The New Woman of the 1890s

To the casual observer, the 1890s seemed to be little different from previous decades and was simply part of a monolithic seemingly never-ending “Victorian  Era”. However, the reality was far different and during this decade, major social, political, and economic changes were beginning to occur. Some changes would take decades to ultimately play out while others would occur at a much faster rate.

One of the most profound social changes during the 1890s was the rise of the “New Woman,” a woman who pursued an autonomous life independent from traditional marriage and motherhood. One key elements of the “New Woman” was that she was not economically dependent on a husband, pursuing an independent career. While this was the ideal, in practice it did not always work out this way but still it signaled a major change in women’s social roles. Along with this sense of independence, women also pursued leisure time activities outside of the home, something facilitated by the development of various sporting activities such as bicycling.

The rise of the New Woman was naturally reflected in the world of fashion. Most significantly, fashions began to become somewhat more functional (although the corset still remained part as an element of dress). With more women entering the workforce on the white collar level, more practical styles developed, the two most notable being the shirtwaist/skirt combination and the tailormade suit.

First, we turn to the shirtwaist/skirt combination. Shirtwaists were available in an almost endless multitude of styles and materials, the shirtwaist was a basic garment and available at prices for just about every wallet. Some were more feminine, featuring embroidery while others were meant to mimic men’s shirts. Fabrics could vary from sturdy cottons for day wear to silks and taffetas for more formal evening wear and came in white and various colors. Finally, sleeves tended to be larger around the shoulders during the early to mid 1890s, mimicking the distinct leg of mutton sleeve style found in dresses of the period.

Shirtwaist2

Shirtwaist, American, c. 1899 – 1902; Made of cotton; Metropolitan Museum of Art (C.I.51.15.16a, b)

Collar1

Detachable Collar, Metropolitan Museum of Art

The above shirtwaist has a band collar, intended for use with a detachable collar as pictured below:

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Shirtwaist, c. 1890 – 1899; made of silk; Fashion Institute of Design Museum (2003.793.7AB)

The above examples are interesting in that the pleating is gathered into a band along the bottom of the shirtwaist. This would be covered by the skirt, thus creating a crisp, neat appearance.

Now for something a bit more fancy:

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Shirtwaist, c. 1895; Made of silk/cotton; Metropolitan Museum of Art (C.I.56.10.8)

And it came in colors:

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Shirtwaist, c. 1896 – 1898; Made from color print cotton; Metropolitan Museum of Art (C.I.59.32.4)

The shirtwaist/skirt combination was extremely versatile and could be used as an early form of sportswear for activities such as golf:

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Shirtwaist and skirt combination with belt, c. 1893; Kyoto Costume Institute (AC2122 79-6-9AF, AC2123-2124 79-6-10AB)

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Charles Dana Gibson, once again…

  And of course, bicycling 🙂 :

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Charles Dana Gibson, 1896

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Unknown woman, probably early to mid 1890s, judging from the sleeves.

 Ties were sometimes worn with the shirtwaist for a more formal look:

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Radfahrkostüm (Bicycle costume), c. 1900; Wien Museum

During the 1890s, tailors began to branch out into women’s clothing, making tailored suits styled for women and were known as “Tailoremades”. These afforded a more practical mode of dress for women who left the home. Below are just a few examples:

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Suit, American, c. 1892; Made from wool and cotton; Metropolitan Museum of Art (C.I.53.72.9a–c)

The lines of the above suit are clean, the skirt relatively narrow. Overall, there is little adornment although the jacket is cut wide to expose the shirtwaist underneath. On top, wide lapels catch the eye and the trim pattern helps set them off. Overall, an understated look that reflected the rise of the “New Woman.”

Doucet

Suit, French, 1895; Designed by the Jacques Doucet; Made from linen, with collar and cuffs embroidered with silk cord, elastic stays attached to the inside of the skirt to control the fullness; V&A Museum (T.15&A-1979)

Doucet3

Another view.

Once again we see clean lines only now the skirt is perhaps a little wider and the sleeves taking on the leg of mutton style. There is little in the way of decorative adornments except for the lapels but even here it’s hard to make out.

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Suit, c. 1898; McCord Museum (M2003.12.2.1-2)

Finally, we have an example representative of the late 1890s. The lines of the suit are still clean only now both the skirt and sleeves are narrow and restrained. There is some decoration but it’s subtle.

Also, like their male counterparts, Tailormades could also take the form of a three-piece suit:

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Finally, Tailormade Suits also were a logical choice for women who wanted to ride bicycles and the market responded with some of the first examples of “sportswear”. The only difference between the cycling suit and a regular Tailormade suit was that the skirt was shorter. Below is one example:

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Cycling Suit, American, c. 1896 – 1898; Metropolitan Museum of Art (2009.300.532a–d)

The 1890s saw women taking on a more independent, autonomous existence and fashion followed this trend. While it fell short of what was to come during the mid to late 20th Century, it was still a major departure for women and one can see the traditional order of male/female relationships begin to shift. Fashion is constantly adapting to social change and the 1890s were no exception. The Victorian Era was definitely on its way out.

One thought on “The New Woman of the 1890s

  1. Pingback: Sports Clothes, 1880s Style…. | Lily Absinthe

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