The Romantic Era 1820-1850

by Susan Jarrett

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 that 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.

Byron
Lord Byron c. 1813. Newstead Abbey/The Public Catalogue Foundation.

The Romantic ideology espoused by writers such as Lord George Gordon Byron 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 the widespread popularity of other Romantic writers such as 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.

“Swedish Nightingale” Jenny Lind embodied the role of the Romantic heroine. Lithograph c. 1848. Public domain.

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 subordinates 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  Lilly Martin Spencer. c. 1849. The Detroit Institute of Arts

Women’s Fashion 1820-1825

The years 1820-1825 served as a transition period between the former Empire style and the new Romantic style. During this period, the waistline slowly descended back to it normal position as skirts gradually increased in fullness. Skirts of the 1820s were typically gored– or cut in an A-shape with the narrowest part of the skirt near the waist slowly increasing in width as the skirt progressed to the hem. Bodices were typically attached directly to the skirts via a waistband. Wide matching belts with decorative buckles were common accessories.

American Silk Ball Gown, circa 1820. 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.

Cotton Dress, c. 1826–27. Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Dresses with ornamentation were a hallmark of the 1820s- especially at the hemlines and sleeves. Ornamentation consisted of embroidery, cut-work, matching ruffles and ruching, and puffs (or matching appliquéd fabric filled with small bits of batting.) 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. Sleeve style were both long and short. Romantic era dresses typically were not trained and ended just at the ankles.

Silk day dress with examples of slashing and ruffles. c. 1820. The Kyoto Costume Institute.
Romantic Era sleeves
Cotton gown the medieval inspired Marie sleeves. c. 1818. The V&A.

By the end of the 1820s, the gored skirt was quickly being replaced by a full paneled skirt and small pleats or gathers were used to draw in the fullness at the waistband. Hems gradually began to widen but would not reach their apex for two more decades.

Printed cotton dress. c. late 1820s. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

1830s

The 1830s saw the height of the Romantic Era. It was the period in which the silhouette reached its extreme. Like two inverted triangles, the 1830s silhouette sought to add as much width at the shoulder line as it did at the hem line.

romantic era
Cotton dress with demi-gigot sleeves. c. 1828. The V&A.

Sleeve styles in the 1830s were diverse but typically very full. The gigot sleeve and the demi-gigot sleeve (later referred to as the leg-o-mutton sleeve in the 1890s) consisted of a large puffed sleeve at the armscye that tapered down to a narrow, close fitting cuff at the wrist. Both were quite popular.

Fashionable 1830s dresses and suit. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Many bodices had wide round or V-shaped necklines and were worn with variety of chemisettes (or tuckers). Large white collars that had lapels extending down the front called pelerines became a popular 1830s accessory.

Cotton pelerine with delicate white work embroidery. c. 1835. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

With the silhouette resembling two inverted triangles, emphasis on a narrow waistline made stays and petticoats a necessity. Romantic era stays were typically very lightly boned or corded. They laced up the back and had a solid wooden (or sometimes ivory) busk down the center front.  By the late 1830s, 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 back of the waist.

1830s undergarments
Stays, petticoat, and sleeve supporters. c. 1830s. The Metropolitan Museum of Art

When venturing out of doors, the mantleor mantelet, was a most fashionable article of outerwear as were wide-brimmed bonnets with high crowns.

French Mantle. c. 1830. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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 (but stayed just as full!). Finer fabrics such as silk satin and gauze were used for evening gowns. More luxurious mantles or mantelets were worn as evening outer wear. Hair ornaments and ribbons adorned elaborate evening hairstyles.

By 1837, the Romantic silhouette began to deflate. The fullness of the 1830s sleeve moved further down the arm. Hemlines lengthened and sleeves became narrower. The waistline returned to it natural position as the waistband disappeared and a rounded or pointed front waistline became prominent. This silhouette is known as a transitional style because it bridges the flamboyant silhouette of the 1830s to the final and more subdued silhouette of the Romantic Era.

Transitional style gown. c. 1838. Philadelphia Museum of Art

1840s

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. 

April La Mode. c. 1848. Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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.

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 out the circumference of the hem. Double flounced skirts became quite popular.

Silk gown. c. 1845-48. Galleria del Costume di Palazzo Pitti
Silk gown. c. 1845-48. Galleria del Costume di Palazzo Pitti

Bodices of the late Romantic period typically had basque waists (or elongated waistlines which ended in a rounded point at the front) and were very tightly fitted. Necklines were round, V-shaped, or wide for both day and evening wear.  Often interchangeable chemisettes and collars were worn during the day. The pelerine remained a popular accessory.

1840s dress
Printed Dress. c. 1840. National Gallery of Victoria.

Children’s Fashion

Thanks to continued emphasis placed on the freedoms associated with childhood, like the prior Empire/Regency Era, both young boys and girls up to the ages of four or five were dressed in loose fitting muslin gowns with pantalets. The only differentiation in gender was the lack of lace and ornamentation on boy’s gowns. After the age of five or six, young boys wore loose shirts buttoned to high-waisted, ankle length trousers- commonly referred to as the skeleton suit. After age 12, boys were dressed much the same as their fathers- in shirts, trousers, waist length jackets, and vests. This style is referred to as the Eton suit.

Boy’s skeleton suit. c. 1833–35. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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 addition of pantalets. These were still visible just below the hemlines of their skirts.

Girl’s cotton dress and pantalets. c. 1820-28. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Boys between the ages four and ten wore tunics– or long shirts belted at the waist. Underneath their tunics, Ankle-length trousers allowed for freedom of motion and comfort.

Boy’s tunic suit. c. 1835. The V&A.
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