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Last updated:29 dec 2010/csb

Ladies' Evening Dress for the 1860's

by Katy Bishop and Patri & Barbara Pugliese

Please click on the pictures for the original period descriptions of the gowns.

Ladies' evening gowns of this era typically consist of a full gathered or pleated skirt (115"-140" at the hem), worn over a wired hoop (105"-125" bottom hoop circumference), a fitted bodice with rounded open neckline and short puffed sleeves. The bodice is usually fastened at the center back by either hooks and eyes or lacing. Fabrics used were most often silks in taffeta, moire or brocades; patterns can be solids, stripes, small prints or plaids. For summer wear lightweight silk organza and cotton muslins were also used. Colors would be lighter for young ladies, darker for older women. Bright red should be avoided, as should black (in America) and very dark colors. The gown can be decorated with contrasting trim and black or white lace. Decorative elements (ruffles, bows, geometric designs, etc.) on the bodice and skirt usually matched, with the skirt decoration reflected on a smaller scale on the berthe (neckline trimming) of the bodice.

Godey's Lady's Book, February 1860
Peterson's Magazine, July 1861
Godey's, May 1860
Godey's, October 1859
Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine, February 1862
Peterson's Magazine, January 1860

Wrist length white gloves, in cloth or kid leather, were considered a ballroom necessity, to be removed only when taking refreshments. Shoes should be fairly flat, with at most a low heel, such as ballet flats or "character ballets," in white or a color to compliment the gown. The shoe can be ornamented with a small ribbon bow in the color of the shoe. Hair should be worn parted in the center and pulled away from the face, rolled on the sides and pulled into a bun fairly low in the neck. Evening head dresses can be circlets, wreaths, or decorative combs with ribbons, flowers and feathers. Earrings should be dangles, brooches are often worn and short bead necklaces are appropriate, as well as gold bracelets; a matched pair of bracelets is especially fashionable. A small fan or small bouquet also make good accessories.

Godey's, December 1859

Patterns and Resources
An old prom dress or bridesmaid dress, if the skirt is suitably full (100+ inches at the hem) and long, can be easily altered to approximate the style of an 1860's ball dress with the addition of suitable sleeves and trims. If you wish to make a more accurate gown, the most accurate patterns available are from Past Patterns : ball bodice #704, skirts #700 and #801, chemises #707 and drawers #706. A corset is indispensable for achieving a smooth fit for your bodice; Past Patterns has several options including #703, #708 and #213.

Men's Evening Wear of the 1860's

Gentlemen's evening wear of this era consisted of a black tail coat, white or black waistcoat, usually with lapels (cummerbunds are not appropriate), without points at the waist. The trousers matched the coat, without satin ribbon at the side seams and with no crease down the front and back. The outfit is completed with a stock or cravat in white or black, and white gloves. Flexible soled shoes such as Capezio black jazz oxfords are comfortable for dancing.

Men's Evening Dress ca. 1865
Men's Evening Dress, ca. 1854

A modern tail coat is a good approximation of the period dress coat, and the Folkwear vest pattern #222, view B, produces an excellent vest for this period. See resources list for information on the CVD stock (19th Century necktie) pattern.

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