solid. Cotton is still used but wool and silk appear in greater proportion, and the latter comes into daytime use more.

1835-37 silk velvet dress of Queen Victoria’s, Kensington Palace, London
Side view of the dress

I hope you’ve enjoyed this month’s installment of my little fashion series. Brace yourselves, for next month we’ll be hitting maximum discomfort: corsets and crinolines.

7 Responses to Why Did We Do That? (Or Evolution of Fashion Part 3)

  1. I missed this post! Thank goodness I’ve seen it now as I love fashion history! My favourite of the above dresses is the one in the Bath Fashion museum collection which doesn’t have the huge sleeves and is patterned with what looks like cherries!
    I think the sleeve plumpers are a forerunner to shoulder pads ? some of them make the dresses seem far too top heavy! I once had a bridesmaid dress in around 1970 when I was 18. It was in broderies anglaise with leg of mutton sleeves, made by my Mum. I loved it at the time but in my defence I didn’t wear any padding!

  2. In winter I can see it helping being warmer with the full petticoat and sleeve puffers. However, come summer no wonder the ladies fainted! Loving the evolution and the fashion. Being on the shorter side myself, these mutton sleeves would make me look like one large colourful and round potato sack! Looking forward to the next post!

    • Hahaha, yeah I think you had to be relatively tall with a very tiny waist to wear these all successfully. I’ve got the height but not so much the waist! And you’re right I’m sure it was a welcome change in the colder English months to wear more layers compared to the Regency, but summer must have been rough. Thank you for your comment, Carole!

  3. I love these posts. I’ve watched fashion for decades and it never ceases to amaze me how things come back around after a few decades. Thanks for all the research that you do. It is appreciated. Just a note… that one dress with all the vandyke points reminds me of Caroline. If it had been in orange… hilarious. That is so her. What a hoot.

    • Thank you for your comment, J.W.! I agree it’s always amazing how things come back around. And I hadn’t thought of it, but that one with the vandyke points is very Caroline…I can definitely see her wearing something so over the top.

  4. Interesting. And thought it was tough wearing pantyhose!lol Ladies in that day and age had more to battle with than that!

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