19th Century Fashion

The Kyoto Costume Institute

Riding the wave of industrialization
When the upheavals brought about by the 1789 French revolution settled down, the driving force at the center of society in 19th century Europe had shifted from the aristocracy to the newly-rich bourgeoisie. The industrial revolution that had started in England spread around the world in a wave of industrialization that brought department stores to city centers, constructed railway networks, and modernized people’s daily lives. Influenced by these movements, fashion was transformed. The haute couture system of custom-fitted clothing created by exclusive fashion houses emerged in Paris, and women’s clothing became the primary focus of fashion.
Empire style
In the late 18th century, the desire for nature grew stronger because of the influence of neoclassicism. With the coming of the French Revolution (1789), fashions changed dramatically; instead of the artificiality and extravagance so prominent in court fashion, a starkly different simple style of clothing became the norm. With this new style, a new fashion showing modern body consciousness appeared.

Round gown

Around the 1789 French Revolution, the Rococo period's extravagant dresses of brilliant hues changed, becoming simple, white dresses. In this period, the round gown appeared, and at the beginning of the 19th century, during the transition to the wildly popular white muslin dress, is when high-waist, one-piece dresses, as shown here, were in vogue.

Chemise dress

This dress, called a chemise dress, is made of thin, transparent, white muslin and characterizes fashion at the beginning of the 19th century.

The high-waist skirt has a lot of gather at the back, and a long train. White chemise dresses reminiscent of underwear harmonized with Neoclassicism in this period, and won the hearts and minds of women who sought novel aesthetics and new values after the Revolution. We can find examples in the portraits of Madame Récamier, a leader of society, drawn by Jacques-Louis David and François Gérard.

This high-quality silk dress, with its magnificent elegance, was used by the royal court. At this point in time, thin, cotton dresses were wildly popular and the Lyons silk industry, important for the French economy, suffered a severe blow. In order to revive it, Napoléon Bonaparte encouraged the wearing of silk garments in the royal court. In 1811, he issued an Imperial decree that men and women must wear silk clothes at public ceremonies.

Romantic style
Characteristic day dress featuring a bell skirt and puffed up leg of mutton (gigot) sleeves. The shoulders and hemline of the skirt have visually the same width, producing an X-like line that emphasizes the slender waist. The skirt is short enough to see the ankles, so that embroidered socks and square-toe shoes peep out from the hem. This sort of dress design strongly reflects the beauty and femininity idealized by the romanticism that was at its peak in the 1830s. Romantic artists perceived beauty and femininity in delicate female figures with pale skin and an air of melancholy.

Leg of mutton

Sleeves gradually gained volume from the 1820s, and reached their maximum size in the 1830s. They are called gigot or leg-of-mutton sleeves. During the 19th century, when the silhouette changed continuously, large sleeves became fashionable, once again, at the end of the century.

Crinoline style
The crinoline originally was a type of petticoat made of linen and interwoven with horsehair ("crin" in French). Towards the end of the 1850s, an innovative cage crinoline, made by connecting a series of hoops made out of steel and whalebone, was produced. With the appearance of the cage crinoline, which was easy to put on and take off, the skirt continued to expand, and reached its maximum size in the mid 1860s. The cage crinoline grew out of proportion, and it was troublesome just to walk or pass through a door; this made everyday life difficult, and criticism of the crinoline grew in response. During this period, the crinoline phenomenon was often used as an element of satire in magazines.

This dress might be termed a typical example of the delicate, alluring and womanly style of the 1850s. The décolleté is kept wide, and short sleeves cover the slender shoulders. To accentuate the small waistline, the seam edges at the waist narrow downwards as well as the skirt gracefully widens its shape. The triple-flounced design creates a decorative effect and further emphasizes the slightly rounded contour.

In France, during the Second Empire (1852-1870) under the authoritarian rule of Napoleon III (1808-1873) and the impact of economic growth caused by modernization, the luxury goods industry, including fashion, greatly progressed. On the frequently held formal ceremonies, balls or large-scale events like the International Expositions, women of the wealthy classes competed with each other for the most sumptuous dresses as well as the numbers of them they owned.

When the crinoline gradually became wider in size, women tended to wear shawls over the dress as a coat, the way of wearing them also being an indicator of their refinement.

Cashmere shawl

The cashmere shawl was imported into Western Europe at the end of the 18th century. It comes from the Kashmere region in the northwest of India, where the short soft hairs of the mountain goat were hand-spun into cashmere yarn and woven into woolen cloth. The cashmere shawl became a popular item since the beginning of the 19th century for its rarity and exoticism, as well as for its practicality.

Bustle style
In the second half of the 19th century, silhouettes underwent considerable change. The bustle style was in fashion from the end of the 1860s to the 1880s. This silhouette, jutting out at the back of the dress below the waist, was produced by an undergarment called a bustle, with further volume added by tucking up an overskirt at the rear.

A bustle style is a look that emerged immediately after the crinoline. Bright purple became fashionable with the invention of the chemical dye aniline in 1856.

Princess dress

The Princess dress was named in honor of Alexandra, Princess of Wales (1844–1925, later Queen of Britain). It had no horizontal seams at the waist, but used vertical seams to fit closely to the waist, emphasizing the bust and hips. It was fashionable around 1880.

Valenciennes lace in three separate plant patterns are set in organdy. The lace used amounts to a length of roughly 50 meters.

In the latter half of the 19th century, Paris, that had been reborn as a modern day city thanks to a major restructuring program, experienced the development of department stores and commercial institutions, openings of exhibitions and fairs, outfitting for highways and parks, and several other circumstances that led to the spread of taking walks outdoors. Moreover, the rapid progress of a railroad system encouraged picnics, visits to summer resorts, and vacation trips as the populace became able to enjoy leisure time.

Elephant sleeves

As the 1880s drew to a close, the bustle reduced in size. The lines of skirts were transitioning toward forming a clearer shape. In contrast to this, around 1890 the sleeves began swelling to such sizes that one may say it was the return of gigot sleeves. These large sleeves were called "elephant sleeves," and they reached their maximum size around 1895.

S-curve silhouette
In the Belle Époque, there was a trend for women to wear S-curve silhouette dresses, with a well-developed bosom projected forward and hips thrust back to emphasize an extremely slender waist. This trend also represented the creation of the curving forms favored by the new artistic movement, Art Nouveau.

Dresses that created a flowing S-curve silhouette helped by corsets were often made of soft thin materials like those of this dress, rather than the thick, heavy materials used in earlier dresses.

Thin, soft chiffon created the attractive flowing lines that are a distinctive characteristic of the age. This dress is also decorated with plenty of lace and thin, airy silk.

Women's underwear in the 19th century
During the time of the French Revolution, women no longer wore the corset and the pannier, and the trend of fashion dramatically shifted from the rococo to a rational, neoclassical style. This item is underwear from that transition period. Around 1804, a new type of a soft corset without whalebones came into use, and so the corset once again became an indispensable part of women's wardrobe.

Soft type of corsets as shown revived at the beginning of 19th century.

Sleeve pad

Sleeve pads were used to produce the puff sleeves that characterized in 1830s. They were made of thin cotton fabric and tailored three-dimensionally with abundant gathers. The feathers inside are light and expand the padding. Puff sleeves were used to extend the shoulder lines, enhancing the gentle lines that were popular at the time.


In the second half of the 1850s, a cage crinoline was patented that linked together a series of horizontal hoops made out of wire or whalebone. Further progress led to the use of steel hoops, resulting in crinolines that were lightweight and easy to put on or take off.


The bustle (French: tournure) was designed to add volume to the rear of the dress below the waist, and many different shapes of bustles emerged. In the 1870s, skirt-style bustles like this example were particularly popular. Earlier, crinoline had used steel wire bones as a framework to give fullness to a skirt. Bustles like this one, that adopted the same principle, were also known as crinolettes.
Internal lacing can be tightened to lift the wires and adjust the curve of the bustle, allowing it to provide an appropriate volume for the silhouette of the dress worn on top.


Women used corsets in an effort to get closer to an ideal physical form of the time; until the beginning of the 20th century, their waists were tightened by the corset. With the development of modern technology, people applied their creative originality and corsets by new devices were born. In particular, the invention of eyelet in 1828 allowed great improvements in the tightening of the waist on a corset.

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