Fashion in the 1850s

Over the course of the early 19th century, women’s hemlines and sleeves became increasingly larger.  Just ask Rose, the heroine in Rose’s Assignment.  Her skirts often make maneuvering difficult.  While in the novella Rose’s dresses are a running gag, in reality the skirts were dangerous.  They easily were set ablaze while a woman cooked or warmed herself by a fire, and they caught on wagons’ axles, dragging women and leaving them severely injured or killed.

The decade of fashion witnessed two radical changes – the sewing machine and synthetic fabric dyes.  Fashion magazines, including Godey’s Lady Book mention in the novella, provided readers with patterns so they could replicate the latest styles.

Women’s Fashion

The crinoline, the hoop skirt, arrived on the fashion scene in 1856.  It was comprised of a bell-shaped cage worn under women’s clothing.  It replaced the dozen or so starched petticoats women wore to achieved the same look.

Proper undergarments included a corset, pantalets, petticoats and a chemise.  Corsets were worn looser in the 1850s as skirts’ waistlines sat at the natural waist.  Pantalets, once only worn by girls, were adopted by women to cover the legs for modesty should they become exposed by a swinging crinoline.

Dresses also were categorized by their pagoda sleeves.  These wide bell-shaped sleeves were worn over false undersleeves decorated in lace or other trimming.  The sleeves reached their widest point in the final years of the decade.

Women wore boots when outdoors (for modesty) and slippers or slip-on shoes when indoors.  They wore bonnets decorated in ribbons and flowers over curled hair.  Other fashion accessories of the period included a parasol, a shawl and a purse (called a reticule).

Men’s Fashion

While women’s hems grew to ridiculous proportions, menswear became more relaxed.  The sewing machine dramatically cut down the amount of time needed to make clothing and thus even working-class men could afford to dress sharply.

Plaids and checks were popular patterns for trousers and waistcoats, although black became vogue by 1859.

Sideburns and other facial hair were popular among men.

Top hats grew increasingly taller while the bowler hat, a clothing staple by century’s end, made its debut as a working man’s hat.

Would you wear any of these styles?  Leave a comment below.

Where to Purchase Rose’s Assignment

Rose's Assignment by Melina DrugaThis post is a companion piece to Melina Druga’s historical fiction novella, Rose’s Assignment.

Rose excels at sweet talking.  Judith escapes north to Canada searching for freedom.  Two dissimilar women suddenly find their lives connected. Available in eBook, paperback and hardcover. Full list of retailers.