Costume History/Romantic

General Information


Romanticism was an attitude or intellectual orientation that characterized many works of literature, painting, music, architecture, criticism, and historiography in Western civilization over a period from the late 18th to the mid-19th century. Romanticism can be seen as a rejection of the precepts of order, calm, harmony, balance, idealization, and rationality that typified Classicism in general and late 18th-century Neoclassicism in particular. It was also to some extent a reaction against the Enlightenment and against 18th-century rationalism and physical materialism in general. Romanticism emphasized the individual, the subjective, the irrational, the imaginative, the personal, the spontaneous, the emotional, the visionary, and the transcendental.

Among the characteristic attitudes of Romanticism were the following: a deepened appreciation of the beauties of nature; a general exaltation of emotion over reason and of the senses over intellect; a turning in upon the self and a heightened examination of human personality and its moods and mental potentialities; a preoccupation with the genius, the hero, and the exceptional figure in general, and a focus on his passions and inner struggles; a new view of the artist as a supremely individual creator, whose creative spirit is more important than strict adherence to formal rules and traditional procedures; an emphasis upon imagination as a gateway to transcendent experience and spiritual truth; an obsessive interest in folk culture, national and ethnic cultural origins, and the medieval era; and a predilection for the exotic, the remote, the mysterious, the weird, the occult, the monstrous, the diseased, and even the satanic. Also, intellectuals and artists of the Romantic prized emotion and sentiment, which contrasted the strait reasoning that drove the 18th century revolutions, include

  • Ludwig van Beethoven (Composer during Romantic and Classical eras)
  • Washington Irving (American writer during Romantic era)
  • Mary Shelley (British writer)
  • Victor Hugo (French writer)

Nationalism: A key to the Romantic movement, Nationalism was a central theme in art and political philosophy. Nationalism focused on the development of national languages and folklore, and the importance of local customs and traditions.

Historical Background

  1. March 1 1815 - Napoleon returns to France from his banishment on Elba.
  2. June 18 1815 - Battle of Waterloo: The Duke of Wellington decisively defeats Napoleon, ending the Napoleonic wars.
  3. December 14 1819 - Alabama is admitted as the 22nd U.S. state.
  4. January 29 1820 - George IV of the United Kingdom ascends the throne, ending the period known as the British Regency. There will be a gap of 21 years before the title Prince of Wales is next used.
  5. July 19 1821 - George IV is crowned king of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.
  6. May 7 1824 - One of Beethoven's greatest masterpieces, Symphony No. 9, premieres in Vienna.
  7. February 12 1832 - Cholera breaks out in London, claiming at least 3,000 victims. It spreads to France and North America later this year.

Men’s clothing is on a fairly steady course towards increasing dullness. Fashion magazines push men's dress towards foppish extremes, but men who actually count in the fashionable world tend to push for plainer styles. Beau Brummell, the leader of male sartorial fashion in England in this period was noted for wearing only black with a white shirt for formal evening wear, a marked departure from the style of the previous century. Tubular and fitted trousers also move from a radical fashion statement to everyday wear for most men of the upper classes. The few outlets for male fashion expression (boots, hats, collars and neckties) go to extremes. Neckties in this period were especially important. This period was one where men's fashion was completing a transition from the elaborately decorated but simply cut styles of the eighteenth century to the carefully cut plain fabrics of the early nineteenth. The double-breasted waistcoat, broad lapels, and surprisingly short coat point up the experimental period. Everyday attire for a boy or man of the early 19th century included a vest. Rarely would someone appear without one, even on a hot day.

A wide variety of breeches, pantaloons and trousers and hat styles were fashionable during the Romantic era. Knee breeches, or culottes, had been used as a symbol of the French ancient régime and were seldom worn outside mandated court styles. A longer style of tight-fitting breeches reaching the calves, the pantaloons, became extremely popular. Trousers also became fashionable. Revolutionaries known as sans-culottes had adopted working-class trousers as a sign of political allegiance. Their acceptance was also aided by the earlier trend of looser trouser styles for boys and adopted by certain individuals in the upper classes. Another great item that emerged in this period was the wide-brimmed riding hat, which would go through numerous changes before becoming the ubiquitous top hat of the second half of the nineteenth century. Cotton Trousers, 1815 (of sand coloured thick-ish cotton, fall front with three buttonholes, central front opening beneath with two buttons and buttonholes, a further two to the centre front waistband, two either side to secure the fall front, a small slit pocket to one side, both sides with further buttons and buttonholes holding the deeper pocket flaps, back with two eyelet holes with white tape flanked by two buttons, central back V gusset and two asymmetrical seams, large bottom area and tapering legs, slits to the bottom and stirrups, secured by two buttons inside trouser leg, the waistband and fall front lined with white linen, the waistband lined and pockets made from white cotton. The stirrups would have kept the trousers taut and creaseless.) Pants, and unbuttoned Pants (Trousers) Example of Hat Neck Ties Vest Men’s Shirt Tail Coat Frock Coat Tail Coat 1839 – Frock Coat Coat



Women’s dress becomes more and more finicky and decorative. Skirts are fuller and the waistline lowers to the natural waist. Corseting returns as does the layering of petticoats. Women were pushed back into the position of the “weaker” sex, taking on a more modest role. Women at this time were described as delicate, fragile, and decorative. Women were seen as being more emotional then men so were thus idealized as muses of artists. Few women, including Elizabeth Barret Browning and Mary Shelley, were able to achieve artistic recognition for themselves. Women were expected to achieve the highest moral level by being the guardians of family and community virtue and educating children. Women’s clothing of this era reflected the perception that women were weak and decorative, shown through the slope-shouldered, full sleeved silhouette.

Most bodices worn by women had the skirt attached in gathers at the bottom. Bodices themselves often showed gathers as the top layer, but the under construction was generally tightly fit to the body. Bodice gathers and decorations emphasized a V look and as the period progressed the base of the V dipped to slightly under the waist.

Throughout the years, 1825 to 1840 the skirt continued to widen. The skirt hem did not touch the floor until 1835 and for the ten years preceding that there was great attention to the bottom edge of the skirt. Decorations and trims such as the padded rouleau were often stiffened to help hold out the ever widening skirt. Applied stuffed cords of decorative silks acted almost like hoops on the outsides of the skirts. Small bustle pads tied on with tapes were in use by the mid 1830s to help hold out the upper part of the skirt as well. When the hems sank to the floor in the mid 1830s and the decorations on the bottom edges were less popular, women wore numerous petticoats to hold out the skirts. Petticoats were stiffened and it was common to wear three. Six petticoats worn at a time were not unusual. Flannel was the favored fabric for the material closest to the skin with the layers of stiffened petticoats following. Stiff horse hair underskirts were first sold in 1840. Bone hoops were developed in 1856 and were hailed as a major improvement).

Perhaps the most obvious features of the period were the sleeves. At various times, from 1825-1840 the sleeves were puffed at the top with a tapering lower sleeve, puffed in a huge billow from shoulder to elbow, puffed only at the elbow, puffed from shoulder to wrist in a tapering billow, and puffed in suspension from a dropped shoulder. This dropped shoulder turned into a full epaulette collar or jockeis around 1839. The sleeves which were very wide at the shoulder and tapered gradually to the wrist were called the gigot sleeves and required their own set of underpinnings. A strip of gathered glazed cotton with whalebone at the edge usually held out the sleeves although stuffed pads and even hoops on the arms were occasionally used. No matter where the puff was placed armholes were small and high, so despite the volumes of material used arm movement was restricted.

As a balance to the large puffed sleeves, collars were also enormous. The pelerine en ailes d'oiseau collar covered the sleeves like a bird's outstretched wing. Sometimes the collars were split at the top of each sleeve and often there were two layers of a collar. The bertha became popular near the end of the period. Lace and embroidered collars were widely made and worn.

Bonnets, gloves and parasols were the staples of a woman's accessory wardrobe in the period 1825-1840, but sashes, ribbons and bows were at the peak of their popularity. It was difficult to find a coat to go over the gigantic sleeves so shawls, mantles and stoles were popular wraps for day and evening wear. Dress/Sleeve/Hat examples Dress and Sleeve – 1839 Dress/Handbag – 1825 Bodice – 1830 Sleeve and Dress – 1829 Gloves Women’s hats


edit Women’s hair styles Men’s hair styles



Shoes were sensible in shape and fragile in construction. They tended to be flat heeled with a wide square toe area. Women’s Shoes (leather ladies shoes with squarish toe and front with small rosette, edged with brown silk, lined with fine ivory kid and both with printed labels gauche and droit) With square toes, small black silk ribbon rosette, lined with linen and cream kid, the tops with black silk ribbon binding, right and left slap sole

Jewelry and Accessories


Women often carried such items as Chatelaine (clips to waist band and holds seal, watch, scissors, thimble and other items needed throughout the day in the home), fan, vinaigrette (a little tightly sealing box with a second pierced lid inside to contain a bit of gauze soaked in vinegar, lavender water, or other scent) and reticule (a hand bag). Jewelry of this period was made in the popular styles following the trends in architecture and interior decoration, including Rococo, Greek and Roman, Pompeiian, and Gothic. Throughout the era ladies wore a limited amount of jewelry. They liked dainty necklaces and other pieces including combs of jeweled hair ornaments all modeled on original Greek items. Chatelaine Fan motions:

  • Placing your fan near your heart = I love you.
  • A closed fan resting on the right eye = When can I see you?
  • A half closed fan pressed to the lips = You may kiss me.
  • Touching the tip of the fan with a finger = I wish to speak to you.
  • Letting the fan rest on the right cheek = Yes.
  • Letting the fan rest on the left cheek = No.
  • Dropping the fan = We will be friends.
  • Fanning slowly = I am married.
  • Fanning quickly = I am engaged.
  • Carrying a open fan in the left hand = Come and talk to me.
  • Twirling the fan in the right hand = I love another.
  • Twirling the fan in the left hand = We are being watched.
  • Shutting a fully open fan slowly = I promise to marry you.
  • Drawing the fan across the eyes = I am sorry.
  • To open a fan wide = Wait for me.



Shirts were commonly made of linen, cotton and osnaburg. Pants or trousers were of cotton or wool. Occasionally different articles of clothing would be made of silks, but all pieces of clothing were usually made of linen, cotton or wool.



The thin muslin favored in before the Romantic period lingered into the beginning of the period itself. When muslin was used after 1825 it was used in greater quantities per dress. There was so much muslin used, in fact, that it is said that if a woman were to douse herself in water in a dress made of muslin, that the amount of folds would still be able to conceal her body in a modest fashion. Muslin did not remain the fabric of choice for the entire period, though. There is evidence that dresses dated to the 1815-1840 period show signs of having been remade from gowns of earlier eras. In 1825 white was the favored color for evening dresses with cream and yellow gaining in popularity by 1830. Colors and figured materials grew more popular in this period. White dresses survive in the largest numbers both because the lack of dye helped preserve the fabric and because white material was less likely to be reused later in the century. Muslin, gauze over satin and rich silk fabrics were always favored for evenings and used whenever economically possible but even among well-to-do Americans homespun was popular day wear. The majority of the day dresses which survive from 1825-1840 are those made of fairly heavy cotton. Many of the dresses of the best quality fabrics were destroyed when the fabric was reused a few years later.

Side Notes


Women’s clothes became confining and some styles were injurious to the health. Corsets restricted the development and functioning of internal organs and prohibited deep breathing. The placement and structure of the sleeves barred many arm movements. The weight of the numerous petticoats discouraged much exercise. The total wants of fabric over the neck and an upper chest exposed women to the cold. The complicated and frequently changing styles meant that most women spent vast amounts of time on clothing preparation. About such hours spent sewing early twentieth century novelist Elizabeth von Arnim wrote, “I believe all needlework and dressmaking is of the devil, designed to keep women from study.” For many women alive in 1825 to 1840, however, the changing clothing styles were a delight and period diary and letter references indicate that most women enjoyed the challenge of each season's innovations.


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