When it comes to 1890s fashion, images of Gibson Girls with big hair, leg-of-mutton sleeves, and wasp-waists instantly come to mind. By now, with the exception of the occasional vestigial pad, the bustle had disappeared and fashion was once again re-defining itself. While in many respects traditional Victorian standards of feminine aesthetics remained in force (especially when it came to evening wear and ball gowns), new social forces were at work undermining this established aesthetic. The role of women in society was beginning to change and with it, fashion.
The 1890s is an interesting time for fashion in that we see the introduction of clothing styles intended for women working outside of the home and participating in sporting activities; it was an acknowledgement that women were becoming increasingly involved in public life outside of the traditional women’s roles.
In the next few posts, we will attempt to trace some of the style trends of 1890s day wear and hopefully gain some insight into this decade of change.
The leading trend of 1890s style was the move away from bustled/trained silhouette which had dominated the fashion world since the late 1860s. The mid to late 1880s has seen the bustle silhouette reach its most extreme form but by 1889, it was now giving way to a more upright, cylindrical silhouette and this was especially the case with day wear (although one can occasionally vestigial bustle pads). Of course, this shift did not take place overnight but its progression can definitely be seen during from years from 1890 through 1893.
Broadly speaking, 1890s styles for daywear can be broken into three periods:
1890 – 1894: Dresses are cylindrical and relatively plain (as compared to the 1880s), bodice sleeves have a slight pouf or “kickout” at the top. In some instances, there was a vestigial bustle in the form of a pad.
1894 – 1897: Sleeves begin increasing in size developing into the distinct “leg-of-mutton” style that comes to characterize 1890s style.
1898 – 1900: Sleeve size begins to reduce although there is often some pouf at the top as with the early 1890s.
In this post, we will be focusing on the early 1890s with an occasional nod to 1888 – 1889 where the first signs of the transition to the new silhouette can be seen. First, let’s take a look at a few of the many extant fashion plates documenting the transition:
In the above plates, one can see that the models (or croquis) have been created so as to emphasize a more slender, upright silhouette (aided by some tall hats) while minimizing the bustle (although there are still some examples of a pronounced bustle mixed in). Here is another good example from Godey’s Lady’s Book:
So are we simply going on the basis of idealized fashion plates? No, further evidence can be found in the pages of the fashion press itself. The following is a passage from the March 1889 issue of Peterson’s Magazine in regard to fashions:
Of course, the straight falling lines, so suitable for heavy clothes, the cashmere and other woolens, are not appropriate for the thinner summer gowns, so a little more drapery will be used for softer materials, yet the straight effects will be retained as far as possible, skirts will be narrower, and the tournure or bustle will be very small indeed.
To further follow up, we see the following comments from the June 1889 issue of Peterson’s Magazine:
Skirt-draperies will retain the straight narrow look. For stuff dresses, the coat appearance , opening in front over a plaited [pleated], gathered, or fancy front, is popular; while at the back of the skirt falls in long lines without looping…Bustles, cushions, and dress-stiffeners are very much reduced in size, some women dispensing with them altogether.
Finally there’s this interesting comments in regard to modifying dresses from the October 1889 issue of Peterson’s Magazine:
Some persons dispense altogether with a bustle; but most persons look better with a small one. An excellent idea in making thick dresses is to fasten a small pad right at the waist; you can either buy it or make it out of hair and muslin. You will like it much better than wearing a separate bustle…this year, on account of the dispensing with reeds and large bustles, many of last season’s dresses are too long and can be shortened without taking them out the bands.
Continuing, for 1890, we see much of the same thing going on:
The styles in the above two plates continue to emphasize the cylindrical silhouette and especially with the dresses on the far left and right of the April 1890 plate. What is especially striking is that the reception dress on the far left is very similar to styles found in the 1900 – 1905 time frame, all that’s needed is the s-bend corset. 🙂
And finally, just to round out things, here’s September and October, 1890:
Besides, the silhouette, some other interesting style details are beginning to emerge to include semi-open bodices simulating a jacket and underlying waistcoat or waist. Also, many of the sleeve tops have small poufs or “kick-outs.” Finally, one can also see that the skirts themselves are becoming smooth with few or no pleats, draping, or trim. These changes were noted in regard to Paris fashions by Lucy H. Hooper’s “Paris Letter” column in the October 1890 issue of Peterson’s Magazine:
I do not remember a season marked by such a pronounced change of the fashions since the year that witnessed the final disappearance of hoops, than has been that which we have just traversed. The last vestiges of loopings and puffings and plaitings have disappeared, and a lady’s streetgown, to be in the height of the style, must resemble an umbrella-cover as nearly as possible…
Sleeves are worn much less elevated on the shoulders than tiny were last season, and are now only sufficiently puffed to do away with the look of an actual coat-sleeve…
And now for some extant examples:
The above dress definitely embodies much of the style shifts that were going on. The bodice-jacket style combined with a smooth skirt gives a large “canvas” for the asymmetrical floral embroidery design.
This walking dress by John Redfern is representative of this shift towards a simplified cylindrical silhouette. The lines of the dress are clean and well-sculpted with little in the way of draping and pleating. Although the staging of dresses by museums and auction houses is often suspect, we believe that it’s safe to say that there is a minimal train and not much room for an extensive bustle. Below are some more views:
Our survey is admittedly brief, limited by the available pictures of extant garments- there’s simply not a lot out there and of what there is, a high percentage is misidentified. However, we believe that fashion plates and the writings in the fashion press go a long way to filling in the gaps. In our next post, we’ll continue the story forward a bit into the mid-1890s where we see the “90s” style come into its own.