For many western cultures, the 1800s were a time of upheaval and change. This era saw the emergence of Britain, Germany and the United States as the three major world powers. As the western world's politics changed, so did western culture, which often took its cue from what was happening in the world. As part of that changing culture, women's fashion experienced changes in style throughout the 19th century and was heavily influenced by the important people and world powers of the day.
Women's clothing styles in the 1800s were influenced by cultural and political happenings of the day. There was a great deal of French influence on fashion after Napoleon Bonaparte was crowned the French emperor in 1804. A renewed interest in ancient Greek and Roman cultures as well as medieval history further influenced the style of women's dresses in that era. With a number of major wars being fought across Europe during the 19th century, military-inspired details on women's garments also became popular.
Napoleon Bonaparte had distinct tastes in female fashion and fancied full dresses and lots of lace on the women in his court. These trends spread from his court in France to many parts of Europe. As with women's clothing in the ancient cultures that interested people of the 1800s, women's dresses early on in that era had high waists, known as empire waists, and long, flowing skirts. They were often adorned with lace, tassels and patterned trims. Medieval influence was seen in the pleats, fans and tucks that also sometimes decorated dresses. After Napoleon's reign ended in 1815, English fashion soon became more popular than the French styles that Napoleon had inspired. English woman preferred the waists on their dresses to be at their natural waistlines. The skirts of the dresses took on a much fuller silhouette. Similar adornments to those used earlier in the century were still used, but often to a more lavish degree than before.
Fabrics and Colors
The empire-waisted dresses that were popular at the beginning of the 19th century were often crafted of lawn, muslin or batiste, a cotton blend fabric. The fabrics were often plain white or cream in colour, or covered with a simple floral pattern. During the second half of the 1800s, much more lavish fabrics, such as silk and taffeta, were sometimes adopted for women's dresses. Bolder colours, such as rich greens and reds, became more fashionable than the whites and creams that were popular in previous years.
Women's undergarments in the 1800s were meant not only to provide modesty, but to enhance the shape of the dresses worn over them. Two or more layers of undergarments were typically worn. The first layer often consisted of a light, nightgown-like shift. Over that, many women wore a crinoline skirt that gave shape and padding to their dress. These undergarments would sometimes be decorated with lace and embroidery. After Napoleon's reign ended and the high-waisted dresses worn during his reign began to disappear, women took to squeezing themselves into impossibly small, slim-waisted dresses with the help of tightly laced corsets. Layers were also added to the crinoline skirt at this time, which helped to give the dresses their full silhouette.
Women in the 1800s enjoyed beautifying themselves with accessories. In the early part of the century, they often wore decorative belts around their high-waisted dresses. Hats and gloves were also fashionable throughout the 1800s. As a sign of femininity and to keep warm during colder months, women sometimes wore cashmere shawls around their shoulders. A short type of jacket, known as the Spencer jacket, was popular during the first half of the 19th century. It was a high-waisted coat, meant to be worn over the empire dresses of the time. These jackets often featured military braids or frogging inspired by soldier's uniforms. A type of coat known as the pelisse was very popular throughout the century. In its most basic form, the pelisse was a lengthy, open-fronted coat, but its silhouette changed over time to match changing dress styles.