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Clues in Photographs: Women’s Clothing

Women’s Clothing 1830 – 1890 

When researching the lives of our ancestors in photographs it’s hard not to notice all of the changes happening through time. Some changes were big while others were small and may go unrecognized.  Take for instance women's clothing during the 1800s. 

1830s – It was the ending of the “romantic” era, and women were wearing the hourglass silhouette, which consisted of very full sleeves, very wide necklines, a v-shaped bodice, and wide ankle-length skirts.  

1840s – The styles of this decade were still feminine but more conservative, with colors becoming darker and more somber at first before turning to prints and plaids by the end of the decade. Sleeves were now fitted to the arm, skirts were fuller and floor length. 

1850s – In the mid-1850s, the crinoline (a lightweight, hoop-like cage) expanded skirt width even more. Shawls and capes were worn. 

1860s – The bodice was shortened more during this time, but the shoulders were the same as in the 1850s. Square necklines became popular for daytime wear. The neckline was embellished with ruffles, lace, shirring, and or braid.  

1870s – In the early part of this decade, shoulders and sleeves joined at the point where they normally do to this day. Necklines remained high. The bodice was a cuirass, which was a long-wasted, form-fitting corset composed of whale bones or stiff bonelike structures that extended down to the hips. Cloaks and short capelets were worn as outerwear.  

1880s – The cuirass bodice continued in the 1880s, as did the high neckline and the tight sleeves. The skirt was pleated, draped, layered, aproned and often had a train in back.  

1890s – Evening gowns had elbow-length sleeves. Necklines were very high and were supported by boned collars. While the bustle was gone, layers of gathered fabric remained in its place throughout the 1890s. The skit eventually become slim over the hips and then were gored and flared out for a more circular appearance.  

Something as simple as the style of sleeves or even the placement of buttons can offer clues in historic family photographs. With our “Photography: Clues Pictures Hold Editing, Digitizing and Various Projects” course you will learn more about those hidden clues in your ancestral photos.  

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