Underpinnings are a great place to get started on building a 19th century wardrobe. Without proper foundation garments, your dress will not fit correctly. If you are new to sewing, underpinnings are a great place to learn 19th century sewing techniques, where any mistakes will not be readily visible!
The layers of underpinnings from skin out are:
A chemise is a white cotton undergarment closely related to the slip. The neckline is open and set onto a fitted band or yoke and it has short sleeves. Chemises were longer in the earlier parts of the 19th century, but by mid century fell between mid-thigh and knee.
In the mid 19th century, bras had not yet been invented. A woman either wore a corset or went without bust support of any sort! Corsets should either be boned, corded, quilted, or use a mixture of these three techniques. Corsets should never be over laced or restrict breathing. Sensible women of the era wore corsets for several reasons: bust support, to a have a platform to fit their dresses to, to have back support when doing physical labor, and to have a base to distribute the weight of their petticoats, just to name a few. Corsets should lace up the back and close up the front with a front closing busk.
Drawers could be worn either under the chemise or over the corset with the chemise tucked in. Reasons for how an individual wore their drawers varied and both ways are documented. Drawers should be made of white cotton. The legs should come down below the knee. Drawers should have an open crotch seam. This made using the bathroom much easier than taking off many layers!
Stockings were usually made of white cotton, wool or silk. They should come up over the knee and be secured with stocking garters. For some occasions, stockings would be made of fine open-work designs, or have a colored design on them. White stockings reigned supreme for their ease in washing and caring for, however.
Boots are a common form of footwear for the mid 19th century. It’s often more comfortable to put ones boots on before finishing dressing, when the feet are easily accessible. Boots can be front or side-lacing, or have elastic gussets at the side. They can be a solid color or have one primary color and a second color for “foxing”. The toes should be squared and if the boot has a heel, it should be very low.
Shoes had many of the same design features of a boot, including the square toe, and low to no heal.
The mid-19th century was an era when skirt support underwent several changes. In the 1840s and early 50s, women would wear several layers of starched white cotton petticoats under her dress to achieve the desired bell shape. She could wear a stiff petticoat made of horsehair crinoline or a corded petticoat for additional support. In 1856, the cage crinoline was patented, giving the 19th century one of it’s most iconic of fashions- the hoop skirt. Wearing of the cage caught on quickly, as it eliminated the number of layers needed to achieve the fashionable silhouette, thus cutting the cost of laundry and saving fabric. Many women heralded the freeing feeling of wearing a cage instead of many layers. Despite the absurdity of this fashion, hoops were not as outlandish as their modern bridal and formal-wear cousins: between 90-110″ was common. Cages could be either skeleton style, where the steel boning is held together with tapes, or covered style, where the steel boning is encased in a petticoat. Over the cage, women would still wear petticoats to soften the lines and add further shape to her silhouette.
In addition to fashion petticoats, there were practical, warming under-petticoats. Red wool flannel was a popular choice, as well as quilted petticoats. Red wool flannel (wool flannel is often referred to as just flannel in the period) was believed to offer healthy benefits to the wearer.
There are also various types of decorative underskirts; sometimes called work petticoats, over petticoats, or decorative underskirts. These would go over all other petticoats and be colorful and decorative when her skirts were lifted out of the way. If a woman was doing dirty chores, her skirts could be pinned up out of the way, exposing a work petticoat. Likewise, a fashionable lady playing an outdoor game could utilize the same concept to keep her skirts clean.
- A cage crinoline
- A covered crinoline
- A corded petticoat
- A tucked petticoat
- A quilted petticoat
- A work petticoat
- A period painting showing decorative petticoats
There are several things to consider before sewing or buying a dress. The year you are portraying, your age, your profession and your socioeconomic level all play into what you should be wearing. This guidelines only refer to adult women’s dress; children and teens dressed differently.
Styles and silhouettes did not change overnight from one year to the next, and in covering such a large time frame, this dress guide is not comprehensive. Please use this as a starting point for your own research into the most appropriate style dress for your portrayal:
1840s dresses had narrow sleeves and low waistlines. Bodices could be darted to fit or gathered in the front in a fan-front style. Bodices generally closed up the back with hooks and eyes. Necklines varied between high, open, and v-necks. Skirts were full.
1850s dresses had wide sleeves around the cuffs, forming either a funnel or a pagoda shape. Waistlines rose closer to the natural waist. Bodices could be darted or gathered to fit. Some bodices, called basques, were made separately from the skirt and featured a small skirt that sat over the main skirt. Closures changed to the front of the bodice and usually closed with hooks and eyes. Necklines changed throughout the decade, with high round necks, open boat necks, and vee necks being popular at various points. Skirts grew in fullness with the production of the cage crinoline starting in 1856.
1860s dresses had wide sleeves that narrowed at the cuffs, usually in either a coat sleeve or bishop sleeve style. Waistlines were at the natural waist. Darted and gathered bodices were both popular. Necklines were usually high “jewel” style. Bodices closed up the center front, usually with hooks and eyes. Skirts remained full and towards the middle of the decade this fullness was pushing towards the back of the skirt.
The rest of this article on dress will focus on late 1850s to mid-1860s styles.
Dresses were made of wool, cotton or silk. Cotton should not be solid colored, but rather of a small, geometric print or woven design. Cotton dyes were relatively unstable in the mid 19th century, and prints hid uneven fading, as well as stains from wear, easier. Wool and silk can be solid colored or also of a small, geometric print or woven plaid. Unfortunately, finding prints in silk or wool is not easy to do today!
If you are planning to wear your reproduction outfits in the summer, or live or reenact in southern climates, heat may be a factor to consider. Women of the mid-19th century would wear very lightweight dresses of sheer or nearly sheer material to combat the heat. The lining of these dresses could be cut low and the sleeves left partially or fully unlined to increase ventilation.
There are several different types of bodice construction to consider, not all of which are appropriate for every dress. In silk or wool, dart-fitted bodices were popular, either with a straight waist or a variation of a pointed waist. Specifically in cotton, but also in silk and wool, we find gathered or pleated to fit bodice with a straight waist. There are other, less commonly found styles of bodices too, including yoked styles, asymmetrical front openings, and pleated styles. Bodices were almost always lined in cotton fabric. Many gathered bodices had fitted linings. Polished cotton was used frequently, especially in better quality dresses.
Some women, frequently fashionable, wealthy and young, wore white bodices with a very nice silk or wool skirt. These would be constructed much like a gathered bodice or sheer bodice and attached to a waistband. This was a very high-fashioned look and is not appropriate for most impressions.
There is also the consideration of sleeves. Most sleeves in the 1860s were variations of a coat sleeve, or of a gathered bishop sleeve. There is a great many variations of sleeve styles that can be researched and replicated. Between the sleeve and the bodice, in the armsyce, should be a layer of self fabric piping. This piping was and is used to strengthen seams and finish edges. The piping should be very narrow and almost always the same fabric as the dress.
The neckline is usually fitted close to the throat, called a “jewel” neckline. The edge of the neckline can be finished with self-fabric piping or with a bias strip. Bodices usually close up the center front with hooks and eyes or with buttons. Sometimes when you see buttons on a bodice they are sewn on for decoration.
Skirts in the mid 19th century were usually constructed of straight panels of fabric, with gored skirts coming into fashion in the mid- 1860s. There should be enough fabric to fall gracefully over what skirt support the dress is worn over. The skirt should be hemmed before being adjusted for length. A skirt should usually have a facing at the hem to protect the skirt from wear and tear. In addition, the bottom edge is frequently finished off in hem tape. The waist top would be folded over to adjust to the wearers height and then the skirt would be gauged or pleated. A pocket can be set into one of the seams.
The skirt and bodice should be attached to each other with either self-fabric piping at the bottom of the bodice or a waistband in between the two.
No dress is complete without something to protect it at the neck and at the wrists. A detachable white cotton collar is almost always worn at the neck. The size, style and shape of the collar changed over the years, but it remained a staple to mid-19th century dressing. A white detachable collar was either basted or pinned in. A fresh collar should be worn every day, usually with a broach or bow in the center of the neck. Collars are easy to remove and launder, while the actual dress would not be laundered as frequently.
When doing very grimy work, sometimes a folded strip of fabric, called a neckerchief, can be worn instead. This should be tucked under the neckline to absorb sweat and grime.
Almost as important is to wear undersleeves or cuffs to protect the wrists and arms of your dress. Undersleeves generally extended to about elbow length and could either be worn separately, or basted into the dress.
Collars and undersleeves, combined with underpinnings, kept skin from touching the dress, thus preventing it from having to be laundered as frequently. Laundering a dress not only was an undertaking in itself, but shorted the life expectancy of the fabric.
Another useful article of dress is an apron. Cotton and wool half or pinner aprons were worn for dirty work. Shorter silk half aprons were worn for a nice look when entertaining or doing light work, such a sewing or knitting.
- An example of a woman in a Fancy Apron
- The woman sitting at the far left of this group is wearing an apron
Parasols were used when wearing fashion bonnets to keep the sun off of the face. Tans were highly undesirable and pale, unblemished skin was fashionable. Parasols had long, narrow handles and silk covered tops with small footprints. The handle folded in the middle and sometimes at the top, to allow for tilting against the sun.
Umbrellas were used to keep rain off a person, or to protect against sun. Rubber galoshes and oiled silk raincoats were other means of rain protection.
In the mid 19th century, women usually had long hair which was arranged in a bun at the base of the neck. Hair was almost always parted straight in the center, and women used pomade to smooth their hairstyles and help hold the style together. Depending on your hair type, several different types of pin may work for you, but bobby pins, hair sticks, and other modern hairpins should be avoided. I use U-shaped plastic pins that look similar to horn pins of the mid-19th century. These are available at many drug stores.
A particularly useful bonnet to own is a corded or slat bonnet. These have long brims to shade the wearers face and long curtains to protect the neck and shoulders from sun damage. Slat bonnets were not worn earlier in the century, so if considering an 1850s or earlier impression, please try a corded bonnet.
For higher class impressions or activities, a fashion bonnet is appropriate. These can be made either of straw or of silk covered buckram. Bonnet fashions changed quickly throughout the mid-19th century and bonnet trims changed even quicker. Please consider the years you will be portraying and choose a bonnet that is appropriate to that era. Fashion books, such as Godeys and Petersons, frequently offered advice on the latest in colors and trims.
You might also consider having a warm piece of headwear for colder events. Knitted caps as well as quilted silk and wool hoods can be worn for warmth.
Sometimes hats were worn. Most occasions are not appropriate for a hat however, and we recommend investing in good bonnets that can be worn for any occasion before considering a hat. If a lady was going to the seaside, picnic, or other outdoor holiday, she might wear a hat. The younger a woman was, the more likely she would be to wear a hat for these occasions. For this reason, usually only women in their teens and 20s should consider wearing hats.
Caps were stylish in the 1840s and 1850s and some older and more conservative women would still wear a cap.
Sometimes, in indoor settings and over dressed hair, a young lady would wear a decorative net.
A very common type of outerwear is the shawl. Shawls were usually made of wool. A common-sized shawl would be 60″ square, which would be folded into a triangle for wearing. A double shawl can be made from a 120″ x 60″ rectangle folded down to a triangle. The edges of a wool shawl will usually be fringed. Shawls of paisley prints were very fashionable at the time, but beware – today it is almost impossible to find reproductions of them as the styles of paisley have changed over the years. Shawls can easily be made at home with minimal to no sewing skills.
Coats and Jackets
For colder events, a coat is a very helpful item to have. Coats were fitted or semi-fitted and could come in a variety of lengths, from hip to nearly the bottom of the skirt. Coats were made of wool and lined with silk or some other slippery material. Lining could be quilted for extra warmth. Sleeves were usually coat or another loose style to allow for full sleeves underneath without crushing.
In warmer climates and seasons, lighter outerwear such as a shawl or a jacket is often more useful than a coat. Jackets could follow the same lines as a coat, but would be made of lighter materials. There were also other types of higher-fashion jackets that would be cut to have open across the front.
Besides coats, jackets and shawls, many other types of outerwear existed for women interested in fashion. For warmth and function, however, none stand up to having a shawl, coat or jacket. Below are just a few of many options of fashionable outerwear.
Capes or cloaks were occasionally worn in the mid century, but did not, and do not offer the wearer much protection from drafts that could come up underneath. They also limit how active a woman can be, as using her arms would also let warm air out.
Mantles were very pretty wraps the draped similarly to a cape, but were cut in a manner to allow more freedom of arm movement.
Many outerwear pieces were purely decorative and would not have been worn for warmth or function. Sometimes sheer overbodices or jackets would be worn over ones dress to offer variety to the outfit.
Nightgowns should be made of white cotton. Weights can vary depending on what time of year it is to be worn. Nightgowns should have long sleeves and a jewel neckline. The nightgown should close with a button placket in the front. Hems should not reach the floor; mid-calf is a comfortable length on most women.
In addition to a nightgown, nightcaps were worn. Nightcaps should also be made of white cotton, and can be plain or ornamental in design. They served not only to keep the head warm, but to keep the hair smooth and neat and pomade or other oils from coming off onto the pillow.
A wrapper is a type of semi-fitted dress. Women would wear them in the mornings or evenings over their nightclothes or over their underpinnings. Having breakfast in one’s wrapper is noted in period literature. These wrappers were often made of either old dresses or loud materials. Wrappers would also be worn, in more subdued fabrics, by some women when they were pregnant.
Wrappers have many similarities with a regular dress. They have jewel necklines and long sleeves. Piping is placed in the same areas. Many wrappers were constructed to be semi-fitted, usually the back was fitted as normal and the front would have adjustable fitting. Some wrappers would have no waist seam but be adjusted only by a belt. Wrappers often, but not always, had contrasting fabric along the center front panel.
There are many different types of dresses that would be appropriate for evening wear. Most women would simply wear their “Sunday Best” dress for any dinner parties or dances they would be invited too. Very few women would have place in their wardrobe specifically for a Ballgown, Opera gown, or other dress that would only be appropriate for the upper crusts of society. As such, please consider if the person you are portraying would ever have need for an specific evening gown.
A ballgown is generally characterized as a low-bodied and short sleeved dress and usually made of silk. Please note that most dances are not balls and it is inappropriate to wear a ball gown to an outside informal dance, a hop, a barn dance, or other dances frequently found at reenacting events. Teens and young ladies should not wear adult styled evening wear and should refer to the teens page. Please see our dancing section for further dance etiquette.
Most women did not have a white wedding gown in the mid-19th century. Rather, they would have a new “Sunday Best” dress of either wool or silk for their wedding dress. A white dress would have very little use for most women after their wedding, so they had to opt on something that could be used again. White dresses were made popular when Queen Victoria wore white to her wedding in 1840. Through the rest of the mid-19th century, women of the upper classes who could afford to indulge in impractical clothing, chose white as the fashionable color. These high-fashion white dresses would change with the styles of the season. Veils were worn, often with an orange blossom wreath. As the 19th century progressed, white wedding gowns became more and more common.
Many people who look at an original photograph or dress and see it is black assume that it was used for mourning. This is simply not true. Black was a fashion color and was often a good choice for a best silk or wool dress. Mourning clothes were traditionally made of a solid, flat black, meaning it should have no sheen or shine, print or trim on it. What type of mourning dress one would wear would depend on who you were and who you were mourning for.
Men, children and teens would not wear solid-black clothes for mourning. Men would wear black arm and hat bands, while children and teens would be put in white with black trim.
If you were attending a funeral of a distant relation, neighbor, or friend, you would probably not wear mourning, but rather a somber coloured dress. Likewise, if you were of a working class background, even if the deceased had been close to you, you probably would not have a mourning dress as described above. You may take a dress and dye-over it with black dye to have something appropriate, if you could.
Etiquette books of the period offer what was deamed appropriate periods of mourning for different family members. While people on the upper end of the social and economic ladder would adhere to these guides, this was not always possible for people of working-class backgrounds or reduced circumstances.
For sporting events, women wore special outfits. This included, but was not limited to; riding habits, sea-bathing costumes, gymnastic costumes and skating outfits. Special research and attention should be payed to any reproduction sporting costume.
For a starting point in riding habit research, please see this Page.
Gymnastics, Skating and Bathing Costumes all had similar construction in that they were made of wool and consisted of a pair of trousers and a shortened skirt. The line of these were very similar to Reform or Bloomer Dress. Trouser length varied according to costume, as well as fit of the bodice and skirt. Skirt length varied from wearer as well as according to activity. The bodices were usually gathered or otherwise loosely fitted to allow free movement.