If asked to draw a sketch of the American or European woman of fashion at the beginning of the 1820s, most of us would think of the recent Jane Austen movies and draw a woman whose lithe figure resembled an exclamation point clad in a simple high-waisted dress of thin muslin with short puffed sleeves. If asked to draw the silhouette of a woman of the latter half of the 1840s, the sketch would resemble a dinner bell. The fashions of the transitory period 1825 to 1840 are often very vague in the mind's eye. That fifteen year period is perhaps the least studied era of Western women's clothing of the last three hundred years. Although largely overlooked, however, important styles came and went within that period and changes occurred which effected fashion for decades.
The 18teens was a time of great freedom for women freedom in speech and in manners and in movement. Society as a whole was less restrictive in the early 1820s than it was to be for another one hundred years. Perhaps the natural reaction to those years of freedom was a pendulum swing in the opposite direction. By the mid 1820s the Ideal of Womanhood had begun. Women were told from all quarters that their job was to stay close to the home and shape the world only through their calm and morally pure influences on the men in their domestic circle. Men were to protect women from a world thought to have grown harsher with the advances of technology.
Part of the schooling of women to their new role came through the trends in fashion. British fashion historian C. Willett Cunnington wrote in the 1950s that the 1820s was when costume began to develop the expression of class distinctions and the age of the genteel had begun in grim earnest...From the beginning of this period for nearly a century, petticoats and prudery combined as a gigantic force.
THE RETURN OF THE NATURAL WAIST:
The most noticeable change in fashions at the beginning of this period was the dropping of the waistline of women's clothing to the position of a woman's natural waist. The high waisted dresses of the early 1820s had hid stomachs but with the natural waistline, corset use began in earnest. Women laced themselves tighter and tighter as this fifteen-year period progressed and the criticisms about tight lacing were not to be heard until well after 1840. In fact, in the 1830s lacing was sometimes linked to moral ideas of the period as lacing was thought to be a tangible way of teaching a woman moral restraint and seriousness.
A few jacket bodices were separate garments from the skirts, but most bodices had the skirt attached in gathers. Bodices themselves often showed gathers as the top layer, but the under construction was generally tightly fit to the body. Bodice gathers and decorations emphasized a V look and as the period progressed the base of the V dipped to slightly under the waist in a fashion that was termed ala Marie Stuart. Period fashion magazines hailed the late 1820s as a revival period and such names were popular. Another example of revival naming is that a scalloped edge at the base of the bodice, or scallops on the collar edge or skirt bottom were called ala Van Dyke.
The thin muslin favored in the 18teens lingered into the beginning of this fifteen-year period, but when muslin was used after 1825 it was used in greater quantities per dress. Before 1825 there was gossip that European society women in thin muslin dresses would douse themselves with so much water that the garments which clung to them seemed almost nonexistent. Even if a woman in a muslin dress of 1825 had considered dousing herself with water to make the garment cling, the voluminous folds would still have modestly concealed her bodily charms.
Not only was muslin adopted to the new cuts but it was also trimmed and accessorized quite differently than it had been earlier. An 1828 letter describing the wedding of a woman from a wealthy North Carolina family includes this description of attire: The bride and bridesmaid were dressed in swiss muslin trimmed with white satin, and handsome turbans on their heads. 
Despite the wide use of muslin in the early part of this transitory period throughout this fifteen-year period, there was a trend toward heavier material. In August of 1826, fashionable British belles Jane Hogg and Jane Milner sent an Indian muslin dress to their cousins in America as they had no use for it any longer.
Even more interestingly, the belles also sent a silk gown about fifty years old and advised their cousins to remake it.  For the first time since the 1780s, the heavily figured silks were popular and many c. 1825-1840 garments are made of earlier fabrics which bear testimony to having been remade from an earlier gown. In 1825 white was the favored color for evening dresses with cream and yellow gaining in popularity by 1830. Colors and figured materials grew more popular in this period. White dresses survive in the largest numbers both because the lack of dye helped preserve the fabric and because white material was less likely to be reused later in the century.
Muslin, gauze over satin and rich silk fabrics were always favored for evenings and used whenever economically possible but even among well-to-do Americans homespun was popular day wear. In July of 1828, Mira Lenoir a woman from a very wealthy North Carolina family wrote to her niece Julia Pickens offering her a homespun dress. Let me know how you like Louisa's, and if you had rather have yours some other stripe, and whether you want it checked and all about it. 
The majority of the day dresses which survive from 1825-1840 are those made of fairly heavy cotton. Medium to heavy weight cotton has withstood the test of time better than has the thinner cottons and silks. Figured calico was extremely popular and from the fabric samples which survive and the descriptions in period letters we know the designs were innovative. A letter written in Virginia in April of 1832 contains this description, I got beautiful calico figured doves' breast with black flowers one of the prettiest calicoes I ever saw. 
Many of the dresses of the best quality fabrics were destroyed when the fabric was reused a few years later. Miraculously, moths have left us some dresses of wool which first began to be used for womens' clothes in the late 1820s and was one of the most lasting innovations of this period.
April 1827...Anna C is here, she says the dresses are full all around the skirt...Anna says the only trimmings worn are large tucks and broad hems, two are silk one satin rouleau at the bottom it is a convenient fashion...  Throughout the years, 1825 to 1840 the skirt continued to widen. The skirt hem did not touch the floor until 1835 and for the ten years preceding that there was great attention to the bottom edge of the skirt. Decorations and trims such as the padded rouleau mentioned above were often stiffened to help hold out the ever widening skirt. Applied stuffed cords of decorative silks acted almost like hoops on the outsides of the skirts. Small bustle pads tied on with tapes were in use by the mid 1830s to help hold out the upper part of the skirt as well. When the hems sank to the floor in the mid 1830s and the decorations on the bottom edges were less popular, women wore numerous petticoats to hold out the skirts. Petticoats were stiffened and it was common to wear three. Six petticoats worn at a time were not unusual. Flannel was the favored fabric for the material closest to the skin with the layers of stiffened petticoats following. Stiff horse hair underskirts were first sold in 1840. No wonder the whale bone hoops of 1856 were hailed as an improvement, freeing women from all that fabric weight!
SLEEVES AND COLLARS:
Perhaps the most obvious features of the period were the sleeves. The Placement of the Puff would be a good title for this section. At various times, from 1825-1840 the sleeves were puffed at the top with a tapering lower sleeve, puffed in a huge billow from shoulder to elbow, puffed only at the elbow, puffed from shoulder to wrist in a tapering billow, and puffed in suspension from a dropped shoulder. This dropped shoulder turned into a full epaulette collar or jockeis around 1839 and this fullness took the place of the puffed sleeve which was not seen again in such proportions until the 1890s.
As may be guessed, new terms were coined for each sleeve innovation. (Yes, period detractors really did use the term imbecile sleeves and gentlemen's' magazines showed drawings of women turned sideways to go through doors.) The sleeves which were very wide at the shoulder and tapered gradually to the wrist were called the gigot sleeves and required their own set of underpinnings. A strip of gathered glazed cotton with whalebone at the edge usually held out the sleeves although stuffed pads and even hoops on the arms were occasionally used. Costume historian Nancy Bradfield dates the gigot sleeve being in use from about 1824 to about 1836.
The Victoria sleeve was actually not much favored by Queen Victoria who knew her build was not enhanced by tight shoulder and wrist fittings with volume in the mid sleeve section. No matter where the puff was placed armholes were small and high, so despite the volumes of material used arm movement was restricted.
As a balance to the large puffed sleeves, collars were also enormous at various times from 1825 to 1840. The pelerine en ailes d'oiseau collar covered the sleeves like a bird's outstretched wing. Sometimes the collars were split at the top of each sleeve and often there were two layers of a collar. The bertha whose name and look are still familiar became popular near the end of the period. Lace and embroidered collars were widely made and worn.
Of course bonnets, gloves and parasols were the staples of a woman's accessory wardrobe in the period 1825-1840, but sashes, ribbons and bows were at the peak of their popularity. As it may be guessed, it was difficult to find a coat to go over those gigantic sleeves so shawls, mantles and stoles were popular wraps for day and evening wear. Shoes were sensible in shape and fragile in construction. They tended to be flat heeled with a wide square toe area.
THE ROMANTIC ERA?
Some costume historians call the transition period of 1825 to 1840 the Romantic Era. They justify the term as there is a crossover in dates with the era of the romantic novel and the romantic poets. Also, the excessive use of ribbons and bows is seen as highly feminine. Other historians see the changes in fashion which began around 1825 as the beginning of the modern dark ages for Western women since after the respite of the 18teens womens clothes again became confining and some styles were injurious to the health. Corsets restricted the development and functioning of internal organs and prohibited deep breathing. The placement and structure of the sleeves barred many arm movements. The weight of the numerous petticoats discouraged much exercise. The total wants of fabric over the neck and an upper chest exposed women to the cold. The complicated and frequently changing styles meant that most women spent vast amounts of time on clothing preparation. About such hours spent sewing early twentieth century novelist Elizabeth von Arnim wrote I believe all needlework and dressmaking is of the devil, designed to keep women from study. For many women alive in 1825 to 1840, however, the changing clothing styles were a delight and period diary and letter references indicate that most women enjoyed the challenge of each season's innovations. If our ancestors were slaves to the styles of their times, at least they were happily ignorant of their servitude.
The dresses shown are on exhibit at Kent State University Museum, Kent, Ohio, USA.
1. Laura Leah Lenoir to Julia Pickens from Hickerson, Thomas ECHOES OF HAPPY VALLEY, published by the author in 1962.
2. ECHOES OF HAPPY VALLEY, op.cit.
3. ECHOES OF HAPPY VALLEY, op.cit.
4. Eleanor Parke Custis Lewis, granddaughter of Martha Washington, to a married daughter who was living in an isolated part of lower Louisiana. Letter in the collection of Woodlawn Plantation, a property of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
5. Woodlawn collection, op. cit.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Heather Palmer, has served as the Curator of three historic house museums and was also the Historian of Blair House, the President's Guest House. She lectures at colleges and publishes articles in the fields of 18th and 19th century women's lives, clothing and needlework, and in the area of material culture. She does free-lance editorial work and writing.