Clothing of the 1860s-1890s

Women’s wear of the 1860s -1870s

While the sewing machine was invented in the late 1770s, it did not become readily available until the 1860s. In Australia, the first sewing machine factory, built by Singer, was constructed and began selling sewing machines to the public in 1864. At around the same time, synthetic dyes became readily available. This meant that for colour it became much easier to purchase fabrics that were bright and colourful. Prior to this time, it was much more expensive to obtain brightly coloured cloth, or it needed to be dyed at home using plants from the local area. The impact of the sewing machine meant that women were more easily able to make fashionable clothing faster than they had previously been able.

At the same time that colour and fabric was changing, skirts were also changing. The bulk of the fabric was shifting to the back, with the introduction of the bustle, later the front of the skirt started to flattern out to emphasise the bustle further. Bodices were tight, necks were high, particularly for daywear and the front of the jacket was often buttoned. In the 1870s trains started to be used for both day wear and evening wear. This necessitated a button on flounce that sat under the train. This could be taken off and washed and then put back on to help to prolong the life of the skirt.

Hair was worn in low chignons at the nape of the neck. As the decade progressed these shifted to high complicated fashions often enhanced by fake hair.

Unknown woman circa 1874-1876 Bean collection

Menswear of the 1860s-1870s

Single-breasted coats and jackets were worn. The outer jacket was usually semi-fitted and thigh length. Waistcoats were also single-breasted. Sometimes they matched the outer jacket but they did not have to. High starched collars were worn with cravats and neckties. Three-piece suits started to be worn as an alternative to the frock coat. In these cases, the waistcoat did match the suit. Frock coats, when worn were often fastened high on the chest.

Facial hair was becoming common, even for fashionable men in the city. For those who were more fashion conscious, this may be quite sculpted, for those in more rural areas this could be a significant beard and whiskers.

Headwear still included the top hat, but this was being increasingly overtaken by the use of the Bowler hat.

Unknown person from Bean collection circa 1870s.

Women’s Wear 1880-1890s

Tightly fitted bodices with narrow sleeves were still very popular during this period. High necklines remained fashionable as did trim and or frills of lace, particularly at the neck and cuffs. Skirts were still being drawn to the back, but the bustle disappeared for a while until the middle of the 1880s when it made a resurgence. There was a lot less material in the skirts overall than in previous decades. During this period there was a lot of movement in skirts. At some stages, skirts were cinched in around the legs which could make walking difficult. At other times the skirts flowed in what was known as the free-form style which contained a low bustle but was not as distinct as the much larger bustle of the mid 1880s.

In the later 1890s, the sleeves became larger at the head of the sleeve. This became known as the “leg of mutton” sleeve and was a considerable departure from the earlier tight sleeve that had dominated fashion for a couple of decades.

Hats were small and sat perched on top of the hairstyle. Hats became quite elaborate and decorative, often with a lot of colour.

Mary Carter circa 1890, Bean collection

Menswear 1880-1890s

Lounge suits were increasing in popularity. They included slim-line jackets worn open. Under the jacket was a high buttoned waistcoat and usually a fob or watch chain. Collars were still and high with neckties becoming increasingly common. Frock coats were still worn but they were becoming dated and old-fashioned.

Trousers were being worn more loosely than had been worn in previous decades and they often had a turned-up cuff. The trouser press became popular and easy for people in the cities to access. This lead to a fashion for a straight crease down the front of the pants.

Unlike previous decades, at this time it was more fashionable for men to be clean shaved with shorter hairstyles.

Headwear was increasingly leaning towards the Bowler hat. For those that were not wearing a Bowler, crowns of hats were still lowering or not being worn at all.

Balcomb Family circa 1890s Bean family collection

Part 1- History of Clothes in the nineteenth century; clothes from the 1840s-1850s

Part 3- Societal impacts on the clothes people wore


1840-1849- Fashion History Timeline, 2020

Australian History Research, 2022. Victorian Fashions. Norfolk Island.

Frost, L. Dating Family Photos 1850-1920. Valiant Press Pty Ltd. Victoria, Australia

Gold Museum Ballarat, 2018. A Victorian Dress

Just History 2021 Historical Fashion: Victorian Women’s Clothing 

Singer Sewing Machine. 2022 Powerhouse collection.,SEWING%20MACHINES%20IN%20THE%20WORLD

Sovereign Hill Education Blog- 1850’s Fashion in Australia 2018.

V&A Museum- Collections.

V&A History of Fashion 1840-1900

Working woman’s day dress, circa 1840s (Gold Museum collection, 80.1294)


Clothing of the 1860s-1890s — 1 Comment

  1. Pingback: Dressing the Past; Clothes and their impact on daily life. | Gransden Family

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