Around 1840, there was a fashion reaction after women grew tired of the huge sleeves, broad shoulders, big bonnets, and sometimes outlandish hairstyles of the previous decade. It was time for a change.
An 1840s silk dress in Bartow-Pell’s collection enables us take a close look at the new style, which featured an elongated waist, rigid corsets, very tight triangular bodices, sloping shoulders, and full skirts. Let’s start by analyzing the bodice (or “body,” as it was often called). Fan-shaped pleats fall from gathers at the shoulders and form a long inverted triangle that dips below the natural waistline and terminates in a pointed, gathered panel. Slender piping strengthens the seams in the close-fitting bodice. Hooks and eyes close the back opening. Our dress has a plunging, open V-neck “corsage” (yet another period word for bodice), which would have been paired with a cotton or linen chemisette (a half-blouse) worn underneath. Wide lace currently fills the décolletage and runs down the back, but this was almost certainly added later, as fashion plates, period garments, and other primary sources do not show trim treatment of this sort. Besides, the large fill-in frill is awkward, especially if worn with a chemisette.
Fringed light-gray ribbon trim embroidered with ombré (progressing from light to dark) foliate motifs further accentuates the bodice’s V-shape and the slim upper arm. The Ladies’ Cabinet of Fashion, Music, and Romance reported in August 1844 that “there is a good deal of variety in the sleeves; tight ones are very extensively seen, but in general they have some kind of trimming to take off from their excessive plainness.” Long narrow sleeves (often cut on the bias) and drooping shoulders—partially achieved through the low placement of the armscye (armhole)—were a reaction against the huge sleeves and wide shoulders of the 1830s. (Click here to read about a transitional-style dress in BPMM’s collection.) A very full skirt, which would have been supported by layers of petticoats, completes the look.
Style in the 1840s was partly about geometry. Angles, points, and triangular shapes can be seen across the many Gothic Revival art forms of the decade, including architecture, furniture, ceramics, clothing, and more. The most obvious example of the Gothic form in women’s fashion is the triangular bodice ending in a low point below the waist. Furthermore, informed people were well aware of historical influences on clothing, and this topic was sometimes discussed in women’s magazines. In August 1844, for example, the Ladies’ Cabinet described trendy dresses that were in “the Italian style of three hundred years ago, and . . . copied from portraits of celebrated beauties of that period.” A few months earlier, in March 1844, the same magazine captured the era’s historical vibe:
The forms of these dresses, as well as the materials, approach very nearly to those that we have seen described as fashionable in the early part of the last century; the waist rendered as long and taper as possible, and terminated, for the most part, by an excessively deep point in front, and the full-flowing skirt . . . have a strong family likeness to the gowns, as they were then called, of our great great grandmammas.
What colors were in style? According to the New-York Visitor and Lady’s Album of December 1842:
The colors which are now most fashionable and likely to continue during the season, in more or less favor, are different shades of green, violet, fawns, and shots [iridescent fabrics]—such as pink and lilac, violet and green, pink and fawn, maroon and ruby-grenat [garnet]. Grey is a favorite color in silks.
In February 1844, the Ladies’ Companion grumbled that “those who sigh for . . . ill-assorted and gaudy colors are not, whatever may be their ostensible position in life, the truly fashionable and genteel. Boorishness—nay, even barbarism itself—often seeks to appear in lively and flaunting colors.” Bartow-Pell’s dress is in a stylish and sober shade—the ever-popular “fawn-colored silk” that is mentioned in numerous 19th-century sources.
The silhouette of the 1840s was narrow and elongated on top with a very full bell-shaped skirt on the bottom. This look was achieved by wearing the correct undergarments. Long, busked corsets flattened the bust and smoothed the torso through the hips so that tight bodices fit like a glove. (Click here to learn more about corset busks.) In addition, bodices were often boned. “It is usual to have a whalebone up the middle of the front; one, or perhaps two, at each side of the fore-body, . . . a whalebone at each of the side-seams under the arms, and up the outer edges of the back, where the hooks and eyes are,” Eliza Leslie instructed in The House Book: A Manual of Domestic Economy (1845 edition). A knee-length chemise (shift) was worn under the corset. This provided a soft layer between the skin and the corset and helped protect dresses from perspiration. In the 1840s, women wore multiple petticoats to add ample fullness to their skirts. Leslie wrote that “the skirt of a dress will not look well unless it is very full and wide; it should not be long enough to touch the ground, nor so short as to show the shoe binding.”
Many writers of the period cautioned against constricting corsets and tight bodices, as these practices were often deemed unhealthy. Eliza Leslie proposed a way to alter corsets for “ladies who have sense and courage to resist the pernicious but almost universal custom of wearing long corsets with busks and whalebones.” And in her Treatise on Domestic Economy (1843 edition), the educator and author Catharine Beecher had strong opinions against tight clothing. She warned:
But the practice, by which females probably suffer most, is the use of tight dresses. Much has been said against the use of corsets by ladies. But these may be worn with perfect safety, and be left off, and still injury . . . be equally felt. It is the constriction of dress that is to be feared.
So long as it is the fashion to admire, as models of elegance, the wasp-like figures which are presented at the rooms of mantuamakers [dressmakers] and milliners, there will be hundreds of foolish women, who will risk their lives and health to secure some resemblance to these deformities of the human frame.
Needless to say, fashionable dress in the 1840s restricted women’s movements. It was hard to bend over in a long, rigid, and tightly laced corset, and sleeves set below the shoulder made it difficult to raise one’s arms. Elegance came at a price. What were women thinking?
It is unknown who made Bartow-Pell’s dress. It could have been sewn at home by an accomplished seamstress or fitted and stitched by a professional dressmaker. The back of the bodice was crudely altered with a sewing machine at a later date and widened with a different fabric, and the lace frill was likely added at that time. Perhaps someone needed an outfit for a costume party and decided to alter a tight old-fashioned dress and fill in the deep V-neckline? Perspiration stains under the arms may also be from a later period because the original owner would have worn a chemise to help keep her dress clean (although that was no guarantee against staining!). Today the dress is useful as a study piece. It also represents women’s fashion during the years when the Bartow family was first living in their new house, which was finished in 1842. Perhaps Mrs. Bartow even owned a similar frock.
Finally, what accessories would have been worn in the 1840s? We have already mentioned chemisettes, but collars, undersleeves, and cuffs were also common. Jewelry frequently included a brooch and a watch on a long chain. Shoes were usually either a slipper style (perhaps with ribbon ankle ties) or ankle-high gaiters. A bonnet would have been de rigueur outside the house both for the sake of propriety and to protect the wearer from the elements. (Click here to read about bonnets in the 1840s.) Day caps made of fine white cotton were worn by women of all ages, but this practice seems to have been abandoned by younger women later in the decade. Shawls—in stylish paisley or silk broché (brocade) for those who could afford it—and other wraps, such as capes, provided warmth. An assortment of hairstyles replaced the high hairdos of the 1830s and included braided or plain buns worn at the back of the head and styles with side curls.
Bartow-Pell’s dress is a classic example from the 1840s, when women participated in a fashion revolution that brought about extreme body shaping. They did it for style, but was the tight squeeze worth it?
Margaret Highland, Historian