Mid-19th Century Women's Clothing

Compared to 1840s: More exuberant fashions, wider skirts, more surface decoration, flowing sleeves. (Severa)

Chemise (still researching)

Corset - In the early 1850s the corset changed from a long board-like form to a shorter more flaring and relaxed form that allowed the bosom out. This became the general fashion around 1853. By 1855, the corset was no longer compressing the hip. (Severa)

Corset cover (still researching)



Hoopskirt or Corded petticoat - Acceptance of the hoop skirt was slow. Straw braid was used in the hems of skirts and petticoats around 1850. Heavy corded or quilted under-petticoats were used concurrently. Later upper petticoats of starched cambric flounces were used. Horsehair was used to stiffen hems and sometimes to make entire petticoats leading to the term crinoline. From an 1855 Godey's "skirts very full - fashion requires the crinoline - underskirts are arranged to meet the modern hoop." From an 1856 Grahams "cage crinolines not confined to extreme fashion but to village church and even farmhouse door - the plainest ladies have adopted them." By 1857, there are numerous advertisements for hoopskirts although evidence is a bit scant before 1855. From an 1857 California Trail diary - "There is a bride wears hoops We have read of hoops but they had not reached Kansas before we left so these are the first we've seen." (Severa)

1856 - hoopskirts in general use, but not for work. (Severa)

Over-the-hoop petticoat


Day dress - one piece with bishop sleeves, moderately long-waisted, generally front opening, with or without waistband, bodices usualy plain with 2 long darts on either side of front close or just gathered for a "work dress", woven ginghams (checks/plaids) more common than prints, hoops only used near the end of the decade.

The Fashionable Silhouette: (Severa) Collars were of whitework, lace, crochet and tatting and wider than before - 3 inches was common. They lay flat on the shoulders and often did not meet at the throat.Small collars were still worn, especially with cloth and merino dresses and for street wear. (Plain linen collars and undersleeves for street wear, travelling and morning clothes.) The Jenny Lind style of collar from the late 40s was still popular. A standing band with small attached collar was also seen. Neck ribbons were popular with or without a brooch. Sleeves wide at the wrists. Sleeve with open bell to mid-forearm was established before 1850 and was popular for warm weather and dress, but not for everyday. Widest in 1857.Close sleeves resembling the 1840s bias-cut sleeves were still used for winter silks, walking dresses and shown under a bell over-sleeve in the fashion plates. Bishop sleeve is new in 1858 with sleeve heavily gathered into the sleeve cap ("epaulet") at the top and a deep cuff. Also shown without the epaulet, but under bretelles (v-yoke with ruffle) and with a narrow cuff, which survives in everyday dresses into the 1860s.

Waistlines were mostly round and close to the natural waistline - no points, or with very short, rounded front dips. Basque waist was especially associated with the 1850s as a hip-length fitted jacket with a crisp flare over the hips and open flaring sleeves, usually with close-fitting or flaring undersleeves. Mainly worn in spring and summer. A white cotton basque over colored skirt could be worn for summer, but the basque was usually the same fabric as the skirt. Skirts were supported to stand as full as possible. The fullness was evenly distributed all around the skirt and controlled with gathers or knife pleats. Skirts were almost never fully lined to optimized lightness and fullness. Skirts might have stiffened bottom facings or straw braid to support the hem. Those with money to burn could add flounces especially with the best, most delicate fabrics. Skirts were short enough in front to show the shoes. Surface decoration increased soon after 1850. Included wide shoulder bretelles (mentioned in Godeys in 1858), and ruffles, flounces, lace, and fringe for most styles. More flamboyant colors and fabrics appeared. Godey's of 1854 mentions "horizontal stripes of conspicuous colors - checks and plaids of immense size". Light printed wool barege or challis was for dressy summer wear, while silk was usually for winter. Wraps, shawls, cloaks, and mantillas are ubiquitous and diverse. (Severa)

Hats/bonnets - Day caps were rarely seen as street wear. Patterns in the magazines indicated that they were proper for home wear, especially for older ladies or invalids. They showed sheer long, wide lappets hanging free on either side of the face and made of fine lawn, exquisitely embroidered in whitework. The crown was puffed to enclose the hair and there was a curtain to shield the neck. (Severa)

The bonnet was still the only proper headgear for ladies, at least in town. It was wide and roundly open. By 1853 it started to curve in under the chin and fall back quite far on the head. The fashion moderated after this, but the underbrim continued to be highly decorated. From an 1854 Godey's "not now suspended at the back of the hair - groups of wheat ears, poppies, etc. at each side - a great deal of [fine lace] worn, the 2 sides should not be perfectly symmetrical." 1854 fashion plates still show the bonnet worn set back and very shallow with exaggerated "chin hooks" to frame the lace around the face. In 1856, Godey's complains about that fashion. In 1855, Godey's discusses an enduring winter bonnet from the last decade - "beaver bonnets" for country or travelling as a "second bonnet" because too heavy for visiting or carriage. (Severa)


Shoes should blend with the dress. Elastic gores appear in 1854. Gaiters remain from the 1840s with or without the patent leather tips. A slight heel was typical - some wide and some slightly tapered. And by 1855 such heels were for both gaiters and shoes. In 1853 an inch-high heel was introduced for the gaiter to some consternation. The lasts were very narrow and the toes narrow and squared. (Severa)

Parasols were indispensable when walking or riding. They were small in the early part of the decade. (Severa)


Severa, Joan. Dressed for the Photographer: Ordinary Americans and Fashion, 1840-1900. The Kent State University Press. Kent, Ohio. 1995.

Zeller, Karyn. A Reenactor's Guide to Clothing and Fabrics of the Civil War Era. Revised 1997.