The Changing Silhouette of Victorian Women’s Fashions -1870s

Adam Macrino – Mercyhurst University Intern

Wednesday Jul 21st, 2021

The shape of dresses in the 1870s changed dramatically in several ways. The shape of the skirt now accented the rear of the wearer. The globe-like appearance of dresses in the 1860s was altered. Dresses now featured a skirt that was flat in the front but protruded backwards more so than the older globe shape. This type of skirt was called the first bustle style.

Example of a bustle-style dress

The style created this effect by manipulating the fabric and drapery at the rear of the dress and was supported by horsehair-ruffled petticoats or crinolettes. The waistline on these dresses was unnaturally high. The bodices were highly decorated and featured basques, which combined with the overskirts, helped create the layered look that dresses were known for at this time.

The dresses featured open necklines that were trimmed with ruffles, ribbon, or lace, and provided the opportunity for wearers to show off their prominent necklaces like velvet chokers and jet pendants. Jet jewelry was black and was a symbol of mourning. Jet pendants became popular after the death of Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, in 1861. Queen Victoria’s grief had a lasting influence on the fashion world.

Example of a jet pendant
Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in 1854

By 1876, the first bustle style dresses evolved into what was called the “princess line” style, named after Alexandra, Princess of Wales. This style featured dresses with a horizontal waist seam that was snug around the hips. Princess Line style dresses lacked a bustle and instead were voluminous below the hips and sometimes featured long trains of fabric that trailed behind the wearer.

Alexandra, Princess of Wales
Example of a “Princess-line” dress

The slender silhouette from this style was achieved by having tightly fitting sleeves and through the wearing of corsets that were lengthened over the hips to create the slim princess outline.

Example of a corset used in the 1870s

Dresses of the 1870s also utilized synthetic dyes that were first invented in 1850s to produce vivid color schemes. Dresses of this period were highly colorized as a result and stood in stark contrast to the monochromatic dresses of the past.

Example of an 1870s dress that used synthetic dye

 What was happening in Erie in 1870?

The Borough of Erie had 19,646 inhabitants and Erie County had 65,972 inhabitants in 1870.

The Erie Almshouse was opened in 1841, and in 1873 a new building was completed for the housing of the mentally unwell. The Almshouse separately housed male and female patients. The building was located in Millcreek, around the area of 23rd Street and Pittsburgh Avenue, just west of the city of Erie.

The Erie Almshouse

End of the Erie Canal

With the collapse of the Platea aqueduct in 1872, the Erie Extension Canal was rendered unusable. Traffic had been declining on the canal since the completion of the Philadelphia and Erie Railroad in the 1850s, and the collapse of the aqueduct that went over Elk Creek signaled the death knell of the canal.

Raising of the Lawrence

The Lawrence, one of the ships from the American fleet that did battle against the British in the War of 1812, was raised from its resting place in the murky waters of Misery Bay in 1876. The ship was then transported to Philadelphia, where it was reassembled to be put on display for the American centennial celebration. Unfortunately, the Lawrence was lost when the exhibition building caught fire and burned down.


Erie County Almshouse - Asylum Projects