1890s Style- Day Wear, Part 4

In the past three posts on 1890s styles for day wear, we have shown quite a slew of pictures and commentary that seem to discuss the “X-Silhouettes,” “wasp-waists,” “Gigot/leg-of-mutton sleeves” ad nauseum. While this may seem somewhat pedantic, it is really aimed at defining what made the 1890s so different from the prior two decades in terms of styles. At the same time, style doesn’t exist in a vacuum but rather is a reflection of the greater society. In the case of the 1890s, it was a time of transformation for women and dramatic shifts were occurring in women’s roles and fashions and styles were quick to mirror these shifts.

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In this installment, we will be discussing this a little more while at the same time attempting to provide some of the technical basis for the styles themselves- in short, a look underneath the hood, so to say. 🙂 With that, let’s proceed…


Styles of the 1890s style, whether day or evening, were based on three elements:

  • Corsetry (to define shape)
  • Gigot Sleeves
  • Gored Skirts

Corsetry was the most important in that it defined most of the basic silhouette. During the 1890s, corsets tended to be longer with a more pronounced inward waist bend (i.e., wasp waist) although this is more of a general rule- much like today, there were exceptions in that there were a variety of corset styles to fit individuals with varying body types. The subject of corsetry can easily justify many posts in its own right so we’re not going to get too much into detail but suffice to say, the corset was the core of 1890s styles (and 1870s and 80s for that matter) upon which everything else was built.

Just to illustrate, below are a few examples of early 1890s corsets:

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Corset, Maison Léoty, French. 1891; Metropolitan Museum of Art (C.I.45.27a, b). The hook located on just below the second button was designed to lock the front skirt in place and to prevent it from riding up. A loop would be installed in the inside front skirt which would lock into the hook.

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Corset, Worcester Corset Company, American, c. 1893; Metropolitan Museum of Art (2009.300.3119a–c)

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Side Profile

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Corset, 1894; Metropolitan Museum of Art (C.I.57.51.1)

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Front Close-Up

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Rear View

As it can be seen from the above examples, the trend was towards lengthening the corset to cover the hips. Previously, corsets had tended to run shorter in order to accommodate the wearing of a bustle (i.e., “dress-improver”) but with its decline, there was no longer this need (plus the longer length helped to accentuate the wasp-waist look). In the example below, one can see the difference:

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Corset, c. 1885 – 1887; Metropolitan Museum of Art (2009.300.3497a–c)

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Side Profile

Besides corsetry, the gigot or leg-of-mutton sleeve further defined the basic early to mid-1890s style. Essentially, the gigot sleeve was a sleeve with an extreme excess of ease in the sleeve cap.

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Le Moniteur de la Mode, September 1895

In the above fashion plate, one can see a somewhat extreme version of the gigot sleeve style. Fantastical? Here’s an image from circa 1895:

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Miss Annie Burbury, c. 1895, Sidney, Australia

And this day dress… 🙂

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Day Dress, c. 1894 – 1896; FIDM Museum (S2006.870.22AB)

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Close-Up Of Sleeve

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As can be seen from the above, gigot sleeves came in a variety of styles and could be very large, often using over a yard of fabric in their own right. So how were those large shapes maintained? Here were some of the methods:

Sleeve supports included wire frames, boned undersleeves, or interlinings of various stiff fabrics such as Fibre Chamois:

Image result for fibre chamois fabric

Finally, we turn to skirts, or more specifically A-line skirts. Compared to their predecessors of the 1870s and 80s, skirts of the 1890s were built on fairly simple lines, consisting of multiple gored panels arranged so that there was more fullness towards the rear.

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Image result for skirt construction 1890s

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From the above illustrations, one can see that skirts were just one unit, usually one color with minimal trim; the over and under-skirt combinations common to the 1870s and 80s had fallen out of use had for the most part been superseded although it still lingered on in some instances. Style-wise, times had moved on…

Now, earlier we mentioned that by the early 1890s, the bustle had disappeared and this is certainly true as far as the “cage” or “lobster” varieties. However, there was one exception and that was the bustle pad. Even though skirts were by no means trained to the same extent as before, there was still the need for a pad to help fill the gap at the base of the lower back (anatomically, the base of the lower back dips in slightly) and provide some support for the rear of the skirt. Also, many of these pads also covered the hips, providing further support for the skirt.

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Bustle Pad, Horsehair (?), c. 1900; Metropolitan Museum of Art (C.I.45.48.6)

We freely admit that the above survey is somewhat repetitious of previous posts, but we wanted to clearly delineate what makes up the essence of 1890s “style.” Often times, people tend to consider the last three decades of the 19th Century as one continuous period for fashion and tend to get the various style elements confused. Each decade was fairly distinct and especially so with the 1890s. In any event, we hope you’ve enjoyed this excursion through Mid-1890s day wear and in future posts we’ll be taking the story further to the end of the decade.

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