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What Would You Wear in the Industrial Age? (1850-1900)

Editor's note: Her Campus UConn staff members Kristen Biatowas and Maura Murphy visited the Benton to give us a peek at fashion trends of the past! The rest of Maura's photos can be seen in our photoblog here. 

One of the great things about fashion is it is always evolving.  What could be fashionable one minute could become “so last season” pretty quickly.  UConn’s very own William Benton Museum of Art is hosting an exhibit about women’s fashions during the Industrial Age until March 11.

 Now I know what you’re thinking, old fashioned clothes are ugly and boring, but I was surprised to be very intrigued by the fashions of this time period.  I was surprised to see some of the trends of today in the fashions of more than 120 years ago.  While today’s UConn collegiettes visit the Buckland Hills Mall for the latest fashions, women in the Industrial Age visited Hartford or Willimantic for luxurious furs and fabrics. Here is how some of the fashions of the Industrial Age carry over to today and some of the major differences.

 High Collar:  The less skin you show, the better.  All I can say is these ladies must have been sweating in these dresses that covered their ankles, arms, and necks.  High collars were meant to accentuate an elegant neck.  Most collars had a broach on them.

Accentuate tiny waist:  Just like Stacey and Clinton always tell me on the TV show What Not to Wear, accentuate the smallest part of you: your waist.  I guess this is a trend that has been around for centuries.  One of the dresses at the Benton had a velvet belt to draw attention to the waist and one even had a belt with sequins on it.  One of the ways women accentuated their waist was by creating a mono-bosom look, which was creating the look of one boob to create a smooth line, which I nicknamed the “uni-boob.”  That is one fashion I am glad we left in that century.

Peter Pan Collars:  I was really excited to see this fashion trend during the Industrial Age because it is one of my favorite fashion trends currently!  Today there is some variation because they do not cover your entire neck, but go on a t-shirt or dress.

Fuchsia and Green:  When I thought of the Industrial Age, I thought of dark colors, but in fact, there were many bright colors.  Thanks to the creation of new coal tar dyes in 1863, bright colors became all the rage.   Not only were day to day dresses brightly colored, but also wedding gowns! 

Plaids:  In 1865, Queen Victoria makes plaid popular.  In today’s society, plaid can be seen in shorts and scarves.

Shawls:  Each dress was paired with a shawl, whether it was lace or velvet.  Today the “professional woman” pairs everything with a blazer, so I suppose shawls could be seen as today’s blazers.

Lace:  This is a trend that has recently become very popular lately, where we see all over lace shirts and dresses.  Lace was extremely popular during the Industrial Age, being seen on a majority of the dresses at the Benton.

Leg O’mutton sleeves:  These are big puffy sleeves that were called leg o’mutton sleeves because they look like a lamb shank.  This look was not long lasting though because it was believed only taller women could pull them off.  The strong shoulder pads trend came back in the 1980s, but was luckily short lived.

Full Skirt:  Skirts became fuller and fuller as the Industrial Age progressed.  As skirts became wider, new lighter fabrics such as silk were invented so the weight of the skirt would not become too heavy.  During the 1870s skirts also were pulled into a bustle in the back, which I related to a term in our society where there was “junk in the trunk.”

Florals:  Women did not wear boring solid colors during the Industrial Age, they often donned dresses of paisley or floral patterns.  When they went outside there was often coal and dust, so they wore bright colors and prints indoors and darker colors outdoors. 

Mourning:  Queen Victoria, the Jenifer Aniston of the Industrial Age, makes mourning fashionable after her husband dies in 1861.  After the Civil War, many women decide to wear black out of respect for their dead husbands and sons. 

While these elaborate dresses were very beautiful, I couldn’t help but appreciate the fashions of today.  I love to dress up, but I don’t think I could imagine wearing a dress that covered my ankles, neck and arms just as I could picture the women of these times couldn’t imagine wearing stiletto heels. 

Visit the Benton to view these beautiful dresses and take a step back in fashion history!  The Benton is open Tuesday through Friday 10 AM –4:30 PM and Saturday & Sunday 1 PM–4:30 PM.

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