What I’ve Learned About the 1830s in 2.75 Days

Dress, c. 1835 – FIDM

Though I have less and less time to devote to making historical costumes these days (ironically, but such is running two footwear companies), I still love a good dive down a rabbit hole. This weekend past was spent pouring over any and all 1830s references on my bookcase (and some from Abby’s library as well) in an effort to begin forming an idea of this new period of interest.

Spending so long in the 18th century has raised the bar for me, in terms of costume research, context, and construction. Gone are the days of throwing together something vaguely resembling an inspiring photo in the Kyoto Costume Institute book for a ball at the weekend. Now I want to know all I can about the material culture, current events, regional happenings, favored textiles, their manufacture, dress construction and by whom, and on and on. Context adds a richness to making and wearing the garment that I really enjoy to where I can no longer do without it…like Starbucks.

Dress, 1831-35, Cora Ginsburg

This weekend I learned so many things that will come into play as I consider, compile, cut, and construct my 1830s costume.

The insane silhouette we most associate with the 1830s was actually in fashion for quite a short time. The very end of the 1820s saw the ballooning of the gigot sleeves, which then deflated just a few years later by the middle of the 1830s. I’m tickled by this because we see its like throughout history. What outlandish fashions can you think of that have come to represent an entire period or decade?

The gigot sleeves were not all there was to the early 1830s silhouette, though. I see a combination of shapes that add up to a whole with a very particular effect. In my opinion women were, by these fashions, made to look like dolls. I am reminded of the Russian nesting dolls I had as a child – big round heads, sloping shoulders and full busts, and a dome-shaped skirt ending quite at or above the ankle. The effect is diminutive no matter the height of the woman. I can see that skipping just one elements of this ensemble will throw off the look entirely. Go big or go home!

A typical fashion print, c. 1830-35

That being said, these elements are:

  • A bodice cut wide across the shoulders and neckline.
  • Utterly enormous sleeves tapering and well-fitted from elbow to wrist.
  • A sloping pelerine, canezou, capelet, or falling collar. The slope and breadth over the shoulders is key, and the opportunities for fluff here are enticing.
  • A narrow waist with a straight-cut waistline and a wide belt.
  • A full, dome-shaped skirt, ankle-length.
  • A very large, very round hat or bonnet stacked with trimmings

Round round round. Everything is round and soft and sloped. So desirable was the roundness of form that the profile altogether was obscured by broad-brimmed bonnets in favor of a perfectly oval face. The only thing that isn’t round seems to be the shoes, with their sharply squared toes (lol.)

Dargate Swatch Book, c. 1830. My gown will be made out of approximately zero of these fabrics, but it’s incredible to see the variety available. Thanks, roller printing!

Additionally, cotton was king in the 1830s. Advancements in milling and textile printing technologies in the late 18th century, along with the slave-driven production of raw cotton lead to a boom in cotton production in the Northwest of England. Cotton was cheap, washable, could be brightly colored and patterned, and became the favored fabric for everything from underpinnings to gown linings to gowns themselves. While I personally plan to still use linen for my shift, I have some polished cotton ready to line whatever loud-and-proud cotton print I use for the fashion fabric of my gown.

Speaking of underpinnings, the only thing I get to carry over is my late 18th century shift. Though there were other designs popping up by the 1830s, the basic shift was still well in use. Hooray for that – at least I have one piece already! As for the rest, I need:

  • Stays/Corset – I’ve found reference to both terms being used. India rubber elastic was also being used in stays but I’m not sure how – references indicate use for straps.
  • Split drawers
  • Corded petticoat, starched to eternity.
  • Bustle – appears to be stacks of ruffles, maybe horsehair, worn over the corded petticoat.
  • Possibly/probably one other petticoat, maybe flounced.
  • Sleeve puffs – these are optional, but I want!
1830s Underpinnings – FIDM

Of course, I loathe…LOATHE…making underwear, especially an entire new set from a new period. So imagine my glee when I found the major pieces for sale on Etsy all at reasonable prices. I got a corded petticoat from HandStitchesInTime and a corset and sleeve pads from WorkshopKarinaFienn. Cheating? Maybe. Caring? No. I want to hurry up get to the tasty bits of making the gown and millinery! I have so little time as it is!

Okay, so that wasn’t *everything* I learned this past weekend, but it was rather a lot. The plan is forming and I’m getting inspired and excited. Yay!

For those wishing to add to your libraries concerning the 1830s, here is my book list:


  • Jean

    November 1, 2017 at 10:14 PM

    Another great visual reference (with primary source material) is "Sophie Du Pont – A Young Lady in America" (sketches, diaries & letters 1823-1833)by Betty Bright Low and Jacqueline Hinsley.

  • DLM

    November 3, 2017 at 12:29 PM

    The swatches are fascinating because they are so bright. There's a general impression that we invented brights in the mid 20th century, but of course aniline dyes produced eye-popping textiles starting 100 years before that. And these predate even the synthetic dyes, but remain so vivid – both in pattern and in color.

    Many of the swatches remind me of what we in my family call "granny fabrics." My grandmother worked in a textile mill, and in the 1960s/70s production included veritably eye-watering patterns and colors. Not to everybody's taste, and extremely of-the-time, but I adore the boldness. (Sarah, I'd be curious to look at your work if you have a site online …)

  • Black Tulip

    November 6, 2017 at 9:43 PM

    Fascinating post – it's always interesting to see research on a period 'from the beginning'.

    (Slightly embarrassed about just how many of those books I already have!)

  • Kara

    November 13, 2017 at 11:57 AM

    Very fascinating! I love hearing about how others do their research, as I am just leaving the "something vaguely resembling an inspiring photo in the Kyoto Costume Institute book"-stage myself. And I only own half the books on your list! Shopping must happen :p

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