The New Woman Of The 1890s

Fashion history is integral part of what we do and it never fails to fascinate us. Although much of fashion can have interesting subtleties and nuances, at its core is that fashion reflects the zeitgeist or spirit of the times.


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.

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

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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; 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; Metropolitan Museum of Art (C.I.56.10.8)

And it came in colors, mostly cotton prints:

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Shirtwaist, c. 1896 – 1898; 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

Along with waists, walking suits also began to develop. Consisting of a multi-gored skirt and jacket and worn with a waist underneath, walking suits were extremely practical and were perfect for everyday wear outside of the house and especially for going to work. These were mass-produced at lower price points and made by tailors for individual order and were often referred to as “tailormades.”1The term “Ladies’ Tailor” was often used during the 1890s and it was a recognized sub-speciality in the tailoring trade.

Below are just a few examples of the walking suit:

Walking Suit, c. 1896; Nasjonallmuseet, Norway (OK-1962-0073)

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Walking Suit, c. 1892; Metropolitan Museum of Art (C.I.53.72.9a–c)

Front Close-Up

The lines of the above suit are clean, the skirt relatively narrow although this could vary depending on the number of gores used Jackets could vary in style and overall, there is little adornment. Jackets cold be cut wide to expose the shirtwaist underneath s with the above example or more buttoned up as with the top example. Wide lapels were used to catch the eye and the trim patterns were often used to set them off. Overall, an understated look that reflected the rise of the “New Woman.”

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Doucet, Walking Suit, 1895; V&A Museum (T.15&A-1979)

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Another view.

Materials ranged from varying weights of wool to linen and cotton for the warmer parts of the year. 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, walking/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”. Often, 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.



The 1880s Walking Dress- One Example

One of the more interesting late Bustle Era fashion styles was the walking dress and especially when it incorporated the jacket-bodice style. Below is just one interesting example of this style from the late 1880s (the museum lists it as being circa 1885-1890):

Walking Dress, c. 1885-1890; Metropolitan Museum of Art (1980.126.5

Silhouette-wise, this dress is definitely late 1880s with a somewhat moderate bustle (at least with the museum staging employed) and consists of a jacket-bodice and two skirts. The jacket-bodice is constructed of a black silk velvet which opens to reveal a faux waist that appears to be a light brown silk organza or similar. The front edges, collar, and hem of the outer jacket are trimmed with appliques made from gold bullion and brown and gold embroidery arranged in a floral pattern.  The outer “skirt” consists of panels of black velvet decorated in larger versions of the appliques found on the bodice and the inner skirt an embroidered silk brocade. Below is a close-up of the bodice:

The side profile picture below gives a good view of the velvet panels that have been decorated with the large floral appliques:

The picture below gives a good view of the train:

The jacket-bodice walking dress was an extremely versatile style that could be worked in a variety of fabrics , trims, and cuts and was available in paper patterns for the home sewer with these styles that were available through Demorest’s Family Magazine:

 

The walking dress is an interesting late 1880s style in that it provided a foundation for the more practical walking suit that later developed during the 1890s. In future posts, we’ll be looking at this style more so stay tuned! 🙂



The Walking Suit Circa 1912

The Teens Era was a time of fashion transition as styles moved away from the tightly sculpted silhouettes of the 1890s and early 1900s. Corsetry was shifting, placing a greater emphasis on creating a smooth, slender upright profile and flattening the breast line- the “pouter pigeon” look was definitely out- and whether it was daytime or evening, the general silhouette remained the same. 🙂


Teens Era fashion wasn’t just about evening wear so today we present some daytime styles starting with the walking suit. The walking suit represented a major step in the evolution of women’s wear during the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. Starting in the early 1890s, the walking suit was considered an essential part of a woman’s wardrobe and by the Teens, it occupied a prominent place in fashion. Style details, construction, and fabric varied depending on price point but the objective was always the same- a outfit that a woman could wear out in public that was practical yet stylish. In response to the growing popularity of walking suits, clothing manufacturers produced walking suits in a variety of fabrics, colors and styles. Walking suits became to widespread that even the major couturiers couldn’t ignore it.  We start first with this this circa 1912 walking suit from Paquin:

Paquin, Walking Suit, 1912; National Gallery of Victoria (2015.670.a-b)

Now, we have to admit that this is bordering more on a dress than a walking suit but it illustrates one of the distinctive styles of the era- the faux kimono/robe jacket style. Constructed of ivory and salmon-striped silk chiffon and trimmed with black velvet, this dress gives a practical yet dressed up look and it was a very popular style. Here’s a similar style, circa 1913, from Maison Worth:

Worth, Walking Suit, c. 1913; Metropolitan Museum of Art (1980.16.3a, b)

Unfortunately, it’s difficult to determine just what the precise fashion fabric is but it’s mostly likely a tropical weight wool. The jacket silhouette is more of a robe held together by an elaborate waistband/belt.

Side Profile

Rear View

Here’s a more detailed view of the jacket back:

Close-up of the back.

The above walking suit is Jackets cold also follow a more conventional style such as with this circa 1910 Paquin walking suit:

Jeanne Paquin, Walking Suit, Spring/Summer 1910; Metropolitan Museum of Art (2009.300.474a–d)

The suit follows a fairly conventional silhouette and as with many of Paquin’s designs, it was very practical, especially with the skirt. Although the “hobble style” was coming into being during this period, this dress is open and allows for complete mobility. The fabric appears to be a gray tropical weight wool with excellent drapability- it simply “flows.”

Three- Quarter Rear View

Close-Up Of Sleeve/Back

The cuffs have been artfully cut so as to give the illusion of lace cuffs underneath. Here’s what was actually worn underneath the jacket and note that the half-sleeves. 😉

Close-up of the front without the jacket.

We conclude with a more conventional walking suit style with this circa 1910 suit:

Walking Suit, c. 1912; McCord Museum (M976.35.2.1-2)

This suit embodies functionality with a minimum of trim except for decorative buttons and the double-layer collar. The skirt is also practical, allowing for full mobility. Unfortunately, there’s no indication what the fashion fabric is- it cold be linen, cotton, or even a tropical weight wool.

Walking suits came in a variety of styles with varying amounts of trim and decorative elements but no matter what, the emphasis was on practicality. In future posts, we’ll be exploring Teens Era walking suits further so stay tuned. 🙂



And Now For Something From the Mid-Bustle Era…

Today we feature another dress from the Fashion Museum Bath’s collection. This time, it’s a day dress from the late 1870s/early 1880s, aka the Mid-Bustle Era/Natural Form Era:

Day Dress, c. 1878-1881; Fashion Museum Bath

With its emphasis a slender cylindrical silhouette, the dress is definitely of the Mid-Bustle Era. The dresse’s fashion fabric combines what appears to be a stripped light gray/ivory silk jacquard with a blue floral pattern that crosses both the gray and ivory stripes. The sleeves use the same fashion fabric on the sleeve caps and cuffs combined with what appears to be a plain gray silk moire that color matches the gray in the fashion fabric. For the skirt, the same fashion is cross-grain cut on the weft, creating rows of horizontal stripes and draped to create a series of swags. Also, as with so many dresses of the era, a line of bows run down the center of the skirt. Finally, along the bottom, we see a deep row of knife pleats on the same gray silk moire fabric as used on the sleeves.

From the above picture, one can make out the train with appears to be the same plain gray silk moire as the sleeves and hem. Below is a close-up of the neck and upper bodice. As can be seen, the fashion fabric has been artfully cut on grain, with outer bodice being all of gray while the inset is of ivory. The neckline is square, trimmed in ivory lace.

This detailed view of the upper bodice reveals several things about the dress. First, one can make out the opening which runs down the bodice front and ends at the waistline (which is a high waistline). Given the solidity of the skirt, it can be reasonably concluded that this dress was one-piece and while perhaps not “princess line” in the purest sense of the definition, it still leans that way because of the one-piece nature of the dress. Compared to more subtle designs from couturiers like Worth (who absolutely detested emphasizing the waistline in his designs), this one’s pretty obvious but doesn’t detract that much from the overall design. Ultimately, this is an interesting in that it clearly illustrates how many of these dresses were constructed, particularly how they opened up. Stay tuned for more! 🙂



And For Another Take On Circa 1912 Formal Wear

We haven’t done a lot with the Teens Era lately but it doesn’t mean that we don’t like it. 🙂 Recently, we came across two circa 1912 formal dresses what we thought were spectacular, especially with their use of the color gold combined with gold metallic embroidery to create their effect. Both are dazzling and definitely caught our eye. Enjoy! 🙂


In yesterday’s post, we showed a circa 1912 presentation gown. Just for some variation, today we’re showing a very similar dress style from 1912-1913 by Gustave Beer:

Gustave Beer, Evening Gown, c. 1912 -1913; FIDM Museum

We were fortunately able to view this dress in person and get up fairly close to it. The silhouette follows a slender form created by flat (relatively speaking in comparison to the earlier s-bend corset) corsetry. However, at the same time, the geometric lines created by corsetry were offset by draping on the outer garments which was especially evident with more formal styles such as this one. The upper dress combines empire and kimono style elements, especially with the high waist combined with the loose drape-like shoulders.

This dress is constructed from a gold charmeuse trimmed with gold floral-patterned embroidery. Combined with the main dress is a short overskirt of black silk netting with jeweling, artfully cut so as to end at the high waist, giving emphasis to this area. The arrowhead curves of the outerskirt also points the viewer’s eye upwards; this dress is a masterful example of the use of vertical lines in fashion design. Below are closer views of the netted outerskirt:

Note the v-shaped gold plastron that is placed over the the silk net overskirt that gives further emphasis to the waistline.

Finally, this is a view of the train. It’s been cut in a diamond shape that gives full emphasis to the embroidery design:

In comparison with the dress in the previous post, we believe that this is a more dramatic dress yet both deliver a serious impact that only differs in the cut of the fabrics and the use of trim. Also, while both employ embroidery, this dress does so in a more tidy and controlled manner culminating with the diamond-shaped trim.



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