Dating old photographs from clothes worn in the 1840s
1840s fashion is characterised by low and sloping shoulders, a low pointed waist, and bell-shaped skirts that grew increasingly voluminous throughout the decade. Evening dresses were often off the shoulder. Hair was parted in the centre with ringlets at the side of the head, or styled with loops around the ears and pulled into a bun at the back of the head. Paisley or crochet shawls were fashionable accessories, as were linen caps with lace frills for indoor wear, and large bonnets for outdoors. Capes with large collars were fashionable.
Very fashionable men sported low, tightly cinched waists, with rounded chests and flared frock-coats that gave them a rather hour-glass figure inspired by Prince Albert. They also wore tight trousers and waistcoats, with high upstanding collars and neckties tied around them. Hair was worn quite long, but swept to the sides. Moustaches and side-burns were popular.
Below are a selection of images of fashion from the 1840s. Click on an image to see a larger version.
Print, A.E. Chalon
Print, 'Mademoiselle Fleury / La jolie Fille de Gande'
Alfred Edward Chalon, R.A. (1780-1860, artist), Richard James Lane, A.R.A. (1800-72, lithographers), M. & N. Hanhart (printer), John Mitchell (publisher), Goupil & Vibert (publisher)
1 May 1844 (published)
Lithograph coloured by hand
Museum no. E.5010-1968
Given by Dame Marie Rambert
The print is unusual in showing a dancer of the 1840s in a fashionable dress rather than a ballet costume. Her dress is typical of the decade, with low sloping shoulders, a long and narrow pointed waist, and a voluminous bell-shaped skirt.
Bonnet, designer unknown
Cardboard, linen, silk, cotton, wire; hand sewn
Museum no. T.1039-1913
Given by Messrs Harrods
Covering one’s head was an essential aspect of etiquette in the 19th century. During the 1840s, women wore caps indoors and bonnets outdoors. The bonnet has wide brim sheltering the face, reflecting the heightened sense of propriety brought in when Queen Victoria ascended the throne in 1837.
Fashions in hats and headwear changed more quickly than other items of clothing. While a dress would be expected to last at least a decade, new styles of hats arrived annually. The latest fashion in bonnets usually featured the latest fabrics and trimmings, rather than a new shape. Most 19th-century women expected a new hat each year, even if it meant recovering an old one themselves. Personal accounts for this period show women buying new ribbons, laces, fabrics and trimmings to update their headwear.
Dress, designer unknown
Silk satin, trimmed with velvet ribbon, lined with linen and silk, hand-sewn
Museum no. T.169-1959
Given by Lady Lindsey
This dress is typical of women’s fashions from the mid-1840s. It has long tight sleeves, a high round neck, and a long pointed waistline. It is made of silk satin in a tartan pattern. Tartan fabrics were very fashionable in the 1840s, thanks partly to the continuing popularity of Walter Scott’s historical novels, set in Scotland. Queen Victoria (ruled 1837-1901) had just acquired a royal residence at Balmoral, Scotland, and set the fashion for all things Scottish.
Dress, designer unknown
Silk satin, lined with cotton, edged with brush braid, hand-sewn
Museum no. T.856-1919
Given by Mrs C. R. B. Eyre
By the end of the 1840s, the wide neckline had closed up to a high, round opening. The waist remained long and narrow, ending in a point below the waistline. This particular example is made of silk satin, striped in a complex arrangement of purple, crimson, magenta, grey and white. The sleeves are beginning to widen at the wrist into a slight bell shape. This dress was probably made in the mid-1840s and then altered about five years later to accommodate a change in style. The sleeves have had gores inserted at the wrist to bring them up to date with the new fashion.
Dress, designer unknown
Printed wool, lined with linen, hand-sewn
Museum no. T.849-1974
Given by Mrs Geoffrey Myers
The popularity of cashmere shawls reached its peak from the 1840s to the 1860s. Originally imported from India in the late 18th century, British manufacturers were making woven and printed versions by the early 19th century, based on the Indian designs. A key motif was the boteh or pine cone, what we know today as the paisley. This design was popular as a dress fabric. This example was printed by the company Swaislands of Crayford in Kent, and registered in the Patent Office between July 1845 and April 1847. The bodice of the dress has vertical slits fastened with buttons on either side of the centre front. This indicates that the owner wore it while nursing her children.
Ensemble, designer unknown
Ensemble (waistcoat with suit and top hat)
1845-55, and 1871
Jacquard-woven silk, covered buttons, lined with cotton and backed with scrim, foreparts lined with leather (waistcoat)
Museum no. T.10-1951(waistcoat); T.47-1947 (frock coat)
Waistcoat given by Miss W. Shaw
This is an excellent example of a double-breasted frock coat. The jacket, trousers and waistcoat that comprised the suit could be of one colour and were then known as 'dittos'. Alternatively, a contrasting waistcoat and trousers were often worn to add colour and variety to the outfit. This style continued until the 20th century and became identified as the city business man's suit of black coat, striped trousers and bowler hat (replacing the top hat).
Just visible over the collar of the frock coat is a bright waistcoat. In the 19th century waistcoats tended to be one of the more elaborate and colourful pieces of the male wardrobe, which is partly why they survive in relatively large numbers. They might also have been kept for their decorative quality or for sentimental reasons when they went out of fashion.
Floral designs such as this were fashionable in the 1840s and 1850s. In this example a delicate pattern of vine leaves and speedwell is jacquard-woven in blue and cream giving a variety of textural effects.
Dress, designer unknown
Silk satin, lined with cotton, reinforced with whalebone, and hand-sewn
Museum no. T.848&A-1974
Given by Mrs J. P. Friend Smith
This dress is characteristic of fashionable styles from the early 1840s. The neckline is wide with a deep collar or ‘bertha’. The long, tight sleeves are typical of the 1840s, while the short over-sleeves recall the elaborate sleeves of the 1830s. The waist is lengthened in front with a point both front and back. The elaborate applied decorations of the 1830s are now no longer fashionable. The satin of this dress is left quite plain, except for a braid edging on the collar.
Music sheet, J. Brandard
John Brandard (1812-63, designer); M. & R. Hanhart (printer); S. Chappell & Co. (publisher)
Colour lithograph, ink on paper
Museum no. E.2452-1914
This is a music sheet cover with a portrait of the young Queen Victoria, showing her in fashionable dress. Royalty led taste and fashion, and women followed the style set by the Queen. Her dress is off the shoulder, and her bodice is long and pointed at the front. The skirt is made with tiers and frills of lace. Her hair is parted in the centre and looped down over the ears.
The popularity of the young Queen Victoria coincided with a period when large numbers of illustrated music sheets were being published. There were therefore many with images of the Queen and, after her marriage in 1840, of Prince Albert, either as portraits or at particular events.
Opera boots, designer unknown
Black leather, with suede leg and silk bow, hand- and machine-sewn
Museum no. T.494&A-1913
Given by Messrs Harrods Ltd.
Opera boots were also known as 'Dress Wellingtons' and were often worn when going out to dinner, the theatre, opera and other social evening occasions. Although they were shaped like a boot, they would have resembled a dress shoe when worn under trousers.
Many opera boots had bows attached, and the uppers were often made of different textures of leather to give the appearance of a dress shoe worn over a stocking. Some even had silk stocking legs laid over the leather to give even more of a stocking-like effect.
'Dress Wellingtons' were named after Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington (1769-1852). Wellingtons first appeared at the time of the Napoleonic Wars, when the army became more socially visible and military costume influenced fashionable dress. Another boot with military links was the Blucher, a laced boot named after the Prussian General Gebhart von Blucher, who played a decisive role alongside Wellington in the Battle of Waterloo in 1815.
An anonymous cavalry officer described how this style of boot could be used as a substitute for shoes in his book The Whole Art of Dress (1830):
'This boot is invented, doubtless, for the mere purpose of saving trouble in dress; for without attending to silk stockings or the trouble of tying bows, you have merely to slip on the boots, and you are neatly equipped in a moment.'