In order to talk about my dress project and the choices I’m making, I have to talk about the period in which I’m settling my project and the kind of clothes it contained. While for most of my life, I’ve had a strong interest in the American Civil War, growing up as I did in the epicentre of the conflict — a 90 minute drive to Gettysburg, 2 hours to Sharpsburg/Antietam, 10 minutes from the childhood home of John Wilkes Booth, an hour to downtown Baltimore, site of the Baltimore Massacre, etc — I’ve found my interested pulled earlier. A great deal of this I owe (or perhaps blame) on Elizabeth Varon and her work Disunion!: The Coming of the American Civil War, 1789-1859. Setting the stage for the cataclysmic conflict, looking at a country which, ten years earlier, thought of itself in the plural: the United States, a conglomerate held together by joint, mutual destiny and beliefs, these have been essential in my thinking in the past year or so. In order to better understand the everyday people who held these beliefs, who underwent the dual-pronged process of becoming American and making America, requires a willingness to immerse into the experience and let that with the greatest objectivity, the material culture they made and consumed, speak.
This means not only getting into the heads of men and women in 1850s America, in the world of 1850s Louisiana, perched on the edge of American identity, European aspirations, and Caribbean roots, but getting into their clothes, their physical stuff, and in as many cases as I can, their buildings, streets, and spaces. I’ve narrowed my focus in this project down to white, middle-class women living in Louisiana in the antebellum period. And if I’m going to get into their clothes, that means looking at where they pulled the ideas and fashions for their clothes: Godey’s Lady’s Book.
The 1850s was the culmination of the romantic early Victorian period, with its sloping, feminine lines and ever-increasing circumference of hems. As the idea of the ideal 19th century woman solidified more and more under the doctrine of separate spheres, femininity became paramount. (It goes without saying that this idea of the feminine only applied to white women who possessed some means, usually identified by their ability to keep domestic help in the North, or house slaves in the South. Retaining servants of some stripe or another was the benchmark of being a lady of quality, or at least a gentlewoman, on either side of the Atlantic.) This femininity was marked by graceful lines, low-set sleeves that restricted the range of motion of a woman’s arms, and the increasingly decreasing circumference of the waist. Sleeves were frequently pagoda-shaped, coming from a narrow shoulder to a wide opening at the elbow, and filled in with undersleeves, which were linen and could be more frequently laundered, that went to the wrist. In an age when laundry was labour-intensive and frequently damaged fine fabrics, laundering undersleeves, chemisettes (pieces that filled in the neck of dresses for modesty and effect), shifts, chemises, petticoats, and drawers, provided freshness when gowns themselves, which rarely touched the skin, were infrequently laundered.
Daytime coverage was essential, as no lady showed her bosom before evening, but for night, décolleté was de rigueur, and the fashionable woman’s neckline lowered by six inches at least when the sun went down. Nighttime fabrics were also more formal, including stiff satin and airy taffetas, and velvets for older women. Dressing according to one’s station in life was considered essential, and to dress too garishly or too young, especially for a matron, was absolutely déclassé. Fabrics were stiffer than they are now, and satins could frequently stand up on their own. Taffetas supported the flounces with a light, rustling quality that was considered desirable, and the expensive of those fabrics spoke to the wealth of a family who could afford to dress their women in them.
Corsets gave women the desirable hourglass shape, with a small waist emphasised by pleats, tucking, or basque points on the bodice, and the increasing width of skirts, in a bell or dome shape, drew the contrast further. These skirts were supported by horsehair and rope crinolines and multiple layers of heavy petticoats to give the desired fullness, accentuated by multiple flounces in the early years of the decade. In 1856, the patent of the steel hooped crinoline as we know it lightened the female load (of petticoats, at least), and skirts expanded while becoming lighter. The invention of the hooped crinoline earned a great deal of mockery — the British magazine Punch advised husbands to have their new wives registered at the fire insurance office.
Colour also exploded in the 1850s, with the natural dyes known to man previously being supplemented with the discovery and exposition of mauvine, the first chemical dye, at the Grand Exhibition in London in 1851. Mauvine, a vivid magenta-purple, was soon joined by other vivid hues, and the 1850s ended in a riot of colour. Even Queen Victoria had a mauvine-dyed gown, before the death of Prince Albert and Her Majesty’s perpetual mourning thereafter. However, lighter colours for evening were still in vogue, especially for younger women, as they reflected the candlelight of evening events, as well as showing the skill of their seamstress. (Everyone who has ever sewn knows that white hides no flaws, and the 19th century seamstress would have had to take great care not to stain or smudge the fine fabric with which she was working, speaking to her quality as well as to her client’s.) White was a sentimental, lovely choice for a young woman, and was increasingly associated with bridal freshness, thanks to Queen Victoria’s choice of the fabric for her wedding to Prince Albert in 1840. Married women wore brighter, more vivid colours in the evening, and many a bride turned her wedding gown into a formal dress to serve her through her first few years as a wife.
In addition to colour and wide skirts, the 1850s saw a great deal of trim and decoration. Day dresses were frequently patterned, with the trim being in a different, complimentary pattern. Lace, flowers, embroidery, and flounces remained popular throughout the decade. As the 1850s wound to a close, trim became more restrained, confined largely to the bodice and the very bottom hem of the skirts. The 19th century visual ideal of delightful, overwhelming clutter (as evidenced by their parlours and other interior design choices) was well in effect here. Women adorned their undersleeves and chemisettes, showing off how frilly and snowy white their lawn and linen pieces were.
That’s all a lovely description. But what do the dresses look like, you ask? Godey’s Lady’s Book has you covered. Just as today when people pour over Vogue, Elle, and Harper’s to see what the latest styles are from Paris, New York, and London, the women of the 1850s were little different. Godey’s was a fashion bible, and always included a pattern to make one of the gowns shown in the colour prints included in the magazine.
Hopefully, these give some idea of the trends I’ve been talking about, as well as a way of understanding how women in the 1850s imagined themselves. The fashion plates in Godey’s were an ideal, just like models today, and speak to the kind of femininity and beauty expected or at least idealised for the woman of the period. As the blog progresses, I plan on talking a bit more about Godey’s Lady’s Book, as well as the idea of the 1850s lady. And of course, mourning. But one thing at a time, as always!