Jessamyn's Regency Costume Companion: ca. 1840 gown




updated March 8, 2005

updated March 8, 2005

updated May 10, 2005!

updated April 21, 2005

Planning: Researching "The Look."

Although my husband's hospital stay has prevented me from sewing much lately, it has not prevented me from thinking about sewing! And what better distraction than to plan a new costume?

I mentioned in the diary of my circa-1882 gown that I volunteer at a local historic house. There is a new event coming up in May for which I will need to be costumed; and as it is an indoor-outdoor daytime heritage event focusing on the Revolutionary War through Civil War eras, the late-nineteenth-century silk dinner gown I made for Christmas house tours will be completely inappropriate.

The house was built in about 1840, and I thought it would be interesting to make a cotton dress of this period. There are a few loaner cotton dresses owned by the house, but as they are all either reasonably accurate but too early - 1830s - or only fair Civil War reproductions, and none of them fit me too well, my enthusiasm for them is limited. Also, I may be filmed for local commercials touting the event, so by golly, if I'm going to have my fifteen minutes of fame, I want to be well-dressed!

It would probably be easier to do a Civil War era gown, as there are heaps of information on them, but I think it would be more appropriate to match the opening date of the house - and I always like to figure things out for myself, anyway. The research has been very interesting.

The years before and after 1840 were very transitional ones for fashion. The 1830s were an era of extremes, as sleeves and skirts ballooned rapidly outward (click on 1832 plate below left). These silly sleeves (which were actually referred to in period as "imbecile sleeves") were so awkward they could not survive, and after reaching their greatest size in 1835 they began to be pinched in in various ways. Most were narrowed at the bottom of the arm into a version of the "leg o' mutton" sleeve, or pleated in at the top of the upper arm, or even both, resulting in just a huge bulge around the elbow; other experiments were also tried, as you can see in the fashion plate of 1836 (below right).

In the 1837-39 years a standardized version emerged, with the pleats at the top taking precedence and in fact moving further down toward the elbow and getting embellished with little rows of frills or ruching, while the cuff at the bottom stayed fairly small (see 1838 plate below).

Suddenly, in 1840, a new, narrow sleeve was introduced (see 1840 plate, below left). This was the sleeve that was to predominate its decade. Fortunately for me, however, since I heartily dislike a long, fitted, tight sleeve and find that besides being uncomfortable it looks wrinkled and dreadful in a short time, the other style of sleeve clung to life until 1842 at least (below right, from Godey's). This was especially true in the United States; American fashion plates were usually copied from European ones, often as much as a year out of date. And a denizen of then-remote Asheville, North Carolina, would hardly have been decked out in the latest thing - even someone wealthy enough to build the fine two-story brick mansion that is Smith-McDowell House. So I think a look from the 1838-39 fashion plates is probably more appropriate for my imaginary 1840 self.

Two other major changes were effected in dress styles over this period. One was that skirts expanded in every direction: not only did they get noticeably longer, from exposing the ankle in the early 1830s to brushing the ground by 1840, but they got fuller, with a general move from large flat pleats to fine gauging. This eats up a lot of fabric, and I'm going to have to make a veritable pile of variegated petticoats to get my skirt the right shape.

The second change was more subtle and far-reaching. Corsets had been fairly wearable corded-cotton affairs since the Regency, simply developing more gussets as the hourglass shape gained importance, but now they began to become longer and more rigid, and with them went dress bodices. The typical 1830s dress bodice has a strong horizontal line, from the wide belt at the natural waistline to the broad, open neckline. The typical 1840s dress bodice is all about a V-shape, tightly fitted to the corset beneath it, with a steep dip at the center of the waist and a tightened-up V-neckline.

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Copyright 2005 by David and Jessamyn Reeves-Brown. All rights reserved.