Background to Women’s Fashion in the 1850s
During the Gold Rush in Victoria most new immigrants arrived from Great Britain: England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. They brought their ideas about dressing and fashion with them, and consequently many clothes in Victoria during 1850s follow the same lines as their British cousins.
British women’s ideas about fashion largely came from the trends set by influential women of the time, the main lady being Queen Victoria herself. The most recognisable feature of this period was the crinoline: a bell-shaped petticoat that gave volume to a lady’s skirts.
This cartoon from Harper’s Bazaar in New York draws a comparison between the Belles of the time in their crinolines and the more conventional bell:
Ideals behind women’s clothing choices
In the 19th century, clothes, and the ability to purchase them, were an important indicator of social attainment; they were an outward sign of the achievement of wealth, respectability and social status. The Victorian cultural and social system was very quick to judge people by their apparel and people were treated according to their ‘dressed’ appearance.
Women responded to the dominant image of the 1850s man by making themselves appear fragile and doll-like. They were mysterious, demure and literally unapproachable. Women wanted to bring out the nobler rather than the baser character in their men, so covered themselves from head to toe so that very little flesh could be seen at all, especially when out-of-doors and on view to strangers. Hair was concealed, since it was believed to inflame the passions.
Undergarments in the 1850s
The undergarments worn by women in the 1850s were very important for achieving the desired look. Crinolines, as mentioned above, created the bell-shaped look of the skirts. Prior to their widespread use from 1856, women would wear many layers of petticoats in order to achieve the broad skirt.
Corsets were the other important feature of a woman’s underdress as it allowed her to change her body to fit the ideal hour-glass shape. These corsets were made of whale-bone or steel and were designed to show a doll-like narrow waist in contrast to the big skirts.
Gowns of the 1850s
A lady’s gown was designed to fit the shape created by her undergarments. Day dresses were modest, where evening dresses may reveal more of a lady’s neck, chest and arms. Bright colours were fashionable and silks were desirable for those who could afford them.
Gowns, as with all clothing, were largely hand made during this era with sewing machines only becoming regular household features during the later part of the century.
Everyday Clothing – Eliza Perrin’s Dress
In our collection at the Gold Museum we have a very rare item, a dress belonging to Eliza Perrin. Mrs Perrin was an ordinary woman of the gold rush, who followed her husband to the diggings in Ballarat in 1852. The dress is so rare because everyday pieces of clothing, such as this, were usually worn until they no longer served a useful purpose, so it is remarkable that it has survived to this day. The dress has rows of hand-worked, chain stitch embroidery on the skirt in green, black and white.
Links about Women’s Fashion in the 1850s
There is a great collection of magazine images at the New York Public library, that show the fashion ideal advertised during this era. The Victoria & Albert Museum in London has a great article about Victorian Dress. The Costume Manifesto has a page about the history of fashion and dress during the Industrial Revolution.
For undergarments, there is some information about the history of corsets from Lara Corsets and an excellent history of crinolines and other aspects of mid 19th century fashion from the Victoria & Albert Museum.
For other prints and patterns of the era you can visit: Victoriana Magazine, Fashion-Era and Past Patterns. For images of actual pieces of clothing you can view the online collection of the Museum of Costume, Bath.
This article was written in response to a question from Claudia, a student visiting Sovereign Hill. If you have a question you’d like us to answer please contact us!