The early 1800s saw a vast amount of political changes in European and American society. During this era, fashions changed drastically in a relatively short amount of time. From 1800 to 1825, French style dictated "la mode" for the rest of the world. Soon after, aristocrats turned to Britain for their style cues. Many wealthy Americans copied the fashionable styles from abroad, while poorer Americans used hand-me-downs or cheap fabrics to keep their clothing affordable. With such drastic changes in politics and culture, it's not surprising that the early 1800s were characterised by both fashionable and frugal styles.
French Regency Style
In the early 1800s, France was struggling economically. Napoleon Bonaparte saw in France's textile factories the possibility for revenue and introduced a new fashion style and culture. Royal guests were not allowed to wear the same outfit twice, thus requiring the purchase of more fabric.
Full skirts and high waists characterised ladies' dresses, inspired in great part by Empress Josephine. Extra fabric was gathered at the small of the back and trains were worn for evening wear. Classical Grecian robes inspired styles at this time, and white was a popular colour for the wealthy.
As styles evolved in the early 1800s, the waistline for women's dresses moved even further upwards toward the bustline. Dresses were made of thinner fabric, usually muslin, and skirts were less full. Necklines were low and square, and sleeves were capped and tight to ensure small and delicate movement. This look was overall much less conservative than earlier in the century, where many women wore skin-coloured pantaloons for warmth beneath their nearly sheer dresses, giving the effect of wearing nothing underneath at all.
Women often wore "pelisses" during colder months. The pelisse is a type of coat whose waist matches the waistline of the empire dress. They were commonly worn during this time period with a fur-trimmed collar and often came in golden brown, dark green and blue. The pelisse was belted high at the waist and worn open in the front.
After the loss of the Napoleonic wars, political and cultural power shifted to England in the latter part of the early 1800s. This shift led to a drastic change in styles for women. The waistline of dresses slowly lowered until it was in its natural place and women began to wear corsets again. Modesty re-emerged with higher necklines and a Gothic/Victorian influence from England. Additionally, skirts became fuller and were worn with stiff, decorative cords or layered petticoats. Wearing three to six petticoats at a time was not uncommon. Bustles were tied onto the small of the back with ribbon to create the popular silhouette.
Fabrics used in the construction of these dresses became heavier, with cotton and calico the most common. The long sleeves of these dresses were often puffed at the top from shoulder to elbow with a tight sleeve from the elbow to the wrist.
Men of the early 1800s often wore top hats and derbies. Breeches were longer and tightly fitted, showing off men's calves. Later on, trousers became longer and men started wearing pantaloons or trousers. Coats had long tails in the back and were worn short in the front. The dandy, a man who would took great interest in fashion and often incorporated styles from women's fashion into his wardrobe, arose during this time period as well, emphasising well-tailored, classical styles.
Though wealthy Americans were able to take their style cues from abroad, the lower classes modified these popular styles for affordability purposes. Young boys wore hand-me-downs or breeches and blouses made from the cloth of family members' older clothes. Buster Brown suits were also common for boys at the time and had bloomer-like trousers that came down to the knee, with a large bow at the collar.
Similar to popular fashion among the wealthy, women wore hoop skirts or stiff, horsehair petticoats with modest dresses that came up to the neckline. Corsets were popular still, and bonnets were commonly worn among American women to protect their skin.
Men wore double-breasted coats with thick and stiff collars until about 1830, when they started wearing their collars down. Blouses were most commonly made of linen or muslin.
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