The Romantic Era
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The Romantic Era: 1820-1850

Key Terms:


gigot sleeve
basque waists
Gilet corsage


Lord Byron
Romantic writer Lord Byron

Joun Keata
Romantic writer John Keats
Brief historical overview:

The Romantic period derives its name from Romanticism- a term used to describe a movement in art, literature, and music that valued freedom of expression. Romanticism began in England and spread throughout Europe and the United States. Romanticism was a rebellion against the current classical rules governing creative work. Followers of the Romantic ideal believed the innermost emotions should be expressed, art should please the senses, and imagination was more important than reason. Romantics also had a deep connection with the past and often revisited historical tales in their art, writing, and music.

The Romantic ideology connected with the American people and had a significant influence on popular culture. American romantics had an innate love for goodness, truth, and beauty and believed these were qualities all individuals were capable of possessing. The revolution in printing technology along with increased literacy amongst the American population gave rise to famous Romantic writers like Lord Byron, Keats, Emerson, and  Thoreau.

The Romantic heroine was innocent and virtuous. She was known to faint easily as a result of inner spiritual turmoil. In England, followers of Romanticism rejected social conventions like marriage. Prior to this period, marriages were arranged social contracts drawn to protect property and maintain social status. But thanks to the influence of Romantic ideology, love now became a mandatory requirement for marriages.

Marriages became more egalitarian. In America, Romanticism sustained the idea that a woman's place was in the home. Prior to this period, women were treated more like servants than wives. Women now had the opportunity to engage in leisure activities and form friendships with other women. Child rearing became an important part of a woman's life. Emphasis on the "child- centered family" emerged. The education of children became a priority. The ideal wife and mother was an "angel of the household." She was virtuous, wholesome, and genteel. She loved her husband and her children and cared about everyone she came in contact with.

Domestic Happiness by Spencer
Domestic Happiness
Lilly Martin Spencer 
c. 1849
(Image courtesy of The Detroit Institute of Arts)
1820 American corset
American corset (c.1820)
The Kyoto Costume Institute
Women's Clothing:

The years 1820-1825 served as a transition period between the former Empire style and the new Romantic style.
During this period, the waistline was dropping and skirts became fuller.  Skirts were typically gored- or cut in an A-shape with the narrowest part of the skirt being placed at the top and the fullest part of the skirt at the bottom.
Dresses with ornamentation were favored- especially at the hemlines and sleeves. The influences of Romanticism brought forth fashion trends from the past- such as neck ruffs, slashing (the process of cutting away fabric to reveal what is beneath), and a variety of medieval sleeve styles. Romantic era day dresses were not trained.
Romantic Era gown        Marie Sleeves
Two dresses, both c. 1820, showing the influences of Romanticism on fashion
(left) example of slashing in gown bodice and (right) the medieval inspired Marie sleeve
(L-Image courtesy The Kyoto Costume Institute) (R-Image courtesy The V&A)

Fischu style Pelerine over Gigot sleeve day dress (c.1830 ) Memorial Hall Museum

Romantic Day Dress with demi-gigot sleeves
(c. 1830) Kent State Museum

1830s Mantelet Fashion plate

By the 1830s, the gored skirt was replaced by a fuller paneled skirt and small pleats or gathers were used to draw the fullness in at the waistband. The preference for untrimmed gowns returned and hemlines were typically ankle length (and sometimes slightly shorter).

Sleeve styles in the 1830s were diverse- but typically always very large. The gigot sleeve (later referred to as the leg-o-mutton sleeve) consisted of a large puffed sleeve at the shoulder that tapered down to a narrow, close fitting cuff at the wrist. This style along with the demi-gigot sleeve was very popular. Many bodices had V-shaped necklines and were worn with variety of chemisettes and large white collars, or pelerines, became a popular accessory.

With the return of the emphasis on the small waistline, stays and petticoats once again became a necessity. Romantic era stays were typically very lightly boned or corded, laced up the back, and had a solid wood (or sometimes ivory) busk down the center front (see image at left).  Multiple layers of petticoats were worn to support the fullness of the skirt panels and a small bustle pad (also known as a skirt improver) was worn at the base of the waist.

Romantic period stays, petticoat, and sleeve supporters (c. 1830s )
The Metropolitan Museum of Art

During this period, cotton was still the preferential dress fabric. By 1825, border printed cotton was available and advancements in textile coloration made available in the United States colors such as yellow, orange, brown, and  variety of blues.

When venturing out of doors, the mantle, or mantelet, was the most popular article of clothing. Wide-brimmed bonnets with high crowns were worn also.

Dresses for evening wear were of the same silhouette as the day dress, but necklines were lowered and off-the-shoulder, the chemisette was abandoned, and sleeves and skirts shortened. Finer fabrics such as silk or gauze was used for evening gowns accompanied by a more luxurious mantle or mantelets than worn for day wear. Hair ornaments and ribbons adorned elaborate hairstyles.

By 1837, the Romantic silhouette became a bit less flamboyant. The fullness of the 1830s sleeve moved further down the arm. Hemlines lengthened and sleeves became narrower. The waistline returned to it natural position and rounded and pointed front bodices became prominent.

The transition of the Romantic gown from the 1830s silhouette (back)
to the 1837 silhouette (front) The Museum of Costume

Two early Victorian summer gowns (c.1840-1845).
The Manchester Gallery of Costume

Evening gown (c. 1840) of brocade silk and wool.
New Brunswick Museum

By 1841, the whalebone corset was a necessity-  serving as both a foundation to support the outer layers as a measure of internal female decency. Clothing of late Romantic period called for a narrower sleeve that fit low on the shoulder. These close fitting sleeves coupled with the low shoulder seam kept women from lifting their arms much above their heads. Detachable undersleeves- or rectangular pieces of cloth with a cuffed end- were sewn into the sleeve and could be removed for regular laundering.

By the mid 1840s, the shape of the skirt took on a bell shape and stiff crinolines along with multiple layers of petticoats became necessary to aid in lifting the circumference of the skirt. Double flounced skirts became quite popular. Bodices of the late Romantic period typically had basque waists (or elongated waistlines which ended in a point at the front). Necklines were round, V-shaped, and wide for both day and evening wear.  Oftentimes interchangeable chemisettes and collars were worn during the day (see left).

Gowns of the late Romantic period were often made in one piece (the bodice attached to the skirt) but jacket and skirt combinations were also popular. The Gilet corsage was a French term for a woman's jacket made in the style of a man's waistcoat.

1840s era fashion plate
1845 American fashion plate showing a variety of late Romantic dress styles-
including the jacket and skirt combination
The New York Public Library

For reproduction Romantic Era Women's clothing, please click here.

Boy's tunic
-young boy in his tunic suit-
Mother and Child

by Thomas Sully
c. 1840
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Children's Clothing:

Thanks to continued emphasis placed on the freedoms associated with childhood, like the period prior, both young boys and girls up to the ages of four or five were dressed in loose fitting muslin gowns with pantalets. The only gender difference was the lack of lace and ornamentation on boy's gowns.

By 1830, girls' dresses after the age of six were composed of full skirts and fitted bodices with large gigot sleeves. Girls' attire mimicked that of their mothers' with the exception of the pantalets. These were still visible just below the hemlines of their skirts.

Boys between the ages four and ten wore tunics- or shirts  which were belted at the waist. Underneath their tunics, Ankle-length trousers allowed for freedom of motion and comfort. Dressy occasions called for the addition of a white collar and bow-tie to be added to the ensemble.

Romantic Era Girl's dress  Boy's tunic
Girl's dress (c. 1830-1845) and Boy's tunic (c. 1835)
Wisconsin Historical Museum

For reproduction Romantic Era Children's clothing, please click here.

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These pages are for educational purposes only.  All text copyright Susan Jarrett.  No unauthorized use without permission.
Copyrighted images must be given source credit as has been done on these page. Public domain images do not require source credit.

Page revised January 2013