American clothes styles in the 1800s

Written by catherine mezensky
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American clothes styles in the 1800s
Bustles and draped fabric on women's skirts were popular in the late 1800s. (Hemera Technologies/ Images)

American clothing in the 19th century started out simple and practical but grew more complex. During the early part of the century citizens spurned fancy European fashions for plain clothes. But, technological advances made fashion elements like hoop skirts or striped fabric possible. By the end of the century American women wore fitted dresses with elaborate draping while men wore suits similar to men's suits today.

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Clothing in the Early 1800s

In the early part of the 1800s, Americans did not have time to copy the frilly European fashions of the time. They made simpler clothes that could adapt to the American climate. Men wore knee breeches, long jackets and cravats while women wore long dresses with lots of petticoats under the skirts. After the recent Revolutionary war, colonists avoided English fashion. The song "Yankee Doodle Dandy" made fun of people who imitated European fashions.

Men's Clothing Mid-Century

In the middle of the 1800s, clothing became darker and more sombre. In the late 1840s men wore the sack suit, which is a simple outfit of jacket, vest and long trousers. Trousers were straight and not tightly fitted. The cravat evolved into a bow tie. As the Civil War occurred from 1861 to1865, many men were in uniform or wore military inspired outfits on formal occasions. After the war, striped and checked suits were popular as new technology made weaving these patterns possible.

Women's Clothing Mid-Century

During the mid-1800s women's clothing became more embellished. Flounces, lace, ribbons and bows adorned dresses. The petticoat fell out of style as hoops were developed and used to support large bell shaped skirts. Hoops were made of whalebone but Americans developed and easily manufactured lightweight steel hoops. Bodices were fitted but after the Civil War skirts became flatter in front and fuller in back.

American Clothing and the Civil War

During the Civil War, there was a shortage of cloth in the South. While farmers in this region grew a lot of cotton, it had been sent north to cloth manufacturers. In 1864 the Confederate senate banned frivolous cotton trims and frills on garments and urged citizens to save cloth for the soldiers. They also set limits on price per yard so storekeepers could not gouge citizens. Meanwhile, northern textile mills boomed as cotton from England, and often from starving Confederate planters, fed a large demand for men's Union army uniforms.

The Late 1800s

During the last half of the 1800s men continued to wear the sack suit. Women's skirts were still flat in front but a large round wire cage, called a bustle, fit under the back of the skirt. Dresses had high necks and long sleeves. Later in the century women began to wear clothes that allowed them free movement, such as cycling or swimming apparel. These outfits included bloomers, which were trousers with balloon shaped legs. The dark colours of sooty England influenced clothes for both sexes.

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