Parts of a Woman's Dress in the 1800s

Women often wore dresses with full skirts and decorative sleeves in the 1800s.
Women often wore dresses with full skirts and decorative sleeves in the 1800s. (Image: Jupiterimages/ Images)

The 1800s were a time of change for standards of dress in the Western world. Women wore multiple undergarments, which were simpler at the start of the century and became more complex later. Dresses were also more simple and natural in the early 1800s, grower more complicated as the century progressed. Toward the end of the 1800s women began to call for reform, complaining that the older style of dress was detrimental to women's well being, both physically and socially.


In the first part of the century, women wore thin, simply crafted undergarments. Over time, however, undergarments became heavier, more elaborately crafted and more restrictive. They were made fancier with adornments like lace, embroidery, crochet and ribbons. Eventually, women in the later 1800s were wearing as many as five pounds of undergarments. First came knickers, also called pantalettes, which were long bloomers made of silk or linen. Then there was a knee-length camisole or "chemise," a skirt-like slip called a petticoat and a corset. Women often wore multiple petticoats, both to give the appearance of a fuller skirt and to provide warmth.


During the first 20 years of the 19th century women wore loosely draped, high waisted dresses in shades of white. By the 1830s, dresses were more colorful and waists were slightly lower. Different sleeve styles became popular -- short sleeves with long gloves, long sleeves with puffed shoulders and sleeves with ruffles and embroidered hems. Dresses became increasingly full and elaborate as the century wore on. Fabric ranged from blue to green to pink, with tiers, ruffles, stripes and other patterns.

Mid-Century Changes

By 1840, women's dress included a stiff, binding corset and a full skirt. Skirts were first made fuller by wearing several petticoats in addition to other undergarments. During the 1850s, large, flexible, cage-frame steel skirts, called hoop skirts, became popular. They were worn under the dress to give the appearance of a large full skirt. During the 1860s the steel frame was shaped into a rear bustle, which was lighter than the hoop skirt but still restrictive. This style remained popular until the 1890s when skirts took on a somewhat more natural shape again.


As early as the 1830s women in England called for dress reform. By the 1870s American women spoke out as well. They complained that corsets damaged and weakened the spine and the heavy dresses and undergarments were difficult to move around in and unhygienic since they dragged the ground and collected dirt. Moreover, women were not able to work in such heavy, burdensome clothing. By the 1900s women wanted shorter, lighter, simpler clothing, though it would take some time to fully achieve this goal.

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