I remember my first ever 1860’s gown that I made. I was about 17, had my parents 1970’s Singer sewing machine on a TV tray in my room, and a .99 costume pattern. I purchased 8 yards of what I thought was the most Laura Ingalls Wilder looking blue calico (back when you could get a printed cotton from Joann Fabrics for under $4 a yard) and went to town cutting and sewing. I was very proud of this gown although commercial sewing pattern instructions are ridiculously confusing (even to me now) and were not all that accurate. But it didn’t matter. I loved it and it loved me and I rocked that v- neck…..cue that sound of a record screeching to a halt. Yes, a v-neck. Which I wore with nothing underneath (I know, I know)….but I didn’t know any better. And guess what, that’s ok! I later realized that a v-neck wasn’t exactly the norm (at least without a chemisette) and moved onto the next project.
If you are anything like me and want to continually improve your knowledge and skill, you may also have realized the value in having some background on the types of historical gowns you wish to create. This is helpful not only in creating an accurate look, but also when trying to find the right sewing pattern/company. One of the best places to start to see if something is accurate, and what decade the pattern is from, is the neckline. Necklines really help guide a person in creating an historically accurate gown. This can also be said for sleeves, although for this post we will stick with necklines. So today, I have created visual boards for the various types of necklines one might use for fashions of the 1800’s-1860’s. Side note – just like all things, there are always exceptions to the rules. Other necklines may and probably were worn then shown here. However, these are the most common necklines one will see from each time period.
This is the only time period where I put two decades together as the overall style and look didn’t change as rapidly as the following decades. Gowns of the Regency Era were, comparatively, simple and flowy. Majority of gowns featured a flowy, close to the body design, high waist, with a scoop neck. These necklines would have been filled in with either a chemisette or a neckerchief for daytime wear. While necklines that went up to the collarbone were also common, they were not as much of a “hallmark” of the era as the scoop neck. I included the fashion plate of the green gown for its v-neck style. The v-neck, though not as common, will show up through out the decade in various depths and shapes. I personally have created several v-neck gowns for Regency events and find it to be a very flattering style.
The 1820’s are truly a blend of the remainder of the Regency influence with a dash of the wild 30’s about to come. Waistlines have moved down, skirts have widen (and begun to shorten) to a bell shape, and sleeves have widen. The neckline, however, is rather varied through out the decade with styles ranging from scoop, high, to deep v-neck. Again, either a chemisette, lace mantle, or neckerchief would have been worn with any day time neckline that went below the collarbone. Gown #4 shows a strong sense of Regency compared to gowns #2 and #3 from the end of the decade.
Ahhh the 1830’s. You either love it or you don’t. I fall into the category of the latter. Very similar to the end of the 20’s, these gowns have pretty much gone down to two major neckline styles. A wide boatneck and a high neckline. However, notice the drooping style the whole bodice gives the figure. This was because women wished to have their shoulders resemble the top of a champagne bottle and as such the sloping, droopy look was in. General notes of the fashion for the decade show a natural waistline, widening skirts, and an eventual return of the hem to the floor. And oh yeah, those sleeves are epic!
The further we get into the 19th century, the neckline begins to become more predictable. Higher for daytime and scoop-necked for evening. While many gowns (those meant for warmer weather) still had a wide-scoop, boat neck style , these were still often filled in with chemisettes or neckerchiefs for modesty. The waistline begins to elongate below the natural waist line as the ideal profile was one of perceived length. A longer face (Spaniel loop hairstyles), longer bodice, and a longer leg appearance. Skirts continue to widen with bodices featuring smocked and pleated details with narrow sleeves.
A strong indicator of fashion for the next 15 years, the 1850’s highlight gowns with full circle skirts. The waistline has moved back up to its natural place and the neckline (much like the previous decade) is either high, scooped, or with the return of a slight v-neck. While the 1850’s and 1860’s are very similar in style, there are a few hallmark differences to help one out. Skirts are fully round, often tiered, and the shoulder lines are very sloped and extended. The neckline, while a great indicator, is not enough for this decade to be definitive. Use the other options listed to help decide.
With the help of the newly patented caged crinoline, the skirts of the 1860’s reach their widest point. Skirts begin to become more elliptical in shape with no tiered portions added. The neckline features just a few small differences. A more v-neck shape to the evening gowns as well as for the day gowns can be found, which will be a future hallmark of the dinner gown of the 1870s. Bodices became tighter to the person, and skirts become more elaborate in trim and detail the closer to the end of the decade. The one nice thing about the 1850’s and on are the wide availability of photographs to see women of all social classes. This will be helpful if you are trying to recreate a specific type of gown/class with a certain neckline. The earlier decades with paintings and drawings being more prevalent, tend to feature those who could afford to sit for a painting.
While there are still four more decades one could look at, these first six tend to be the most common ones which living historians recreate. Changes between the decades came sometimes fast and sometimes slow, with necklines bobbing up and down accordingly. While you could probably get away with almost any style neckline, I would recommend trying to stick to the most common as you begin to grow your knowledge and skill of historical sewing and living history.
I hope this more in-depth look has been helpful. Let me know if you would like to see the last four decades!