The 1830s was another transformative decade in 19th century fashion. Like the 1820s, it was a span of years which stood between the Regency era (1811-1820) and the Victorian era (1837-1901), providing a bridge from the often extreme, gigot-sleeved confections of the 1820s to the tight-sleeved, form-fitting bodices of the 1840s. The 1830s was also the decade in which the pendulum of fashion swung from large, ornate sleeves to large skirts embellished with various pleats and trimmings. Or, as fashion historian C. Willett Cunnington describes it, the decade in which women’s gowns moved from the “exuberantly romantic” to the “droopingly sentimental.”
Please note: These are primarily visual guides – fashion CliffsNotes, if you will. For more in depth information, please consult the recommended links.
Beginning the decade, sleeves were still en gigot. Gowns were low in the waist and, if worn for day, were often adorned with a belt and buckle or a sash tie. Skirts were ankle-length and scantily trimmed. Below is a perfect example of this variety of gown. It is a peacock blue British carriage dress with gigot sleeves, made of silk and trimmed with a belt and metal buckle.
Evening dresses of 1830 were typically cut low off the shoulders. Sleeves were short and full. Skirts were generally ankle-length with trimmings and ornamentation beginning at the level of the knee, as illustrated by the silk evening gown below.
According to C. Willett Cunnington, belts and “deep gilt buckles” were still very popular in 1831, as evidenced by this beautiful, printed cotton day dress.
Evening dresses were “less square across the bosom” and tended to be drawn down the center or crossed with drapery or trimmings. Sleeves in eveningwear were large even when short and were often in the “beret” or “double bouffante” style. The below image of evening dresses from 1831 clearly shows the belted silhouette, full, short sleeves, and plain skirts which were in fashion. Note that the skirts are embellished with one line of trim at the knees and no more.
This same style can be seen in the below paintings. Both show belted waists, off the shoulder gigot sleeves, and plain skirts. The right portrait is an example of a short, puffed sleeve with a sheer net oversleeve.
Day dresses for 1832 changed little from the previous year. Sleeves en gigot were still quite popular in all their variations. Meanwhile, skirts were gradually becoming longer and wider. C. Willett Cunnington states that as a result of the increase in material, the hem of the skirts was stiffened with flannel or muslin to preserve the shape of the pleats. The increase in the size of the skirts and the pleating is evident in the below image of an 1832 printed cotton day dress.
For evening, bodices were cut low and off the shoulders. Double bouffant sleeves were still in fashion as were “soufflet sleeves,” which Cunnington describes as being “very short and full with separated puffs.” Short, puffed sleeves with sheer oversleeves continued to be a favorite. The below portrait by Friedrich von Amerling provides a lovely example of this style.
The below image of an 1832 evening gown highlights the fashion in full skirts and short sleeves with separated puffs. This gown also has a slightly pointed bodice – a feature which began to be quite popular that year, especially for evening dresses.
Moving into 1833, Cunnington reports that “the skirts are now of the most extravagant and ungraceful width; the pleats doubled and often trebled.” He also remarks on the sudden popularity of the “pelisse-robe.”
The 1833 edition of The Court Magazine and Belle Assemblée gives an example of a pelisse robe, as illustrated by the lilac/blue carriage gown below. This image is described in the magazine as follows: "A pelisse robe of lilac gros des Indes, a plain high corsage, adorned down the centre of the front with white fancy silk trimming, a row of which descends from the waist down each side of the front of the skirt, in the form of a broken cone. The centre of the skirt is ornamented with knots of satin riband to correspond, laid at regular distances on a satin rouleau. Satin ceinture tied in a bow, and short ends before.”
Meanwhile, ball gowns were frequently trimmed with lace along the neckline and sleeves. The 1833 issue of The Court Magazine and Belle Assemblée contains many images of this popular style. I have included two of them below. The Court Magazine describes the dresses on the left as follows:
“Blue watered silk façonnée rayée with tulle and satin folds on the body, and blonde to fall all round, blonde sabots, chip hat with three blue feathers. Yellow satin dress with a black blond cap and bows of riband, black blonde sabots. — Head-dress of black blonde and riband.”
As we advance into 1834, Cunnington reports that bodices “are high and close to the shape.” Skirts were relatively plain and still quite full. Waists were now primarily round, but could occasionally be pointed. Meanwhile, the gigot sleeve continued its reign of popularity – though you will note that, in some styles of gowns in 1834, the sleeves were not reaching the enormous proportions of the late 1820s and early 1830s. This is illustrated by the rather modest sleeved wool gown below.
Entering 1835, bodices remained plain for day dresses, with wrapped fronts popular for morning gowns. Skirts continued to be full and were often heavily pleated. You can observe several fashionable trends at work in the wool and silk afternoon dress below. It is set off the shoulders with a wrapped front, pleated skirts, and gigot sleeves with a puff that ends at the elbow. The remaining fabric on the sleeves is then pleated from elbow to wrist.
The gradual changes in gigot sleeves continued throughout 1835. According to Cunnington, the sleeves were now frequently “set in lower than formerly with narrow longitudinal pleats at the shoulder.” The Court Magazine and Belle Assemblée of 1835 also mentions that sleeves were “less puffed out than usual” and “not quite so large.” An example of these pleats, as well as of the reduction in the bulk of the sleeves, can been seen in the evening dress below.
In 1836, the ever-controversial gigot sleeve shrank dramatically. It was so much reduced that, by the summer, people were proclaiming that the era of the gigot sleeve was completely at an end. Cunnington quotes an unnamed 19th century source who, upon the demise of the gigot sleeve, declared: “The only absolute rule is to flatten the sleeve on the shoulder and banish forever the memory of those enormous artificial balloons which gave to the delicate form of female beauty a breadth proportionate to Holbein’s Dutch women.”
Meanwhile, the skirts were still full and the length remained short enough to reveal the foot. For daytime wear, pelisse-robes which fastened down one side in a series of ribbon knots were the height of fashion. While for the summer, pelisse-robes with open skirts and one or two flounces became a favored style of gown.
For evening dress, open robes over an under-dress were also very popular. The 1836 issue of The New Monthly Belle Assemblée printed a detailed description of an “open robe” style gown with a corresponding image. It reads as follows:
“Evening Dress — Petticoat of India muslin, trimmed with a single flounce, embroidered round the border and surmounted with embroidery. Open robe of the same material, low corsage, square behind, and descending in the demi coeur style in front; it is drawn in with a little fullness round the waist, and is bordered by two folds, through which pale pink ribbon is ran; the space between the folds is beautifully embroidered in a lace pattern. The same trimming descends down the fronts of the dress, and round the border. Long sleeves, bouffanted at the top, tight in the centre, trimmed above the elbow with a double bouffant, which descends below it, and from thence to the wrist quite tight. The sleeve is ornamented with embroidery, and a rosette of pink ribbon."
Bodices were still cut low and off the shoulders in 1836. Short sleeves were very short, frequently worn “close to the shoulder” and long sleeves were tight to the arm or, as Cunnington states, made with “a series of small bouffants.” Dresses were trimmed with blond lace, ribbon knots down the front, or ribbons on the sleeves.
As 1837 commenced, gowns began to have longer skirts and much tighter sleeves. Embellishment on the sleeves was still common with some having puffs or bouffants on the upper arms or knots of ribbon on the shoulders. Short sleeves were also tight to the arm, but they were often so heavily trimmed with tulle, lace, and ruffles that they appeared to be much fuller than they actually were.
For daywear, bodices remained plain and tight to the shape and, as Cunnington reports, the bosom was sometimes partly open, revealing the chemisette beneath. The pelisse-robe was still popular, especially when trimmed down the front with knots of ribbon. And for morning dresses, many ladies wore a Fichu Corday – a piece of grenadine gauze worn like a shawl to cross over the bosom and then tie behind.
The 1837 edition of The Ladies’ Cabinet of Fashion illustrates the Fichu Corday in the image of a Visiting Dress, shown below.
This ensemble is describes in the magazine as follows: “The robe is composed of one of the new mousselines Cachemires; the corsage is half high, square, fitting tight to the shape, and a little pointed at the bottom. Long tight sleeves, made to fit the arm; they are trimmed with manchettes of white grenadine gauze, disposed in a double bias fold, and set on just above the elbow, being headed by a band and knot of pink ribbon; plain tight cuffs en suite, ornament the bottoms of the sleeves. Rice-straw hat; a low crown without any curtain, and a brim of excessive depth, standing quite out from the face; a band and knot of pink ribbon, and a sprig of white lilac, decorate the crown. Fichu Corday of grenadine gauze; it is bordered by a broad hem, through which a pink ribbon is run, and the ends, tied at the bottom of the waist behind, fall low over the skirt.”
Evening dresses changed little from the previous year. Bodices were still cut low and off the shoulders. Skirts were long and full and sometimes trimmed with a flounce of lace. Open robes remained very popular. An example of an 1837 open robe style evening dress is below. Note the fall of lace on the short sleeves, the double flounce of lace on the hem of the petticoat, and the ribbon belt at the waist.
Entering 1838, Cunnington reports that there was a preference for open necks in day dresses. Meanwhile, skirts remained full and pleated at the waist. Pelisse-robes were still in fashion for daywear, as were fichus, which were now worn with both day and “demi-evening” dresses. Note the open necks on the day gowns below which reveal a glimpse of the underlying chemisette.
For evening dress, sleeves were tight and short, coming just to the elbow. They were often trimmed with falls of fine lace. Bodices were still cut very low and off the shoulder with waistlines tapering down to a point. This particular style of pointed bodice is evident in the 1838 Eduard Magnus portrait below.
By the close of the decade, Cunnington reports that the lines of ladies’ gowns continued to slope downwards so as to “accentuate the appearance of drooping.” Bodices were longer, tighter, and came to a point at the waist. Sleeves were set below the shoulders, which made it difficult for a lady to raise her arms. Cunnington states, "the general effect is to produce long pointed Gothic angles, emphasized by the acute points of shawls and mantles.”
For evening dress, the 1839 issue of Godey’s Magazine describes a fashionable ball gown of the season as having a pointed waist, both back and front, with very short sleeves in two small puffs, trimmed with frills of blonde lace. As was common in 1839, the bodice was also trimmed with lace, going round the “bosom of the dress” and “deep in the shoulders and at the back.” Godey’s describes the open robe skirts of this ball gown as being trimmed with bouquets of “full blown roses” and “wide white ribbon.”
Alas, Godey’s did not include an accompanying image. Fortunately, the below portrait by Franz Xaver Winterhalter provides a beautiful example of the sloping silhouette and excessive lace trimming which was so prevalent in the evening gowns of 1839.
So many subtle changes over the course of a decade can be a bit hard to take in. With that in mind, I present you with a side-by-side comparison of an 1830 gown and an 1840 gown to better illustrate the fashion journey we have been on together throughout this decade.
This post initially appeared on MimiMatthews.com and is reprinted here with permission.
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Mimi Matthews is the author of The Pug Who Bit Napoleon: Animal Tales of the 18th and 19th Centuries and A Victorian Lady’s Guide to Fashion and Beauty. Her articles on nineteenth-century history have been published on various academic and history sites, including the Victorian Web and the Journal of Victorian Culture. When not writing historical non-fiction, Mimi authors exquisitely proper historical romance novels. Her latest Victorian romance The Matrimonial Advertisement can be ordered at Amazon and Barnes & Noble. To learn more, please visit www.MimiMatthews.com.