What Did Women Wear in the 1800s?

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During the 1800s, women's fashion underwent several major changes. The beginning of the century saw empire gowns with narrow bodices and short sleeves, but these were abandoned with the introduction of stays and cinches. As waists narrowed, skirts and sleeves expanded to create an exaggerated hourglass shape, and petticoats added further bulk to skirts. During the '80s and '90s, jerseys and kilted skirts that displayed the body became fashionable.

Loose and comfortable early-19th century fashions paralleled the anticipated freedoms of the period following the French Revolution. Corsets and stays were all symbols of the aristocracy that were abandoned but quickly returned to vogue, along with a host of related health problems. They became a common item in women's wardrobes, with some women placing their children in them from a young age.

Throughout the 1800s, feminists objected to corsets as symbols of female imprisonment. Religious leaders objected to them because of the emphasis they placed on the female shape, and physicians objected due to the health risks. A whole host of illnesses were attributed to the corset, but most physicians focused on the dangers they posed to proper muscle development. In response, manufacturers of the 1900s announced that their corsets were scientifically designed to prevent vital organ compression, but by then, corsets were falling out of fashion.