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Women's Clothing

1850s dress was still relatively conservative and not quite as exuberant as that seen in the coming Victorian era. Simple daydresses and bosom-flattening corsets were common to this era. Bloomers made a brief appearance in 1851. Dubbed the "Turkish costume," bloomers were embraced by Elizabeth Cady Stanton as a feminist reaction to the masculine ideas of proper women's attire. Stanton's friend Amelia Bloomer, publisher of the reform paper called The Lily, printed sketches of the odd costume in 1852, and it gained popularity among feminists in the early 1850s. Ironically, the outfit was abandoned shortly after its introduction into American society, as it was too unbecoming. The most notable contribution to 1850s fashion, however, was the hoop skirt. Introduced in 1856, the hoop skirt greatly altered the silhouette of the woman's wardrobe.

During the early 1850s, the common daydress had a very short underarm seam, a shallow, rounded dip at the waistfront, and a soft and full fan bosom. Wide collars of lace, crochet, or tatting fell flat across the shoulders. Notice the soft, full bosom and wide, white collar on the common daydresses below. Woven ginghams, calicos, checks, and plaids were common patterns for daydresses, as seen in the image on the right.

Common 1850s Daydress Common 1850s Daydress

Common 1850s Daydresses: Image courtesy of Joan L. Severa, Dressed for the Photographer: Ordinary Americans and Fashion, 1840-1900, 1995

By the mid-1850s, a new daydress was introduced with bishop sleeves (full, long sleeves gathered into cuffs at the wrists) and a moderately long-waisted, plain bodice that opened at the front. Note in the image below the full bishop sleeves, and the Jenny Lind collar, a tall, stiff, band that was popular at this time.

Mid-1850s Daydress

Mid-1850s Daydress: Image courtesy of Joan L. Severa

A long-fronted, bust-flattening corset was popular until 1853. The corset design changed shape after 1853, having a more flaring form that allowed the bosom to spread out. Notice the flattened bosom that tapers to a rounded waist in the image below.

1853 Corset Shape

1853 Corset Shape: Image courtesy of Joan L. Severa

The basque waist became increasingly popular in the 1850s. A basque waist consisted of a hip-length jacket form that was tight fitting over the bosom and waist and had a crisp flare over the hips and flaring sleeves. Many fashionable bodices had exuberant surface decoration

1850s Basque Waist 1850s Basque Waist

1850s Basque Waist: Image courtesy of Joan L. Severa

The hoop was introduced in 1856, providing a well-supported, full skirt. These more fashionable dresses featured rounded, natural waistlines, generous skirts with gathers and knife pleats, and ruffles, flounces, lace, or fringe. Notice the full skirts in the images below. They have been cut from a lot of material and gathered and pleated to fall around the hoop.

1850s Hoop Skirt 1850s Hoop Skirt.

1850s Hoop Skirt: Image courtesy of Joan L. Severa

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