Women’s fashionable gowns of the early 19th century were markedly different in style from their predecessors. No longer were the bodices tightly fitted over the cone-shaped stays of the 18th-century. Full skirts and side hoops were put away as well. The new styles, inspired by a fascination with the classical world, were characterized by a much narrower silhouette. Dresses were constructed of light-weight, clingy materials like cotton muslin and thin silk, and were worn without the highly structured undergarments of the past. White was an extremely popular color choice for gowns worn by women of all ages and at all times of the day–and year, for that matter. Hairstyles and accessories changed as well. Most women cut their hair short and wore it close to the head, with feathers and turbans for decoration. High-heeled shoes were cast aside in favor of flat slippers of fine kid or satin, a type of footwear which was highly inappropriate for the winter climate of northern New England. And woven shawls, often with colorful borders, became a popular (and warmth-providing) accessory.
This revolution in fashion–coming out of Napoleonic France and inspired by Neoclassicism–held sway for almost 25 years. Not until the mid-1820s, did the fashionable silhouette start to expand with wider skirts and the return of corsets, and finally late in the decade, enormous sleeves.
The Saco Museum has two gowns made during the first decades of the 19th century. One, a gown of ivory figured silk, exemplifies this Neoclassical style. The silk is thin and light, and would have clung to the body of the woman who wore it. Originally, it would have undoubtedly been worn with an underdress, which has not survived with the outer garment.
The gown has the high waistline and the low gathered neckline of the period. The sleeves are short and puffed, and are trimmed with box-pleated ivory ribbon. The hem is edged with narrow ivory lace, which may have been added later. Worn with a pair of flat slippers, possibly of a contrasting color, and a vividly bordered shawl, the gown would have been the centerpiece of a most fashionable ensemble.
This gown will be one of many featured in our upcoming fashion exhibit, From the Elegant to the Everyday:200 Years of Fashion in Northern New England. Come see it in person! And stay tuned for more glimpses of the garments that will make up this exhibit.
Tara Raiselis, Museum Director