Serial costume history 1 (1850-1900)

The second half of the 19th century was the beginning of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy period and the late Victorian era. This was the time of the American civil war, the colonisation rivalry and the second industrial revolution. The time of grandiose dress creations: the ladies’ spectacular appearance has been still recalling the typical nostalgia for the period. On the other hand, gentlemen’s costumes did not really differ from formal attires of today’s men. With the portrait photos of our database, we are going to show what kind of clothes they wore during these decades.

The 1850s and ‘60s were also called the second rococo in the history of fashion. The crinoline was typical, but it was not a novelty then, although it was wider than ever before. It consisted of starched petticoats and a braced wire hoop. The skirt was long, sometimes completed with a train – and the ankles should not have been seen by anyone. The corset and the nipped-in waist belonged to the attire as well.


Trendy women of the period could not get dressed alone. Nevertheless, only upper-class women could afford this type of pompous robing, because these ruffle dress creations required a huge pile of material. Not to mention that an elegant woman had her clothes made out of silk that was a luxury good. It was her age that counted when selecting colours. Young girls appeared in pastel shades, young wives wore lively colours and elderly women wore darker tones.


By the 1870s and ‘80s, the skirt fashion changed: bell-shaped crinolines transformed into bustle skirts. The bustle was also based on a metal frame padded by cushions that expanded the fullness of the back of a dress. Sitting and even walking was rather uncomfortable for the ladies wearing it.

The actual overgarment depended on several factors: the weather, the time of the day (morning or afternoon), activities (promenade), and important events (a visit, a horserace, a theatre plays or an opera) also defined it. Girls who felt cold put shawls on the shoulder – in lack of sweaters and cardigans. There was also a special bodice-like top tied across the chest, which was ‘designed’ for the crinoline, called sontag or bosom friend.


Accessories like jewels had a very important role naturally, but fans, parasols, gloves and hats were also useful and aesthetic tools. The ball gown was a separate genre with very expensive fabrics, luxurious decorations and immodest decolletes. Everyone had to show his or her most beautiful sides, because the balls were the main scenes of courting. It was unpleasant to wear the same gown twice at the balls; they had to retailor the dresses somehow in order to reuse them.

What did they wear under the decorated clothes? A comfortable chemise and an uncomfortable corset. There are a lot of terrifying stories on the corset about how they caused women’s death directly or indirectly. It was very fashionable until the beginning of the 20th century: for women sought to achieve as slender wasp waists as possible. Nevertheless, the first feminist movement swept corsets out of women’s wardrobes – so did the movement of the 1960s with the bras.


Men’s attires were not as spectacular and extravagant – looked by today’s eyes – as women’s dresses were. Compared to earlier periods, men’s wear became simpler in cutting and colours as well. It consisted of a shirt with a stiff collar, a waistcoat, a jacket or a tailcoat and straight leg trousers. These are not much different from men’s formal clothes worn nowadays. Except for the top hat, which is only an accessory of the steampunk style today. Men also wore gloves and held a cane or a walking stick. The trimming decoration called frog or scroll was a Hungarian feature, and spread on men’s pelisses and trousers as of the 17th century.


If the photo gallery of the exposition made you feel like admiring more period dresses, you can select among a number of films. For example, film adaptations of realist novels (versions of Anna Karenina), period films about Sissi’s or Queen Victoria’s lives (Romy Schneider’s Sissi films), stories laid during the American civil war (Gone With the Wind), or the adaptations of Hungarian writer Mór Jókai’s novels (Sons of the Stone-Hearted Man).


Translated by Zita Aknai


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