1840’s Fashion: Fashion Styles and Queen Victoria’s Wedding Dress
Fashion can be a fascinating subject to family historians who have photographs to date, as discussed in the first in this series of blogs. We're now focusing on the decade following the advent of photography — the 1840s — including how a change made to the wedding dress then, is still observed by brides today.
In March 1841, the first public photographic studio in England opened on Regent Street, London. Sitting for your portrait was now more accessible for those who could afford it. As sitters wore their finest and newest clothes for the occasion, studying the garments in these images can work as a useful tool when researching your genealogy. If you are lucky enough to have photographs of relatives you believe to be from this period, here are some typical styles from the time which may help you date the photographs.
1840’s Women's Fashion
Shoulders were low and sloping, as was the pointed waist. Skirts evolved from conical-shaped to bell-shaped, and increased in volume as the decade progressed. Evening gowns were often off-the-shoulder and accompanied by crocheted or sheer shawls. Lace was a prominent textile, adorning linen caps and shoulder-length gloves. Large bonnets and large collars on capes for outdoor wear were popular. Hair was parted in the middle with side ringlets, or styled into loops around the ears and then pulled into a bun.
For fashionable men, a low, cinched waist and round chest with flared frock-coats gave them an hourglass figure which was inspired by Prince Albert. Trousers were tight and collars were high, styled with a necktie. Hair was usually long but kept out of the face and facial hair was popular.
On 10th February 1840, 20-year-old Queen Victoria married Prince Albert of Saxe Coburg-Gotha at Chapel Royal, St James’s Palace, London. The queen wore a white, heavy silk satin gown with Honiton lace detailing. Although the common idea of a white wedding gown was thought to symbolise the bride’s innocence and purity, the colour was actually used to highlight the wealth of the bride’s family. A white gown shows the ability to have clothes thoroughly cleaned - a privilege afforded only to the wealthy in the 1800s - and also to show the public that they can wear a colour that wouldn’t be dirtied or stained by any manual labour. Victoria’s choice to wear a white gown was not to prove any financial prosperity, however; but rather to show off the delicate lace on the dress and support the English industry - and, in turn, to encourage others to do the same.
Although not the first royal to wear a white gown on their wedding day, Victoria’s choice was different to the bright and brilliant colours often preferred by Western European brides, or the more practical darker colours which could be reused for other wears. Soon after, fashionable and elite brides felt inspired to do the same. Newspaper articles, illustrations, paintings and souvenirs were all created in the wake of the wedding, exposing a wider audience to the day's events and inspiring future brides.
So there we have it, the queen’s choice of colour for her wedding dress 180 years ago has influenced British wedding dress traditions ever since! Have you ever considered what decisions made in history might have influenced your or your ancestors’ choices for wedding attire? Exploring the influence of fashion trends through the ages is fascinating, and we will take a look at the 1850s next time
Some family historians are lucky enough to have photographs of their ancestors. Some are even more fortunate, because their forebears had the foresight to write names on the back of them. But what can you do if you have photographs and no idea of who is depicted? One option is to date the photographs based on the clothes worn by the people - as this can then help you narrow down the generation and possible contenders! A fascinating topic in itself, we decided it might be helpful to publish a series of blogs covering fashion through the decades since the advent of photography.
The world's oldest known photograph was taken by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce around 1826 – a view from a window at Le Gras, France, which took no less than eight hours to capture. But the first clear images of people were taken in 1839, by which time the process had been refined to take around one minute. American scientist and photographer John William Draper is credited with producing the first clear photograph of a female face: his sister Dorothy Catherine Draper. And while we might consider the ‘selfie’ to be a relatively new concept, Robert Cornelius, an amateur photographer and lamp maker in Philadelphia, is credited with taking the first self-portrait – also in 1839.
Imagine now that we don’t actually know when these photographs were taken. A little research into fashions of the day – in America, since both were taken there – will hold the key. To date the photograph of Dorothy, a quick search on ‘American fashion 1830s’ offers thousands of links, including this one to The Fashion History Timeline - an open-access source for fashion history knowledge. Here, we learn that the 1830s was a decade marked by ‘huge sleeves and hats’, and ‘hair was parted in the middle and brushed smoothly over the ears’. Scrolling down, several images are a good match for Dorothy, including this one from 1838, entitled La Mode, New York.
As for menswear in the 1830s, the site advises that ‘towards the end of the decade, sleeves began to fit smoothly to the shoulder… and neckwear was varied and elaborate, usually consisting of a stock or cravat' - basically a neck cloth. Using another source, a good match for Robert’s clothing was the above image found on Wikipedia, which is the work of American painter Henry Inman dated 1838-40, A Gentleman of the Wilkes Family.
Since photography was new in the 1830s, we have had to resort to comparisons with drawn or painted images from the era. But future blogs will be able to draw on other dated photographs, too. Next time, we will look at photographs and fashions of the 1840s, and see how trends can be influenced by popular figures – such as royalty.
As Wikitree’s Sarah Callis said in her presentation during our 2021 conference: “Our ancestors are not just dates and names – they are people. And we want to learn more about them!”
The good news is that it’s possible to build a narrative around them – and, it is actually possible to do it using free resources.
Take one of our volunteers who is researching her Scottish roots. Using FreeCEN, she found her 3x great grandparents, William and Ellen, in the 1851 census. He was a soldier with the 93rd Sutherland Highlanders, and they were currently in barracks at Stirling Castle with their three young sons. But by 1861, Ellen was a widow, living in Plymouth, earning a living as a washerwoman.
“Mrs Kiddie’s husband had died. During the funeral, another soldier asked if he could marry her. To his surprise, she said it was too late – she had already agreed to marry another soldier. You see, it took a certain strength of character to be a soldier’s wife and cope with all the associated hardships of army life – and women of such character were scarce.”
Work on building her ancestor’s story continues for our volunteer, but it just goes to show the rich range of free resources available out there.
An early photo, taken at Scutari, of officers and men of the 93rd Highland Regiment, shortly before their engagement in the Crimean War, 1854. Via Wikimedia Commons
Your recommendations revealed
So, here we go with YOUR recommendations for FREE local or occupation-specific genealogy resources. (For the national resources you recommended, please see our previous blog.) The first recommendation was for the Forest of Dean Family History Trust where you will find resources ranging from parish records, marriage licence allegations/bonds and census name indexes to memorial inscriptions, surname interests and summary convictions registers. Simply register to search the records for free. It also has a popular forum described as ‘a very valuable tool for breaking down brick walls’.
Next, the Lancashire BMD and Yorkshire BMD sites were recommended as examples of several similar county projects aimed at placing the original registrars' indexes online. Note the word ‘original’ because there is a difference between the original indexes and the General Register Office (GRO) index that has been made available to the public. The GRO index consists of re-transcribed entries which were submitted quarterly to the GRO in London for the national catalogue. However, the simple act of making this secondary GRO copy introduced many errors and omissions – and that is what these various county projects seek to rectify.
Staying with Lancashire, another recommendation was the site of the OnLine Parish Clerks (OPC) project for the County of Lancashire. Its aim is to extract and preserve the county’s parish records and provide online access to them, free of charge. It also provides other data of value to those researching in Lancashire. All information has been compiled and transcribed by volunteers who have often become involved in the project because of their interest in a particular parish where their own ancestors lived.
Also recommended was the Cornwall OPC Database, which comprises parish records and 'extra searches' ranging from apprentice indentures and land records to muster rolls and wills. Other resources include emigration records, British Army & Navy BMD, and Cornish newspapers, plus links to useful information such as naming patterns, old occupations and trades, and online books about Cornwall.
From a distance…
Sheffield Indexers, another recommendation, is a site that started in 2001 with the aim of indexing genealogical information specific to Sheffield and make it available in a simple-to-access format. Access is free of charge, with all transcriptions provided by voluntary sources for the benefit of the genealogical community. It was started by Elaine Pickard who grew up in Sheffield but has lived in Ottawa for 50 years! She is ably assisted 'on the ground' in Sheffield by Vicki Theaker, who coordinates the team of transcribers. There is also a searchable message forum where anyone can ask for help from knowledgeable local genealogists.
And now for a couple of burial site recommendations: Adur & Worthing Councils Burial Search and Bath Archives Burial Index. If your ancestor lived in the Adur and Worthing areas, this site offers a simple burial register search to enable you to find people buried in either Broadwater or Durrington cemeteries. The results tell you where they are buried and provide a map.
If you believe you have an ancestor buried in Bath, you can search on this site. Information can include name; dates of birth, death and burial; age at death; cemetery and grave location.
Staying with Bath, if your ancestors lived there between 1603-1990, the Bath Ancestors searchable database could be a real gem. It contains over 76,000 records of people who lived in and around Bath. The records have been indexed and transcribed by volunteers using original documents held by the Bath Record Office. The database includes brief details taken from the original sources, which is usually enough to enable you to identify individuals. The site states: “We index sources such as Coroner’s records, vaccination records, and Board of Guardian records. We’re always adding to it and it can come up with surprising results...”
Another recommendation is Essex and Suffolk Surnames, genealogy and local history website run by one of our FreeREG transcribers, Helen Barrell. It offers transcriptions of parish registers wills and poor law records, plus other historical documents, stories about families and interesting people, and hints and tips for research. There’s also a page of links to free online books for Essex and Suffolk genealogy - and a recommendation to try Ancestorian, which is a social network just for family history.
Staying with Essex, three more sites were recommended for this county.
Essex Family History is a site that covers the towns and villages in the Dengie Hundred area in eastern Essex. As the site states: “Family history research has two strands – firstly, finding specific data about your ancestors; and then secondly, finding out how they lived and what their world was like.” Accordingly, the site divides its data into two areas. The Family History index includes data ranging from BMD and trade directories to court records and sporting records. The Local History index provides links to information about the area’s local and social history – for example, 'buildings and physical features', 'everyday life' or 'village statistics'.
If your Essex ancestor was in the military, this site may help Military in Essex Family History. It covers the Essex Military, in its various forms, from 1415 up to 1958 when the Essex Regiment was amalgamated into the Royal Anglian Regiment. Or perhaps your ancestor was in the Police? If so, the Essex Police Museum could be a useful resource. It holds a large collection of service records for officers who served over 80 years ago, links to 'History Notebooks' free publications, and a digital archive of editions of the Essex Police newspaper.
And last, but not least, the Tameside Local & Family History site was recommended. It concentrates mostly on pre-1837 resources for the towns which make up Tameside and are not available elsewhere online. There are photographs, transcriptions of trade directories, census returns, and tax assessments; historical articles about Tameside people and places; and a forum.
Waiting to be discovered
Thank you to everyone who submitted their recommendations – reviewing the sites has been an eye-opener for us, and just goes to show how many other similar sites must be ‘out there’. It’s just a question of looking for them, and listening out for suggestions. So, our volunteer with her Sutherland Highlander soldier should take heart – there’s still much more she can learn about him and the family. It’s just waiting to be discovered.
We know you're wondering who you'll be hearing from at our 2021 online conference, so here you go... (Look out for the schedule coming soon!)
Guy Solomon & Joshua Rhodes
Josh Rhodes and Guy Solomon are economic and social historians of nineteenth-century Britain. At the Alan Turing Institute, Josh and Guy work on the Living with Machines project, using large-scale digitised historical datasets to take a fresh look at how the Industrial Revolution impacted ordinary peoples' lives.
Join Josh and Guy as they introduce you to the Living with Machines project and their work on large-scale nineteenth-century census data to examine the human impact of the British Industrial Revolution.
Discover the possibilities that these new, large datasets offer, the challenges of working with commercial historical datasets, and the importance of open data for the future of historical research.
Michelle is a Scottish professional genealogist, DNA detective, author and historian. She is an expert in the genealogical use of DNA and runs her own genealogy and DNA consultancy business, Genes & Genealogy, specializing in solving unknown parentage and all manner of unknown ancestor mysteries using a combination of DNA and conventional research methods. She also undertakes traditional family history research, living relative tracing, historical and television research, podcasts, tutoring, lecturing, course creation, bespoke family history books, webinars, speaking engagements and article, blog and book writing commissions. Additionally, Michelle is the official genetic genealogist of #AncestryHour on Twitter (ancestryhour.co.uk) and is known for her work on WWI soldiers, particularly with The Fromelles Genealogy Project. She is a regular speaker at major genealogy events. You can find out more about Michelle on her Facebook page, APG profile and follow her on Twitter.
Sarah's interest in genealogy started with her grandmother who had conducted research before the days of computers; her passion was sparked when she received her grandmother's research. Sarah has been doing genealogy for about ten years and has been active within the genealogy community. A team member of WikiTree, The Free Family Tree, Sarah is in charge of their social media and hosts weekly livecasts that feature different aspects of genealogy and WikiTree.
Sarah's presentation is:
"WikiTree: The Free Family Tree" WikiTree is a free online, collaborative one-world tree where members work together to create accurate, sourced profiles that not only compile the basic facts, but also biographies and photos. WikiTree's platform also enables its members to create non-person related pages to gather other information, such as those pertaining to a One Place Study. WikiTree is a community of genealogists where we all come together in different ways to grow our shared tree.