Classes & Standards of Fashion in the Late 1800s

Written by casandra maier
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Classes & Standards of Fashion in the Late 1800s
In the late 1800s, women famously wore skirts that bulged at the back. (Hemera Technologies/ Images)

Fashion has always been a symbol of status in society. In the late 1800s, it was much the same. Men and women were held to certain standards of proper dress. You could tell someone's social standing by the clothing they wore, and many women spent time looking for up-to-date fashions at inexpensive prices. The late 1800s was also a time of change, as the birth of the sewing machine made fashionable items more accessible.

Standards for Women

In the late 1800s, a lady would not leave the house without certain fashion staples, as it was considered improper. Beneath their dresses women wore pantalettes, an undergarment made of silk or linen, in addition to a chemise, a one-piece undergarment. Tiny waists were regarded as fashionable, so women wore corsets to draw in their waistlines.

By the 1850s, wide skirts were in style, causing women to wear hoops fashioned of wire. Next, women would pile on petticoats, a thin skirt worn beneath the dress. It was not unusual for a woman to wear five or six petticoats in the winter months. The dress was the finishing layer, in addition to gloves and a bonnet or hat.

Standards for Men

In the 1800s, men made the switch from breeches to trousers, making their standards of dress far more comfortable than what was expected of women. Men were, though, expected to appear in their best attire at all times. Men typically wore double-breasted suits. After 1840, the style for men was to wear their collars down with a vest over the shirt. A tail coat and top hat would complete the ensemble. Men were seldom seen without a hat in public.


In the late 1800s, the average person owned few articles of clothing. Lower-class women owned as few as three dresses: one for church, one for everyday wear and one for social outings. Men might have two or three shirts and a pair of trousers for both summer and winter seasons. People of the lower class also made their own clothing. Both men and women participated in the making of clothes. Men took care of the hard manual labour, such as removing seed polls and separating fibres, while women would spin fibres for thread and weave thread into cloth.

You could gauge a man's class by the hat that he wore in the 1800s. Upper- and middle-class men wore top and bowler hats, while men from the lower classes wore caps made of cloth. You could also tell a person's class by the shoes they wore. Children from the lower classes typically didn't wear shoes. In 1890, charities called boot funds were formed to give shoes to children living in poverty.


The late 1800s saw many developments that also raised the standard of fashion. The sewing machine was invented in the 1840s, and as the years progressed, clothing became more affordable due to faster production. This allowed people from middle and lower classes to experience upper-class fashion at a lower price. In 1893, the first paper dress pattern was invented, ushering in an era of mass fashion production.

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