1840S - 1860s: Limited Mobility-Limited Roles

As the nineteenth century progressed, western expansion, increased industrialization, and growing urbanization incrementally altered families’ working life. Men increasingly departed home for work, leaving middle-class women at home to run the household and raise the children. At the same time, political life had expanded for men. After the American Revolution, many new states required white men to own property to vote. By 1840, voting rights in America had extended to 90% of white males over 21 years old. Middle-class women were increasingly isolated as they were left behind physically and politically.

As industrialization expanded, women were increasingly encouraged to focus on the home as the idea of a separate women’s sphere became ingrained in society via its literature, namely sermons, novels, advice books and poems published in magazines. A very small minority began pushing back by calling for women’s rights to vote, but they were far from the mainstream. Others stepped out of the home to participate in hierarchically structured, socially sanctioned, church-based reform movements. Working class women often had to work outside the home as laundresses, servants, and similar domestic roles.

Women’s fashionable dresses reflected their increasingly constrained, yet morally elevated status in society. In the 1840s dress armscyes (arm holes) were set low, limiting a woman’s ability to raise her arms. While women had long worn various forms of “stays,” overly long, tight corsets of this period crushed the bust and restricted breath and movement. At the same time, dresses became longer and wider, supported by numerous and often heavy petticoats further restricting mobility. On one level, fashionable dresses marked not only refined sensibilities, but class status. Dresses such as these indicated the wearer was ornamental and not intended to work. In fact, one of the purposes of these dresses, especially those in the finest fabrics, was to demonstrate that one employed servants because physical work was difficult in such a dress.

The notion of separate spheres only applied to middle and upper class women. Married women only worked outside the home out of financial necessity and were considered vulgar for doing so. Even so, dresses of working and rural women usually followed the same basic lines as fashionable dress.

Fashion news spread through the country with the onset of Lady’s Book in 1830. Changing its name to Godey’s Lady’s Book in 1840, they later published dress patterns, but crafty women had to scale the patterns to fit. Dresses were mostly hand-sewn up until the Civil War, when sewing machines began to make their way into American homes. Affluent women wishing for complicated dresses hired dressmakers to come to their homes, where they sometimes roomed, while they made dresses for the family.

The hardships of the Civil War did not obviously alter women’s fashion in the 1860s. Fashion magazines continued to show the latest fashions from Paris. The Civil War sparked both intense industrialization and expanded farming to meet the needs of the armies. With this economic growth came great prosperity for many Northern families. While soldiers’ wives from financially struggling circumstances experienced increased hardships, women from affluent Northern families were able to continue to follow the fashions.

Dresses between 1840 and the 1860s changed less in form and more in details. The shape of the skirt changed over time. The most notable change came in 1856 with the invention of the cage crinoline, or hoop skirt. Prior to that time, women used layers of petticoats stiffened with horse hair or cording to achieve a greater width. These skirt layers were heavy, caused back pain, and made moving difficult. The caged crinoline was created first with whale bone and later with metal hoops suspended by a fabric tape. It allowed dresses to be increasingly wide without the weight.

Industrialization enabled hoop skirts to be widely affordable. Upper class women were disdained to see the lower classes adopt the new dress forms so readily. Even as women from working class families and rural areas wore the fashionable lines, they often adapted the garments with less expensive fabrics and looser lines to allow more freedom of movement. In doing so, however, it marked them as among the working classes. Even so, their dresses followed the basic style lines and silhouette of the period.