Fashion in the 19th century

Shapes and outlines

By Musée des Arts Décoratifs

Pair of bracelets Pair of bracelets (1828/1838) by Louis-René DuplessyMusée des Arts Décoratifs

In the 19th century, between progress and tradition, if masculine attire quickly loses its brilliance, feminine fashion seeks more and more opulence. Interpreting the styles of the past, following the evolution of decorative arts, feminine fashion is inspired by Antiquity in line with the end of the previous century. Then the Middle Ages, Renaissance and 18th century are reinterpreted. Although luxury production is not born in the 20th century, it takes on a more commercial dimension. New methods of promoting fashion items appear. The industrial revolution allows productivity to increase. These two phenomena, combined with the emergence of new commercial channels, allow prices to drop. Thus, lace, embroidery and printed fabrics, until then reserved for the elite, become gradually accessible. But at an era when industrialisation promises democratisation of fashion, at the same time, in 1858, haute couture is created whose principles run counterwise. Appearing at the end of the 18th century, the fashion press, in full expansion, diffused the new Parisian creations across a wide public and participated in the acceleration of fashion cycles.

Buskin (1804)Musée des Arts Décoratifs

Textile and politics

While no garment, dress or court cloak worn by the Empress Josephine on the day of her coronation in 1804 remains, the shoes were able to be preserved. The differentiation of the right and left foot is not yet effective ; heels have been abandoned since the Revolution.

Pair of shoes worn by the Empress Joséphine on the day of her coronation (1804)

Embroidered with stars and bees, they give an idea of ​​the luxury on show during these events and of the strong symbolism associated with imperial outfits. Indeed, the bee is one of the emblems chosen by Napoleon 1st (1804-1815) to symbolise work but also for its reference to jewellery found in a Merovingian king's tomb, thus ensuring a filiation with the first dynasty of Kings of France.

While he was still only Consul (1799-1804), Bonaparte had promised the city of Lyon, whose textile activities were devastated by the fall of the « Former Régime », to revive and support production by public commissions. The tapestries and seat fittings of many imperial residences were renewed, while a new clothing label was imposed at the court.

Wedding dress (1810 circa)Musée des Arts Décoratifs

A new feminine outline

The quest for political freedom at the time of the Revolution of 1789 found an echo in the liberation of the female form. This was expressed by the appearance, in 1795, of high-waist dresses falling vertically, vaguely interpreting antique clothes. These outfits are in radical rupture with the habits of the privileged social classes who value the expansion of skirt widths. Thus, after almost three centuries of use, women shed accessories that artificially modelled their outlines. However, bras supporting the breasts come to the rescue of the women. Over time, these become tighter and tighter with discreet boning. The liberation was therefore short lived !

Wedding dress (around 1805)

In summer as well as winter dresses are cut mostly in light white fabrics; cotton muslin or linen. While the embroideries were not frequent in the women's wardrobe of the « Former Régime », they make a timid appearance here, foreshadowing a return to luxury.
Short « balloon » sleeves replace long sleeves finishing in mittens while the square neck largely reveals the bust.

Shawl (1820-1829)Musée des Arts Décoratifs

Craze for cashmere shawls

Warming light dresses in order to combat the rigours of winter, the shawl is an essential accessory. The most luxurious and the warmest are woven in India in the valley of Kashmir from down from angora goats living on the Himalayan plateaux. However, because of the continental blockade, these export products are no longer available. Receiving encouragement from high places, bold entrepreneurs take over.

Scarf (1812 circa) by Guillaume TernauxMusée des Arts Décoratifs

Cashmere scarf, Guillaume Ternaux (around 1812)

Ternaux does not hesitate to finance breeding where goats from Asia are crossed with local goats in order to produce a raw material that is both fine and warm.
The Ternaux shawl poetically interprets the cashmere palmette and responds to the whiteness of the Empire dresses. The wider red shawl adapts to the size of the new romantic dresses.

Dress Dress (1810 circa)Musée des Arts Décoratifs

Court clothing

The quest for luxury and pomp at the beginning of the century is confirmed by court etiquette imposed by the Emperor. Heavy silks with embroidery or lace are preferred to light dresses worn in everyday life.

Dress BackMusée des Arts Décoratifs

Dress (around 1810)

The cuts remain close to those initiated as early as 1795, however the trains give more of a sense of majesty.

French-style outfit SideMusée des Arts Décoratifs

« A la française » clothing (1804-1815)

For men, although more sober clothes such as embroidered frocks, frock-coats and trousers are worn in everyday life, clothes « à la française » from the Former Régime, reappear with little change.

Appearing at the end of the 17th century this type of men's clothing comprises three pieces. Bloomers that stop at the knees, the waistcoat (white in general), and the coat with a high officer collar worn on top that contrasts through its dark colour without being austere. The embroidery, with rich plant motifs punctuates all the borders and flaps.

The velvet from which it is cut reveals delicate, small woven patterns discreetly animating the surface.

Dress (1828-1829)Musée des Arts Décoratifs

Nostalgia in the romantic era

As early as the 1820s, the romantic period was marked by a return to colour, volume, patterns and imposing embellishments in clothing, as well as in women's accessories.

Dress (1828-1829)

This dress has a much more traditional and outdated character compared to dresses with the radical and vertical modernity of the early 19th century.
While the Restoration policy was established (1815-1830), whale-boning was itself restored under the name of corset. The nostalgia of past styles is also confirmed by a reference to the « leg of lamb » sleeves and the bell skirts supported by a Renaissance farthingale.
Brightly coloured printed textiles contrast with the watered-down colours of the Empire. They find a counterpoint in the decorative overkill of jewellery, using various types of techniques in order to vary textures and shines.

Frock coat Frock coat (1840)Musée des Arts Décoratifs

Abandonment of the vibrancy in men's outfits

The wealth of the women's wardrobe now contrasts with masculine austerity. If the divorce between city and court was consummated at the end of the 18th century, the bourgeoisie's precedence in economic life under Louis-Philippe (1830-1848) eliminates the pompous embroidered clothing and leads to a long eclipse of men's fashion. Idle aristocrats are no longer models to be imitated ! It is now only women who reflect the level of their social success by the size of their dress and the quality of their fabrics, accessories and jewellery.

Frock coat worn by Barbey d'Aurevilly (around 1840)

At the end of the Former Regime, a wave of anglomania resulted in the wool fitted coat derived from a riding coat appearing in France. For a time, this garment, symbolising the masculine elegance of the 19th century, timidly followed the increase in volume of the female skirt.

One would have imagined this frock coat, worn by the more eccentric dandy-writer Barbey d'Aurevilly, but as Baudelaire points out, recalling Barbey : Also, in his eyes, above all else, the perfection of clothing finds itself in absolute simplicity, which is indeed the best way to distinguish yourself !

Crinoline SideMusée des Arts Décoratifs

When hoop skirts were fashionable

In the 1840s, although the volume of sleeves decreased, an increase in decoration compensated for this. The bust thinned by an ever tighter corset, emerges from the corolla of the skirt supported by several petticoats and then a hoop skirt inspired by baskets, indicative of 18th century historicism.

Crinoline Crinoline (1867/1868)Musée des Arts Décoratifs

Crinoline (1867-1868)

In these times of industrial and financial revolution, social success was reflected in the size of the skirt. The shape of the hoop skirt evolved rapidly. Round until 1860, it then adopted a conical shape, then flattened on the front and projected backwards in the second half of the 1860s, disappearing before the end of the decade.

Dress Dress (1854-1855)Musée des Arts Décoratifs

Dress in two parts (1854-1855)

It is necessary to emphasise the double confinement of women; moral, in being slaves to social conventions, and physical, in the lacing of their corset and the cage of their hoop skirt.

Bracelet with two women and a "vinaigrette" perfume box by François-Désiré Froment-MeuriceMusée des Arts Décoratifs

Two women bracelet and scent flask (1841)

The scent jewellery or salt flasks preserved in the Musée des Arts Décoratifs attempted to overcome the many female discomforts caused by these stifling accessories.

Parasol (1860 circa)Musée des Arts Décoratifs

Essential accessories

A taste for trinkets characterises a time that was greedy for decorative one-upmanship.

Hat (1890 circa)Musée des Arts Décoratifs

Hat (around 1890)

The capote, the most common hat of the 19th century, usurped the bonnet from the past, from which it retained the soft bottom covering the chignon. Tied under the neck with a broad ribbon, it widens around the face.

Collar (1895-1899)Musée des Arts Décoratifs

Flange (1895-1900)

The flange, combined with different outfits, allows the wearer to vary their outfits and to decorate dresses during spring.

Parasol (1860 circa)Musée des Arts Décoratifs

Sunshade (around 1860)

Though the first role of the sunshade is to protect one's self from the sun, closed and serving as support, it also makes it possible to move more graciously.

Dress BackMusée des Arts Décoratifs

Bustle and visite

The prospect of the centenary of the Revolution revived interest in the 18th century. This dress draws its inspiration from the embroidered ornamentation of the men's dressing room which is interpreted using a less expensive technique : printing. Copying is rarely slavish !

Dress Dress (1885)Musée des Arts Décoratifs

Dress in two parts (around 1885)

On the other hand, the volume is new, as, from 1869, the bustle replaced the hoop skirt.

The dresses now form a pouf at the back, accentuated by draped over-skirt effects. Several more or less adjustable support accessories followed one another or competed. Ladders of ruffles armed with hair or crayfish tail made of half-hoops of superimposed metal or willow, descend almost to the ground, padded horsehair cushion, faux-cul, or fold-up-seats, accentuated the buttocks with their reduced height.

Visit Visit (1870/1879)Musée des Arts Décoratifs

Visite (1870-1879)

Cashmere shawls, prized for a good part of the century, were neglected by the elegant in light of the upsurge of cheap printed versions. Some shawls were recycled, as here.
Symptomatic of the discomfort of feminine outfits, victims of fashion, this short jacket called a « visite », presents a constraining sleeve cut which, imprisoning the entire upper body, allows for only limited movements. It adapts to the raised shape of a skirt and shows a fondness for the « upholsterer » style.

At Buttes Chaumont (1888 : date de dépôt légal) by Chéret, Jules JeanMusée des Arts Décoratifs

New commercial cycles

The trousers and the top hat appear almost at the turn of the century. The frock coat, ever popular, was competing with the morning coat, which is shorter with rounded tails, and the jacket, also short, but less rounded. Long unmatched, the « suit » with three matching pieces, arrived around 1875.

Poster (1888)

The first signs of industrial innovation were seen at the beginning of the century. In the field of weaving, Jacquard looms allowed woven patterns to be created. Then, clothing assembly methods were overturned by the distribution of the sewing machine. The embroidery machine appeared while textile printing benefited from new techniques. Finally, the progress of chemistry enriched the range of textile dyes. Thanks to these innovations, sale prices fell ; a new form of tailoring was born. Indeed, production cycles were now distinguishable from sales channels. Anticipating customers' needs, temples dedicated to commerce were built using the new model of the department store. Advertising, affecting ever broader targets, contributed to economic development.

Credits: Story

Text and choice of images: Corinne Dumas-Toulouse, Art historian and speaker at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs

Editorial coordination of the virtual exhibition: Maude Bass-Krueger, assisted by Alexandra Harwood and César Imbert

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
Explore more
Related theme
We Wear Culture
The stories behind what we wear
View theme
Google apps