The dresses with multiple pleats on the bodice became trendy at the end of the 1830s and remained fashionable until the mid-1850s. Such bodices are called “fan-pleated bodices”. This unique feature is a typical detail of this period’s female gowns. And it was extremely popular among the ladies of middle and upper class. We can find this design on many old photos from Europe and America. Let’s find out more about these cute piquant pleats.
The 1840s-50s dresses were, of course, worn over a corset, as it was still an obligatory part of any woman’s attire. So the bodice is designed to be rather tight-fitting, especially at the waist. At the chest and shoulders, the cut is a bit looser for comfort.
The pleats could be bigger or smaller, depending on the skill of a seamstress, the owner’s taste, and certain fashion trends. Sometimes, the gown was adorned with dozens of tiny pleats across the whole bodice. Or there could be just a few almost notch-like pleats at the waist. Trendy designs changed from year to year and region to region.
American cotton morning gown, fan-pleated dress, 1840. From The Met Museum
By the way, the 1830s-50s is the time when cartridge pleating (also called “organ pleating” or “gauging”) became widespread. This technique was more typical for skirts, but we see it on the bodices as well. It helps to fit large pieces of fabric into a small space – like narrowing a loose bodice to a tiny waist.
American silk gown with fan-pleated bodice and leg-of-mutton sleeves, early 1840s. From The Met Museum
The fan pleats were fixed using different methods. Most often, there were horizontal seams from below the bust to the waist, due to which the pleats maintained their shape. In this case, the pleats on the upper body of a bodice were looser and bigger and the ones closer to the waist smaller and tighter. Sometimes, the pleats were horizontally fixed only at the waist of a gown, their whole length was loose, and they were beautifully draped across the chest. Also, there were more elaborate ways of fixing the pleats than simple horizontal seams – for example, intricate shirred panels (pattern of pleats and seams at the waist could consist of tiny rhombs or various other shaped seams).
American silk afternoon dress with fan-pleated bodice, 1840s. From The Met Museum
These 1840s-50s fan-pleated dresses look adorable, even if somewhat odd for a modern eye. But when you see a vintage bodice with fan pleats, you can be almost sure that it comes from the late 1830s – mid-1850s. And imagine, all those pleats were sewn by hand, as sewing machines only started to appear at the time. So much work! But I would say it’s definitely worth it.
Here are a few real-life photos of wealthy women in pleated dresses from the 1840s-50s.