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Fashion in the 1800’s was less a palette for self- expression than a means of ostentatiously displaying your wealth and social status.

London & Paris fasion 1842

London Fashion February 1842

What were ladies wearing around the time of the 1841 census? Illustrated, above, are the latest London and Paris fashions for 1842.

The advent of the sewing machine in 1851, invented by Isaac Merrit Singer, enabled women’s fashion to move faster than ever before. The illustration below of London Christmas fashions for 1878 shows this change; advertising numerous dresses, materials and patterns, they are clearly set up for mass production on a scale that would have been impossible before Singer’s machine arrived.

The dresses most women wore were dictated by the latest styles produced by couturiers like Charles Worth, an Englishman who worked in Paris. As with fashion today, these styles, seen on royalty and members of the aristocracy, were copied and cheaper versions of them worn by the less wealthy and the working class. The originals though were beautifully made in luxurious combinations of silks, taffetas, velvets and brocades.

Magazines produced illustrations (such as these seen here) to inspire their readers. Victorian codes of public morality meant that women had to cover up; and they certainly took this advice, wearing layer upon layer of clothing, and creating dramatic silhouettes with enormous bustles and corsets so tight that they endangered their health!

By the time of the 1881 census, your female ancestors may have dressed like this:

Fashion for Christmas and New Year 1878-9

Christmas and New Year’s Party Fashion 1878-9

No 53 of the New Extra Enlarged Fasion Plates of 20 Figures Comprising 13 Ladies' and 7 Children's Dresses of The Latest Fashions

The poster, above, was published in the Young Ladies’ Journal and advertises the latest dresses available from D Nicholson & Company of 50-53 St Paul’s Churchyard and Paternoster Row, Corner of Cheapside, London. They describe themselves ‘as silk mercers to the Queen and outfitters to all parts of the World’, stating that ‘all the goods represented in the above illlustrations as well as prices and particulars may be had gratis upon application’. They offered ‘1,000 patterns of newest silks and dress materials sent post free’.

Find out how your ancestors spent their leisure time with our sports and pastimes page

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Church Street, Liverpool
Owen's College, Manchester
Rock Gardens and Stepping Stones, St. Annes-on-sea
St. James Church, Accrington
The Central Beach, Blackpool
Victoria Street, Manchester