Form and Fashion
Jacqueline Beaudoin-Ross and Cynthia Cooper, McCord Museum. Adaptation by Karine Rousseau



In the 19th century, fashion begins to change far more rapidly than it had in the past. The most overt manifestation of this accelerated tempo of change is the constant shifting of the fashionable silhouette of women's dress.

Rapid changes in fashionable garment styles are linked to the newly evolving consumer-oriented bourgeois society of the period. Women's dress becomes an outward indicator of an entire family's socio-economic standing, distinguishing the well-off from those of lesser means. Also influential in promoting fashion change is a general improvement in communications, which enables European fashion trends to be disseminated throughout North America within as little time as a few months.

An internal dynamic of change in fashionable form also seems to underpin the rapid evolution of the fashionable silhouette. This internal dynamic does not act in isolation; the collective taste of the time gives it direction. Collective taste is informed in a number of ways: through print sources, such as fashion plates, descriptions of fashionable dress and advertising; through reports and pictures of prominent individuals, such as royalty and performers celebrated as being at the fashion forefront; and finally through exposure to stylish clothing itself in a variety of public arenas. New sources of fashion information also develop in the mid-to-late 19th century, including printed paper patterns which are introduced in fashion journals in the 1850s and 1860s, and mail order catalogues which are widespread by the 1880s, making an ever increasing variety of factory-produced ready-made clothing available to a wide public.

A survey of the period from 1810 to 1898 reveals a wide variety of distinct modish silhouettes or forms. A 19th-century garment or portrait of an individual can usually be dated to within a five-year range, sometimes even to an exact year, based on skirt, sleeve and bodice styles.

Then as now, residents of large cities such as Montreal were highly fashionable, inspired by the very latest French and British fashions.