OVERVIEW

Womenswear

The Victoria & Albert Museum writes of 1850s women’s dress:
“In the 1850s, women’s skirts were domed and bell-shaped, supported by crinoline petticoats. They often featured deep flounces or tiers. Long bloomers and pantaloons trimmed with lace were popular. Tiered cape-jackets were fashionable, as were paisley patterned shawls. Deep bonnets were worn and hair was swept into buns or side coils from a center parting.”
 Victorian Magazine summarizes women’s fashion of the 1850s, writing:

“The mid-nineteenth century lady was a vision of elegance and grace in a beautiful Victorian dress lavishly trimmed with frills, flounces, lace, braid, fringe, ruche and ribbons. The fashion conscious Victorian lady created this appearance with a mysterious combination of the “uncomfortable and inconvenient” with the “frivolous and decorative.” Numerous heavy petticoats, layers of underclothes, a metal hoop skirt, tight corsets worn under-pointed boned bodices of whalebone and steel were hidden by an array of ornately accented undersleeves, collars, pelerines, fans, gloves, hats, and parasols. The finished look was of elegance and grace with an illusion of ease and comfort.”

The Empress Eugenie Surrounded by her Ladies in Waiting

Fig. 1 - Franz Xaver Winterhalter (German, 1805-1873). The Empress Eugenie Surrounded by her Ladies in Waiting, 1855. Oil on canvas; 300 × 420 cm (118.1 × 165.4 in). Compiègne: Musée du Second Empire, MMPO 941. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Woman's dress: bodice, skirt and underbodice

Fig. 2 - Designer unknown (American). Woman's dress: bodice, skirt and underbodice, c. 1850. Silk brocade, cotton/linen lace; waist: 61 cm (24 in). Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1949-66-1a--c. Gift of Dr. Stephen Pintard Ryan, 1949. Source: Philadelphia Museum of Art

Moniteur de la Mode

Fig. 3 - Jules David (French, 1808-1892). Moniteur de la Mode, 1855 (plate #447). Hand-colored engraving. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, b17509853. Gift of Woodman Thompson. Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Empress Elizabeth of Austria

Fig. 4 - Franz Hanfstaengl (German, 1804-1877). Empress Elizabeth of Austria, 1854. Photograph. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Menswear

Of 1850s men’s fashion, the V&A writes:

“Men wore matching coats, waistcoats and trousers, with hairstyles characterised by large mutton-chop side-burns and moustaches, after the style set by Prince Albert.Shirts had high upstanding collars and were tied at the neck with large bow-ties.High fastening and tight fitting frock coats were also very fashionable; though a new style called the sack coat (a thigh-length, loosely fitted jacket) became popular.The bowler hat was invented around 1850, but was generally seen as a working class hat, while top-hats were favoured by the upper classes.”

Of 1850s men’s fashion, Wikipedia writes:

“Shirts of linen or cotton featured high upstanding or turnover collars. The trend of detachable shirt collars and cuffs (although first appearing in men’s fashion in the 1820s) became highly popularized during this time period. The newly fashionable four-in-hand neckties were square or rectangular, folded into a narrow strip and tied in a bow, or folded on the diagonal and tied in a knot with the pointed ends sticking out to form “wings”. Heavy padded and fitted frock coats (in French redingotes), now usually single-breasted, were worn for business occasions, over waistcoats or vests with lapels and notched collars. Waistcoats were still cut straight across at the waist in front in 1850, but gradually became longer; the fashion for wearing the bottom button undone for ease when sitting lead to the pointed-hemmed waistcoat later in the century.

A new style, the sack coat, loosely fitted and reaching to mid-thigh, was fashionable for leisure activities; it would gradually replace the frock coat over the next forty years and become the modern suit coat.

The slightly cutaway morning coat was worn for formal day occasions. The most formal evening dress remained a dark tail coat and trousers, with a white cravat; this costume was well on its way to crystallizing into the modern “white tie and tails”.

Full-length trousers were worn for day. Breeches remained a requirement for formal functions at the British court (as they would be throughout the century). Breeches continued to be worn for horseback riding and other country pursuits, especially in Britain, with tall fitted boots.

Costumes consisting of a coat, waistcoat and trousers of the same fabric were a novelty of this period.

Starting in the 1850s and surviving until about the early 1900s (decade), facial hair became extremely popular, featuring a vast array of styles. This is well documented in famous photography of the era.

Tall top hats were worn with formal dress and grew taller on the way to the true stovepipe shape, but a variety of other hat shapes were popular. Soft-crowned hats, some with wide brims, were worn for country pursuits. The bowler hat was invented in 1850 but remained a working-class accessory.”

Gentleman's Magazine

Fig. 1 - Artist unknown. Gentleman's Magazine, June 1853 (Plate 2). Hand-colored engraving. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, b17509853. Gift of Woodman Thompson. Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Franz Liszt

Fig. 2 - Franz Hanfstaengl (German, 1804-1877). Franz Liszt, c. 1860. Photograph. Source: Wikimedia

Waistcoat

Fig. 3 - Designer unknown (British). Waistcoat, c. 1850. Woven silk velvet, lined with sateen; length: 56 cm, width: 51 cm. London: Victoria & Albert Museum, T.133-1967. Given by Mrs E. Alliott. Source: V&A

CHILDREN’S WEAR

Le Bon Ton

Fig. 1 - Heloise Leloir (French, 1820-1873). Le Bon Ton, a. 19, vol. 2, 4th l., no. 6 (c. July 1853). Hand-colored engraving. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, b17509853. Gift of Mrs. Sherman Becker, Jr.. Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Young girl

Fig. 2 - Edward Isaak Asser (Dutch, 1809-1894). Young girl, c. 1850s. Photograph. Source: Pinterest

Boy's dress

Fig. 3 - Designer unknown (American). Boy's dress, 1850-1855. Wool, silk. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2009.300.667. Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009; Gift of Anna B. Pierson, 1941. Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

References:

Historical Context

Wikipedia: 1850-1859
Rulers:

Map of Europe in 1852. Source: Omniatlas

Events:
  • 1851 – Great Exhibition, London, people observe fashion and style. American women’s rights activist Amelia Bloomer makes the bloomer pants popular.
  • 1852 – The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine is published, including advice on needlework from domestic writer Mrs. Beeton.
  • 1853-1855 – Crimean War
  • 1854 – With the birth of photography comes the “carte de visite,” a fashionable visiting card that includes a photograph of the traveler. Immense popularity leads to the publication of the cards of prominent figures, whose fashions are followed.
  • 1855 – A dotted pattern on fabric is named, “polka dot” after the polka, a popular dance.
  • 1859 – Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species. A new range of dye colors in purple-pink hues are discovered and named magenta and solferino after contemporary battles

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