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Hannah Billingshurst, c.1875
Lot 1357

History of the 1857 Promenade Dress and Notes on Late 1850s Fashion

This pattern was taken from a dress worn by Hannah Billingshurst of Juneau, Wisconsin. Hannah was the wife of United States Representative, Charles Billingshurst who served from 1854 to 1858. She probably wore this dress in her role as a congressman's wife between 1857 and 1859.

An 1850s Wisconsin woman in fashionable attire WHi(X3)50268

As would be expected of a congressman's wife, Hannah chose to wear a fashionable but conservative gown. Hannah's dress has all the necessary fashion elements of the late 1850s including the full skirt worn over a hoop, and the fitted bodice with a high, rounded neckline, long peplum, and full "pagoda" sleeves.

Left: The "Esmeralda Gown," Godey's Lady's Book, August 1857


  The green silk and black velvet ribbon trim and silk fringe from Hannah's dress.

Even Hannah's dress fabric is stylish for the late 1850s. Graham's Magazine in October 1857 wrote that new fabric designs had a large, bold, and striking character. Hannah's crisp silk dress accomplished this with its wide vertical stripes of emerald green moiré alternating with narrower stripes of gray shot with green and bordered with bands of gray and dark green. The fabric fits with the era's preference for geometric patterns such as checks, blocks, ginghams, plaids, polka dots, and stripes. The silk's crisp hand, usually found in taffetas, glacés, and moirés, was another fashionable feature. Hannah could have also chosen a soft wool, such as challis and cashmere, the other preferred fabric type of this period. Stylish women considered cotton a lesser material, only appropriate for utilitarian dresses and summer day gowns.

Top: The emerald green, black, and white silk fabric from Hannah's dress.
Left: Other fabrics from the late 1850s: The red fabric is wool. The other two are made of silk.

Black was the most popular color in 1857-1858, either as a dress color or trim. As Godey's Magazine noted, "The admixture of black with everything is a rage. It is extremely becoming in contrast with bright colors." In April 1857 Godey's editors wrote that other favorite colors included "delicate shades of purple, green, blue, stone color, brown, and lavender." They also supported the wearing of subdued reds, but added that "No lady with any pretensions to taste should ever wear a dress of crimson, scarlet, or any of the violent plaids."

Hannah trimmed her dress with green silk and black velvet ribbon above green and gold fringe. Every fashion magazine of the late 1850s wrote that black velvet ribbon was the best trim, though in 1857 and 1858 fringe was frequently mentioned. In January 1857 Peterson's Magazine noted that "For the trimming of [bodices] fringe is almost universally used." Three months later Arthur's Magazine wrote that "Fringes may be said to be the only trimming for a dress."

Douglas & Sherwood's "New Expansion Skirt with the Patent Adjustable Bustle," Godey's Lady's Book, May 1858.

The hoop skirt was the most distinctive feature of the late 1850s silhouette. Previous to 1856 women wore up to seven petticoats to create the skirt's fashionable bell shape. In 1856 the "crinoline,"a stiff skirt of horsehair was invented. It maintained the skirt's proper shape and was considerably lighter than layers of petticoats. Hoop skirts, underskirts with frameworks of steel rings, quickly replaced crinolines. Women's magazines praised both articles for their "great comfort and economy," and their aid in "avoiding the necessity for many skirts." Despite being large and cumbersome, they became necessary accessories for women of all classes and ranks. In fact by November of 1856 Graham's Magazine wrote:

"The plainest ladies, with but slight pretension to fashion, have given up their prejudices against [hoops] and adopted them. Thus [hoops] have obtained a complete triumph, not withstanding the fair wearers occupy two, or even three times as much space as they did formerly. That only increases their importance in the world."

Not surprisingly, the awkwardness, unnatural size and shape of hoops made them easy targets for cartoons and satires.

"Comparative Sizes of Bell(e)s," from Harper's New Monthly Magazine, December 1856

"Comparative Sizes of Bell(e)s," from Harper's New Monthly Magazine, December 1856.

Click on image for larger version

Hannah definitely wore a hoop with this dress, and the yoke at the back of its skirt suggests she also wore a small pad or bustle. Women from Hannah's time wanted their skirts to be bell-shaped. Unfortunately the small of the back caused "a falling in at the waist" that marred the silhouette they desired. The bustle's purpose was to help fill out that area and keep the skirt rounded at the top.

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©2002 Wisconsin Historical Society
Last updated April 02, 2002