The simple answer to the question about what women wore during the nineteenth century is a dress. There were, however, enormous changes in the size, shape, and decoration of women's dresses during the century. At the beginning of the century women abandoned the heavy garments of the previous century and wore the lightest, sheerest of dresses, such as the robe en chemise, modeled after styles worn by ancient Greeks. The muslin or silk fabric of these dresses was so delicate that it could not support pockets, so women began to carry pocketbooks. Most commonly white or light in color, these dresses had short sleeves, high waists, and long, straight skirts. Women did wear light corsets beneath them, but the dresses were meant to show off more of the female form than ever before in Europe or America.
Merely two decades into the century, women's dresses became heavier and more ornate. The early natural silhouette was transformed into a dramatic hourglass shape accentuated by a tightly corseted waist, a full bell-shaped skirt, puffy gigot sleeves, and floppy hats. The skirts of dresses were expanded even further with wire-hoop or whalebone crinolines. By 1860, skirts were so wide that fashionably dressed women could no longer fit through doorways. During the last decades of the century, women's dresses changed shape yet again. The shoulders were accentuated and the skirt's fullness was pushed to the rear and supported by the padding of a bustle, a rear support for a skirt.
The appearance of machine-made trimmings during the century greatly influenced the decoration of dresses, which became ever more colorful and heavily embellished with lace, pleats, ruffles, bows, and other ornament. Some evening dresses held as much as seventy yards of thick ruffles. In addition, newly invented dyes introduced colors to fabrics such as bright pink, turquoise, and yellow, and dresses combined these in striking color combinations. As the century ended, women's dresses continued to change as women's place in society began to shift towards more liberty.
Costume Illustration: The Nineteenth Century. Introduction by James Laver. London, England: Victoria and Albert Museum, 1947.
Fletcher, Marion. Female Costume in the Nineteenth Century. (National Gallery Booklets) Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1966.
Gibbs-Smith, Charles H. The Fashionable Lady in the 19th Century. London, England: Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1960.