1850s in fashion

1850s fashion in European and European-influenced clothing is characterized by an increase in the width of women's skirts supported by crinolines or hoops, and the beginnings of dress reform. For men, the introduction of the sack coat as informal daywear and of outfits with matching coat, waistcoat and trousers marked the beginnings of the modern business suit.

Women's Fashion


In the 1850s, the domed skirts of the 1840s continued to expand. Skirts were made fuller by means of flounces (deep ruffles), usually in tiers of three, gathered tightly at the top and stiffened with horsehair braid at the bottom.

Early in the decade, bodices of day dresses featured panels over the shoulder that were gathered into a blunt point at the slightly dropped waist. These bodices generally fastened in back by means of hooks and eyes, but a new fashion for a [jacket] bodice appeared as well, buttoned in front and worn over a chemisette. Wider bell-shaped or pagoda sleeves were worn over false undersleeves or engageantes of cotton or linen, trimmed in lace, broderie anglaise, or other fancy-work. Separate small collars of lace, tatting, or chrochet-work were worn with day dresses, sometimes with a ribbon bow.

Evening dresses were very low-necked, falling off the shoulders, and had short sleeves.

The introduction of the steel cage crinoline in 1856 provided a means for expanding the skirt still further, and flounces gradually disappeared in favor of a skirt lying more smoothly over the petticoat and hoops. Pantalettes were essential under this new fashion for modesty's sake.


Special dress fabrics were printed à la disposition, with a small figured print over most of the fabric and an elaborate coordinating border print down one selvage. Dresses were made up so the border print decorated the flounces and parts of the bodice or sleeves. (See photos at and )


Cape-like jackets were worn over the very wide skirts. Another fashionable outer garment was an Indian shawl or one woven in Paisley, Renfrewshire in a paisley pattern in imitation of Indian styles. Hooded cloaks were also worn.

Riding habits had fitted jackets with tight sleeves, worn over a collared shirt or (more often) chemisette. They were worn with long skirts and mannish top hats.

Hairstyles and headgear

Hair was dressed simply, in a bun or wound braid at the back, with the sides puffed out over the ears or with clusters of curls to either side in imitation of early 17th century fashions. Deep bonnets with wide ribbon bows tied under the chin were worn outdoors.

The indoor cap became little more than a lace and ribbon frill worn on the back of the head.

Beginnings of dress reform

1851 marked the birth of the Victorian dress reform movement, when New England temperance activist Libby Miller adopted what she considered a more rational costume: loose trousers gathered at the ankles, topped by a short dress or skirt and vest. The style was promoted by editor Amelia Bloomer and was immediately christened a Bloomer suit by the press. Despite its practicality , the Bloomer suit was the subject of much ridicule in the press and had little impact on mainstream fashion.

Style gallery 1850-1855

  1. The Bloomer.gif, a short dress worn over full trousers gathered at the ankle, briefly adoped by dress reformers in the United States in the 1850s.
  2. Lovers-Morning-Recreation-Sarony-Major-1850.jpg of 1850 (New York).
  3. LesMode parisiennes1851.jpg shows the fashionable use of fabrics printed â la disposition (with border-prints) on skirt flounces and for bodices and sleeves.
  4. Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres 011.jpg wears a black off-the-shoulder evening dress with ruffles. She wears a brooch and bracelets on both wrists. France, 1851.
  5. Millais Mrs Coventry Patmore.jpg wears a small fancy-work collar and a ribbon at her throat. Her thick, wavy hair is parted in the center and poufed over her ears, 1851.
  6. Francesco Hayez 037.jpg wears a dark day dress with a lace blouse or chemisette and cuffs and short leather gloves. Her hair is parted and worn in long sausage curls, 1851.
  7. Antonio Maria Esquivel 001.jpg wears a simple green satin dress with laced short sleeves over a linen chemise or chemisette. Her lace cap is trimmed with rose-colored tassels and ribbons, and she carries an elaborate fan, 1852.
  8. Federico de Madrazo y Kuntz 001.jpg wears a bright blue gown with a tiered skirt. The long pointed bodice is trimmed with horizontal bands of ruching over a chemise or chemisette (or an underlayer styled to look like a chemise), 1853.
  9. HealtBeautyMadameCaplin45Hebe.png This corset was adjust to the body, not to the dress as before.

Style gallery 1855-1859

  1. Winterhalter Franz Xavier The Empress Eugenie Surrounded by her Ladies in Waiting.jpg wear formal dress (despite the outdoor setting). The hair styled with ringlets or curls on the sides and a small bun in back is typical. 1855.
  2. Dominique Ingres - Mme Moitessier.jpg wears a floral gown with ribbon streamers. Her lace cap is little more than a frill trimmed in red ribbons. 1856.
  3. Cushman, Charlotte (1816-1876) - 1857 - pic by Mathew Brady (1822-1896).gif wears her hair parted in the center and brushed into puffs over each ear. Her gown has wide pagoda sleeves and is worn over undersleeves or engageantes. The high neckline is set off with a white collar. American, 1857.
  4. Bathing suit 1858.png or swimsuit of 1858 is styled like a Bloomer suit (acceptable in the context of beachwear), and includes a cap to confine the hair.
  5. 1859-Godeys-Magazine.gif from Godey's Magazine, with full-blown little girl's crinoline.
  6. Franz Xaver Winterhalter Countess Alexander Nikolaevitch Lamsdorff.jpg wears a day dress with ruched violet ribbon trim and an elaborate lace collar, 1859. The violet trim and black cap may indicate the later stages of mourning.
  7. Zouave godey dec 1859.jpg from Godey's Lady's Book, December 1859. Colorful, braid-trimmed Zouave jackets based on military styles became fashionable in the late 1850s and remained so well into the 1860s.

Caricature gallery

The crinoline style gave wide scope to satirists, and many cartoons and comic odes to the crinoline appeared.

  1. 1850-g-cruikshank-crinoline-parody.png", satire on an early inflatable (air tube) version of the crinoline by George Cruikshank, from The Comic Almanack, 1850. (Crinolines did not actually come into wide use until about 1854.)
  2. 1856crnl.gif of a flounced skirt over a crinoline, Punch magazine, August 1856.
  3. 1857-regency-fashion-crinoline-comparison-joke.png from the July 11th 1857 issue of Harper's Weekly, contrasting the supposedly becoming styles of the time with the supposedly ugly Grecian-influenced Empire/Regency styles of an earlier generation...

See also: The Comparative Sizes of Bell(e)s

Men's fashion

Shirts of linen or cotton featured high upstanding or turnover collars. 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.

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.

Style gallery

  1. GPA Healy.jpg wears a shirt with a round-cornered collar and a pleated front. His necktie is tied in a small bow. America, c. 1850.
  2. James Fenimore Cooper by Brady.jpg wears a standing collar with a necktie folded on the diagonal and tied into wide "wings". His coat has wide lapels and a contrasting (perhaps velvet) collar. His contrasting waistcoat has lapels. United States, c. 1850 (Cooper died in 1851).
  3. Mens fashion 1856.jpg show an idealized rounded chest over a low waist. The cutaway morning coat (left) is worn with trousers trimmed with braid down the outer seam. Shirts have short straight collars and are worn with narrow neckties tied in wide bows. Half-boots have short heels. Coat sleeves are cut long, showing very little shirt cuff.
  4. 1857 Mens Fashions.jpg shows formal evening wear, informal day wear, top coats, and a dressing gown.
  5. Samuel houston.jpg, 1858, wears the wide-brimmed hat common on the American frontier.
  6. Eugene Delacroix-Nadar.jpg wears a stiff tie over a tall standing collar. His double-breasted waistcoat is cut straight across. His frock coat, waistcoat and trousers are all of different fabrics. France, 1858.
  7. Edward James Roye.jpg wears a frock coat with a wide collar and lapels over a waistcoat with lapels and eight buttons.
  8. Henri Fantin-Latour 001.jpg wears a shirt with a turnover collar and a black necktie.

Caricature gallery

cravats1859.jpg compares "The Fast Man's Neckerchief in 1809" and "The Fast Man's Neck-Tie in 1859".

Children's fashion

  1. Governess.jpg wears a belted tunic over pantalettes. His governess wears the modest, dark dress appropriate to her occupation.
  2. Louis Ferdinand von Rayski 001.jpg wears a three-piece suit with rounded collar and lapel peaks, and the round, frilled open collar favored for children, 1855.
  3. James Abbot McNeill Whistler 001.jpg wears a knee-length skirt with crinoline petticoat, 1858-59.
  4. Pantalettes godeys 1855.jpg in a dress and Pantalettes, 1855

See also


  • Ashelford, Jane: The Art of Dress: Clothing and Society 1500-1914, Abrams, 1996. ISBN 0-8109-6317-5
  • Goldthorpe, Caroline: From Queen to Empress: Victorian Dress 1837-1877, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1988, ISBN 0-87099-535-9
  • Payne, Blanche: History of Costume from the Ancient Egyptians to the Twentieth Century, Harper & Row, 1965. No ISBN for this edition; ASIN B0006BMNFS
  • Tozer, Jane, and Sarah Levitt: Fabric of Society: A Century of People and Their Clothes 1770-1870, Laura Ashley Ltd., 1983; ISBN 0-9508913-0-4


  1. Wool muslin dress printed à la disposition at the Museum of Costume, Bath
  2. Summer dress of fabric printed à la disposition at the Victoria and Albert Museum
  3. Eliza Ann McAuley describes wearing a Bloomer on the road to the goldfields, 1852

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