OVERVIEW

Womenswear

The Victoria and Albert Museum writes of 1840s women’s dress:

“1840s fashion is characterised by low and sloping shoulders, a low pointed waist, and bell-shaped skirts that grew increasingly voluminous throughout the decade. Evening dresses were often off the shoulder. Hair was parted in the centre with ringlets at the side of the head, or styled with loops around the ears and pulled into a bun at the back of the head. Paisley or crochet shawls were fashionable accessories, as were linen caps with lace frills for indoor wear, and large bonnets for outdoors. Capes with large collars were fashionable.”

 Wikipedia summarizes women’s fashion of the 1840s, writing:

Shoulders were narrow and sloping, waists became low and pointed, and sleeve detail migrated from the elbow to the wrists. Where pleated fabric panels had wrapped the bust and shoulders in the previous decade, they now formed a triangle from the shoulder to the waist of day dresses.

Skirts evolved from a conical shape to a bell shape, aided by a new method of attaching the skirts to the bodice using organ or cartridge pleats which cause the skirt to spring out from the waist. Full skirts were achieved mainly through layers of petticoats. The increasing weight and inconvenience of the layers of starched petticoats would lead to the development of the crinoline of the second half of the 1850s.

Sleeves were narrower and fullness dropped from just below the shoulder at the beginning of the decade to the lower arm, leading toward the flared pagoda sleeves of the 1850s and 1860s. Evening gowns were worn off the shoulder and featured wide flounces that reached to the elbow, often of lace. They were worn with sheer shawls and opera-length gloves.

Another accessory was a small bag. At home, bags were often white satin and embroidered or painted. Outdoor bags were often green or white and tasseled. There were also crocheted linen bags.

Shoes were made from the same materials as handbags. There were slippers of crocheted linen and bright colored brocade satin slippers that tied around the ankle with silk ribbon.”

Clark Sisters - grandmother and aunts of photographer Frances Benjamin Johnston

Fig. 1 - Unknown photographer (American). Clark Sisters - grandmother and aunts of photographer Frances Benjamin Johnston, 1840. Daguerrotype. Source: Old Picture

Dress

Fig. 2 - Designer unknown (British). Dress, ca. 1842. Block-printed wool, silk ribbon, metal (hooks), baleen; 128.0 cm (centre back) 30.0 cm (waist, flat). Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria, D67-1977. Purchased through The Art Foundation of Victoria with the assistance of David Syme & Co. Limited, Fellow, 1977. Source: National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne

Nursing dress

Fig. 3 - Designer unknown (American). Nursing dress, ca. 1840-45. Cotton and muslin. Hartford: Wadsworth Atheneum, 1965.474. Gift of Mrs. Louis P. Merriman. Source: Wadsworth Atheneum

Le Follet/Graham’s Magazine

Fig. 4 - Artist unknown (French). Le Follet/Graham’s Magazine, June 1846. Hand-colored engraving. Source: Pinterest

Menswear

Of 1840s men’s fashion, the V&A writes:

“Very fashionable men sported low, tightly cinched waists, with rounded chests and flared frock-coats that gave them a rather hour-glass figure inspired by Prince Albert. They also wore tight trousers and waistcoats, with high upstanding collars and neckties tied around them. Hair was worn quite long, but swept to the sides. Moustaches and side-burns were popular.”

Of 1840s men’s fashion, Wikipedia writes:
“In this period, men’s fashion plates show the lowered waistline taking on a decided point at the front waist, which was accompanied by a full rounded chest. Prince Albert (husband of Queen Victoria) had a high influence on male fashion, primarily because of his young age at the time of his wife’s coronation, and his great attention to his appearance. Therefore, the clothing, particularly of upper class gentleman, continued to follow the trend of earlier decades with full shoulders and chest, and a tightly-cinched waist.”
Man's double-breasted frock coat of fine black cloth, partly lined with cotton

Fig. 1 - Unknown designer (British). Man's double-breasted frock coat of fine black cloth, partly lined with cotton, ca. 1840. Cloth, cotton. Edinburgh: National Museum Of Scotland, H.TI 5. Source: National Museum Of Scotland

Portrait of a Man

Fig. 2 - Unknown photographer. Portrait of a Man, 1840s. Daguerrotype. Source: Pinterest

O Correio das Damas

Fig. 3 - Artist unknown (Spanish). O Correio das Damas, v. 11, no. 4 (February 28, 1846). Engraving. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, b17509853. Source: The Met

Men’s work pants

Fig. 4 - Maker unknown (American). Men’s work pants, ca. 1840. Denim and brushed cotton. New York: The Museum at FIT, P86.64.3. Source: The Museum at FIT

CHILDREN’S WEAR

Photograph of 2 young children

Fig. 1 - Unknown photographer. Photograph of 2 young children. Daguerrotype. Source: Photos Made Perfect

Dress

Fig. 2 - Unknown designer (American). Dress, 1840-1849. Silk. The Metropolitan Museum of Art: New York, 1980.246.1. Gift of Mrs. L. Randolph Mason, 1980. Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Magasin des demoiselles

Fig. 3 - Adèle-Anaïs Toudouze (French, 1822-1899). Magasin des demoiselles, v. 33, plate 48 (August 1, 1848). Engraving. Los Angeles: LA Public Library, rbc3877. Casey Fashion Plate Collection. Source: LA Public Library

References:

Historical Context

Wikipedia: 1840-1849
Rulers:

Map of Europe in 1840. Source: Alternate History

Events:
  • 1845 – With the arrival of the railroad in the 1840s comes mass travel and clothes designed for travel, leisure, and vacations.
  • 1846 – Elias Howe invented the sewing machine.
  • 1846 – U.S. war with Mexico begins.
  • 1848 – Known as the “Year of Revolutions” because of the series of political upheavals that take place throughout Europe, prudery reigns supreme and women’s skirts are down to the ground.

Primary/Period Sources

Resources for Fashion History Research

To discover primary/period sources, explore the categories below.
Have a primary source to suggest?  Or a newly digitized periodical/book to announce?  Contact us!

NYC-Area Special Collections of Fashion Periodicals/Plates
Fashion Periodicals (Digitized)
Etiquette Books (Digitized)

Secondary Sources

Also see the 19th-century overview page for more research sources... or browse our Zotero library.

Online
Books/Articles
Pinterest