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In the Classroom > Unit Overview > Lesson 13

Lesson Thirteen
Early Nineteenth Century Fashion

by Lynne Manring

Over the course of this time period, clothing styles changed to reflect the ideals of the emerging republic. Ancient Greece was seen as a democratic model politically, but in art, architecture and fashion, many things from ancient Greece had become fashionable as well. Gowns became narrower, shoulders were sloped and waists became higher. They became more streamlined and had less lace, frills, and ruffles. The oval was a popular form in art, architecture and fashion. With all sharp angles hidden (such as shoulders and elbows), a woman's profile resembled a slender oval from head to toe. Although women did still wear corsets stiffened with whalebone to insure good posture, undergarments were less restricting than they had been or would be by the 1850's. Women's high fashion reminds one today of statues of Greek goddesses. For the most part, the ideal look was light, airy and uncomplicated. Women's clothing also reflected social expectations. Men perceived women as being vulnerable, frail, and in need of protection. High fashion, affordable to upper and middle class women, made physical exertion (suitable only for males) difficult with narrow gowns and sleeve designs, which made it impossible for a woman to raise her arms much higher than her shoulders.

Men's clothing was tailored and the fashionable clothing fit snugly. The biggest change from earlier times was the abandonment of knee breeches for "pantaloons", which came down to the ankle. Pantaloons buttoned up the front as modern sailor pants do today. Some might be of a knitted fabric, not unlike modern stretch pants. Jackets, sometimes known as "spencers", were high-waisted. Tailcoats were also worn. Shirt collars were stiff with starch and were worn upright with a kerchief or cravat tied around the neck.

For the most part, children dressed the same as adults. Until about the age of 6, a boy was usually put in a dress. He might also sometimes wear a "skeleton suit," a one-piece outfit that buttoned down the chest and across the front at the waist.

Demeanor, posture, stance, and movement were important, as they were a reflection of one's refinement and good breeding. Clothes were designed to enhance the impression of refinement. As an example, women's gowns were also designed to give the impression of grace and softness.

Daily wear, overall, was more formal than what we wear today. The novelist, Jane Austin, and her characters, and Napoleon are good examples of fashionable people from the early 19th century.


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