I'm going to leave the younger women and young mothers for another time, but I'd like to examine this idea when it comes to mature women's habits of dress. Using my very thorough Pinterest boards, I did a survey of the (late) eighteenth, nineteenth, and (early) twentieth centuries, looking for images of either women depicted with children who look at least ten and women with grey hair, etc. When it came to portraiture, I tried to mainly consider paintings with solid dates and the name of the sitter, so I could be sure of how old she was and know that the portrait hadn't been dated just based on the style of dress, which could throw off my conclusions.
Portraits are not representative of a broad swath of society, but just the upper class and upper middle class - the flipside being that these are the women whose clothing tends to survive, which makes them very relevant to the question of dating extant clothing.
What did I find?
Middle-aged and older women whose portraits were painted were not dressed in the fashions of their youths.Their clothing ranged from current fashions worn with less trim (mainly in early middle age) to sober, dark (often brown, in the 18th century) gowns that could almost be called anti-fashion: they only follow the lead of fashion to a certain extent, but are mainly about an age-appropriate solemnity. I wouldn't call their clothing "in style" but it's also not "out of style" because it was never in style in the first place. For example, in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, flat and concealing kerchiefs that covered the entire chest were very common for this age group.
There are various prints and genre paintings available from this period as well, which show older women in both current dress and somewhat old-fashioned dress. Neither option seems well confirmed by the sources: the genre paintings are often sentimental, depicting quaint country scenes that owe more to the artist than to strict realism, and the prints are overwhelmingly satires of "ewe drest lamb fashion", mocking older women for wearing tall wigs, clinging muslin, and/or cosmetics, and occasionally of old women who successfully imitate the young and trick men into finding them attractive. There is almost certainly some exaggeration involved - criticisms of women and their dress have always reeled from one extreme to the other, and are sometimes contradictory - but it shows the general feeling that older women should have a certain decorum and modesty in dress. However, for so many of these prints to exist, for the stereotype to be so well known, there must have been older women who did flaunt more current fashions.
|Mary Harvey Champneys (at about 37) and Sarah Champneys (Tunno), Edward Savage, 1789; Gibbes Museum of Art 1937.2.2|
What seems to be have been the case in the 18th century is that, like today, older women were supposed to avoid certain trends, such as very tall hair in the 1770s and white chemise gowns in the 1790s, that were high fashion and/or the province of the young, because to indulge in them was unseemly; at the same time, looking up-to-date was clearly a priority and being seriously behind the times was also cause for ridicule. An opaque chemisette or kerchief (or simply a higher neckline) and an enveloping cap were a distinctive older woman's style rather than a sign of being unfashionable.
|Mme Félicité Longrois Riesener (1786-1847) (at age 49), Eugène Delacroix, 1835; MMA 1994.430|
Jane Burton's clothes are hard to assess as representative or not of 1846, but the real question would be - do they strongly resemble the clothes of 1836, or 1826, or some other date? The little we can see are the V neckline (appropriate for the mid-1840s) and loose but not full sleeves (certainly not appropriate for the 1830s or later 1820s); her cap, while turned into a modest anti-fashion statement, does show shaping more reminiscent of the early 1830s. Similarly, Thomasine Blight's cap is five to ten years out of date, more characteristic of the late 1840s, with the emphasis down near the cheeks.
But this is the beginning of the era of the studio portrait, a medium in which many more details of clothing can be seen. There are photographs of older women in very fashionable - even "trendy" - dress, as in this 1861 portrait. This one of Amanda Langdon in 1884 is likewise an example of fashionable dress, with no frumpy cap and an appropriately fitted and decorated bodice. Lydia Lapham, at age 54 in 1891, wore her hair with curled fringe and her sleeves with puffs at the top. Not all women were quite so au courant: Eliza Pruyn, on her daughter's wedding day in 1901, looked more like a fashion plate from 1898; in this group portrait, the older woman's sleeves are not as inflated as the younger one's. This is a matter of only a few years, though, not a previous generation.
|Wing family portrait, 1874; CHM 1978.3.2224|