Regency (1800 – 1820-ish)
The first thing I think of when I think Regency is Empire Waist. The dresses gathered beneath the bust, falling right to the floor. Women wore really high-waisted long corsets underneath, tightly ringleted hair, and wide bonnets. Lots of sheer materials and cottons, a bit more risque than anything else in the 19th century. Look at Jane Austen and Napoleonic films for Regency style.
Hoop Era (1830 – 1870)
Queen Victoria ascended to the throne in 1837, ushering in a brand-new era and the fashions started to change into the quintessential mid-Victorian look: wide bell sleeves, a tight corseted waist, and voluminous skirts. An overall look of demureness, with the dress dominating and accentuating the female figure. Hoops were their widest in the Civil War 1860′s, with somewhat narrower hoops in the decades previous. Hair was a bit severe, parted in the middle, ringlets and looped braids on either side. Watch Jane Eyre, Civil War movies, and Dickens films for mid-Victorian hoop era fashion.
Bustle Era (1870 – 1885)
A short fashion era but nonetheless popular and very recognizeable. The bustle was a modified caged underskirt that accentuated the bum and pulled the focus of the dress towards the back. Dresses were more confined and closer to the body, allowing for a bit more ease of movement. Heavier materials and brighter colors than ever before. Hair became really elaborate, piled high on top of the head, with tons of ringlets, combs, pins, and ornaments. Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, Sweeney Todd, Sherlock Holmes, Moulin Rouge, Alice in Wonderland – take a look at these films for bustle fashion.
Gibson Girl (1890 – 1905)
Another short-lived fashion era, forever popularized in musicals like The Music Man. Gibson girl fashion is all about the sleeves – large leg o’ mutton sleeves that poofed around a woman’s shoulders. She wore a simple skirt, but the top of her dress was characterized with lace tucks, frills, and flounces. This style of dressing bridges the gap between Victorian and Edwardian, and can be seen in Oscar Wilde film adaptations, The Music Man, and children’s stories like Peter Pan and The Wizard of Oz.
Titanic (1910 – 1915)
The shortest-lived of all was the Titanic era, but it was also the most wearable corset-and-dress combination. The Empire waist came back into favor, but the dress was styled differently, with fabric panel overskirts decorating the underskirt. Hemlines became shorter, since women were more mobile than ever before and thousands worked. Ah, but the hats! The crowning glory of the Titanic lady was her hat – a massive brim, with a highly decorated crown of feathers, bows, and flowers. Watch Titanic and any World War I movie to get an idea of Titanic fashion.