In the future, I'll spend some time discussing how the development of Victorian fashion was aligned with the spread of class-conscious consumerism (think Rosamund Lydgate in Eliot's Middlemarch), but for now let's just enjoy some of the lovely particularities of 1850s Victorian fashion.
Women's skirts were very close to being the widest they would become in this period...except that the cage crinoline wasn't popularized until 1856. After the 1860s, the bustle developed, and skirts gradually became more form-fitting, at least in the front. So at the middle of the 19th century, women's necklines were getting higher (at least during the day), their waistlines smaller with the use of longer and tighter stays, and their skirts wider (and heavier with the addition of more petticoats). Okay, so I can't say I would enjoy being dressed so, but there is something fascinating about this use of fashion as control, both for gender and for social class. (I know, I know, I promise I'll save that analytical discussion for another day--including the Victorian "thrift shop" and the practice of re-styling/re-making dresses with existing fabric.)
Instead, below are a few links to help characterize and identify 1850s.
Note: One feature I love that easily dates a dress from the early 1850s is the pagoda sleeve. The fanning sleeve, frequently with puffy white undersleeves added, strikes me as an interestingly subtle incorporation of the exotic Far East. The dress pictured above is dated as 1860, and the pagoda sleeve is detachable!
How to dress Victorian (I feel claustrophobic just reading it): http://www.victoriana.com/library/Dressing/1858-62.htm
Men's fashions, while generally stable, went through some not-so-subtle developments of their own, as depicted here.
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