Fashion Push-Back: Tailormades

Walking Suit

It’s pretty much a given that fashions change but it doesn’t mean that change is necessarily accepted and there’s often push-back. One interesting example of this phenomenon was in during the 1890s with the increasing popularity of suits for women (aka “tailormades”). According to one commentator, a one Comtesse de Champdore, in the April 5, 1894 issue of Vogue (the precursor to today’s Vogue Magazine):

The great Parisian couturiers, with Worth, Laferriere, Felix and Doucet at their head, have put down their foot and at length carried out their threat of declaring war against tailor-made garments,which in future they will oppose tooth and nail. You may take it for granted that they would not have ventured upon such a momentous step unless they had previously assured themselves of the sanction and support of our principal leaders of fashion.

Inasmuch as the latter, at least those who influence La Mode, are no longer in the first bloom of youth it is perhaps only natural that they should have agreed to the proposal of the couturiers, since the severe simplicity of the tailor·made gowns requires a young face and figure to carry them off well, whereas beauty of a more mature type looks best when enshrouded in all kinds of flounces and furbelows. There is to be a complete change of fashion. We have done with 1830 and are back again in the Louis Quinze [Louis XV] epoch.

The balloon sleeves, the flounced skirt, the brimmed hat with feather tufts are from to-day obsolete, and the painters whom the couturiers’ designers are now studying at the Louvre are Boucher, Watteau, Lancret and Nattier. We are to come back to the paniers [panniers]; the genre Pompadour is to prevail, materials are to he transparent, colors are to be light, plenty of lace, plenty of guipure [Guipure lace], and, above all, plenty of essentially Parisian frou·frou. To use the words of Worth, “Woman is once again to become woman, and fashion is to find its task in giving emphasis to feminine form instead of concealing it. Masculine modes are to be abandoned.”

(Note: I have broken the original passage into several paragraphs for clarity.)

Well, that’s a pronouncement. 🙂 Getting past the concept of “designer-as-dictator,” this passage is interesting in that we see a style being rejected out of hand not only do we have primarily on the basis that it’s a “masculine mode” and as such, fashion’s primary objective is “giving emphasis to feminine form instead of concealing it.”

Why the resistance? The most obvious answers are simple: resistance to change in the status quo; it challenged established norms; and resistance to the changing role of women as more they began to enter the workforce in many Western countries for this first time in large numbers. It’s also interesting in that the style that the couturiers are advocating was the “Louis XV” style, a style that drew upon elements from the early to mid- 18th Century characterized by pale colors, silk brocades, lace, and elaborate trim.

Walking Suit c. 1896

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

But there’s also another interpretation: economics:

The decision meets with universal approbation alike on the part of our mondaines [worldly] and their tradesmen, for the Louis Quinze style is perhaps the most luxurious of all, and necessitates no end of jewelry and trimmings of every fashion and kind, all of which will help to revive trade, and perhaps render our fournisseurs [suppliers] less inclined to torment us for the payment of our bills on the time-worn pretext that “times are bad.”

Elaborate styles require more trim, expensive fabrics, and of course, accessories to include jewelry and that would keep the suppliers employed, an argument often heard today in regard to haute couture and the fashion industry in general.

Of course, one must ask if this is the opinion of just the writer or did this represent a major sentiment? Although a cursory online search yielded nothing helpful in this regard, there are hints scattered about that trends in Great Britain and America during the 1890s were going in the direction of simpler outfits for daywear as exemplified by the tailormade suit and skirt/waist combination. Yes, more conventional day dresses were also extant but what we see is greater variety of styles that were becoming available to women and especially those who were middle class.

1896 Waist Skirt Fahsion Plate

One element that would give this idea some weight is that going back to the early 1870s, Redfern, a house that had gotten its start in Britain, had built a thriving business offering women’s suits of various types aimed at women who were of the same class that also patronized Worth, Doucet, et al.

The idea of clashing trends between simpler styles and the traditional has always been a constant throughout fashion history and in many instances, it also symbolized conflicts between social and cultural ideas and in extreme instances, symbolizing seismic shifts in social and cultural attitude (the 1960 provide a prime example of this). Or perhaps we’re reading way too much into this… 🙂 In any event, it certainly reveals some cracks in the wall of seeming Victorian Era uniformity when it came to fashion and that bears further examination.

Outerwear- 1880s Style

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s a follow-on for yesterday’s post, I got to thinking about women’s outerwear of the late 19th Century and especially in the context of smaller towns, muddy streets, et al. (and especially in the West). In the course of doing an online search for some examples of outerwear, I was struck by the fact that while examples abound of more stylish garments, there are few that are focused on functionality such as those depicted in this picture:

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Yankton, South Dakota, 3d street looking west from Walnut. 1881

However, not all was lost and I did manage to find this interesting example from the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art:

Womens Coat c. 1883

Women’s Coat, American, c. 1883; Metropolitan Museum of Art (1982.348.3)

Womens Coat c. 1883

Side Profile

Womens Coat c. 1883

Rear View

This coat is almost very similar to the one worn by the woman in the center front of the picture. Now, just for fun, here’s a more elaborate design by John Redfern:

Womens Coat Redfern 1888

Redfern, Women’s Coat, 1888; Chicago History Museum (1987.471.1a-)

Womens Coat Redfern 1888

Close-Up

Womens Coat Redfern 1888

Three-Quarter Side View

Womens Coat Redfern 1888

Three-Quarter Rear View

This coat design is a women’s version of the Inverness coat/cloak with tailored lines designed to work with the bustled dress style characteristic of the late 1880s. The above is only a small sample but it does give an idea of the sort of outerwear that was found in the 1880s. In future posts, I will be looking for more tie-ins between fashion in action (i.e., being worn) and the garments themselves. Stay tuned! 🙂

Charles Frederick Worth & Early Haute Couture

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Costume College was busy for me this year. Besides delving into the world of Paul Poiret, I also delved into the world of haute couture during the later 19th and early 20th Centuries, an ambitious topic to say the least- one could easily go on for days and barely scratch the surface. 🙂 Fashion  history has always been fascinating and even more so when one makes little discoveries that link the world of the past with today and the research process never fails to disclose tiny nuggets of useful information.

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In many respects, the world of haute couture, as we know it today, got it’s start in Paris largely through the efforts of one man- Charles Frederick Worth. Moreover, he was able to capitalize on a series of trends that had been developing for quite some time. Specifically, going back to reign of Louis XIV, royal patronage driven by the consolidation of the monarchy as the supreme ruling power in France combined with France’s growth as an economic, military, and cultural power served as a catalyst for the development of the textile industry and the needle trades. All the right elements were in place and over the next 300 years a thriving garment began to develop, spurred by patronage both by the Crown and nobility (as they sought to remain in good graces with the King).

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By the mid-19th Century, industrialization served to further spur the growth of the textile and needle trades (can you say sewing machine?) and the ground was fertile for a man like Charles Worth. Worth transformed a relatively decentralized industry composed of many individual dressmakers working in small establishments into a large-scale industry employing hundreds, if not thousands. Worth consolidated fabric procurement with production (before this, it was customary for clients to bring their own fabrics to the dressmaker). Also, for marketing, he employed the technique of having his clients choose from a series of sample models, modeled by an army of pretty young women; the client would make a selection and a custom garment would be created. The model was intended to give the client an idea of the final product- often, the fabrics and trim would vary to the individual client.

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What also makes Worth unique is that in 1860 he was able to secure the patronage of the Empress Eugénie and this cemented his reputation; as the center of the French court, the Empress set the styles and naturally everyone of importance wanted to emulate her.

With the demise of the Napoleon III and the Second Empire, Worth was forced to seek expanded markets- no longer did he have a guaranteed client base founded on royal patronage- so he was forced to seek a wider client base. Worth was ultimately successful in this endeavor and by the time he died in 1895, he had clients on all seven continents.

In many ways, the demise of the Empress’s patronage was the best thing for both Worth and haute couture in general in that it pushed couture out to a wider audience and stimulated greater design/style creativity- styles were not determined by the whim of a few people but rather transferred the power to the designers (and ultimately their clients). It also helped couture to reach a wider audience and facilitate the diffusion of fashion.

Worth Ballgown 1898

House of Worth, Ballgown,, 1898; Metropolitan Museum of Art (2009.300.1324a, b)

 

Of course, Worth wasn’t the only couturier- there were many others. Some of Worth’s leading contemporaries were Jacques Doucet, Emile Pingat, John Redfern, and Jeanne Paquin- all fascinating as designers. Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of information out there on many of these designers and they’ve become almost forgotten.

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Jacques Doucet

John Redfern

John Redfern

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An early portrait of Emile Pingat; Courtesy of Jacques Noel

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Jeanne Paquin

The above is only a very broad sketch of the topics that I covered in my presentation and I felt that it went pretty well. For the future, I may narrow my focus a bit but nevertheless, it wasn’t bad for a first outing. Stay tuned for more… 🙂

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:

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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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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.

1890s Style- Day Wear, Part 2

With few major exceptions, the process of fashion evolution tends to be gradual and it doesn’t always happen evenly or in a straight-forward manner. In fact, much of the dating used in fashion history tends to be arbitrary and represented more of an approximation than a precise moment when a fashion changed. During the late 19th century, fashion change came at a much slower pace than what we’re used to today in an era of fast fashion and social media and sometimes it defies neat categorization.

In our last installment, we attempted to identify some signs that the shift from the bustle silhouette to something different was happening in the years from 1889 through 1890 but our conclusions are by no means the only ones possible. Our goal is to shine a light on some of the more obscure aspects of late 19th Century fashion and provide a starting point for further study. With that, let’s proceed… 🙂


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As the 1890s moved on, the bustle had almost disappeared except for perhaps a small pad in some instances. Essentially, the basic silhouette was taking on a more upright appearance with an emphasis on a less structured flowing skirt ending in a narrow waistband. Moreover, as the 1890s progressed, we being to see the emergence of the “wasp waist” silhouette where the skirt and the bodice were emphasized while the waist was minimized, an effect achieved through corseting; the iconic leg of mutton sleeves contributed to this by emphasizing the upper torso.

This style began to manifest itself by 1892 and here are a few examples or at least the idealized version:

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Journal Des Demoiselles, 1892

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Journal Des Demoiselles, August 1893

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The Delineator, 1894

 

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Le Mode Illustree, 1894

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Journal Des Demoiselles, August 1894

The above fashion plates pretty much capture the shift in styles during the early to mid 1890s characterized by a narrow waist and exaggerated fullness to the skirt and bodice. The full upper sleeves (often termed gigot or leg of mutton sleeves) also served to emphasize the bodice size and these came in a variety of shapes and configurations. Compared to the 1880s, 1890s style seemed to be relative unstructured with flowing skirts and seeming emphasis on a free-flowing “natural form.”

The fashion plate below provides an excellent visual summary of the early to mid 1890s silhouette where we see a narrow “wasp waist” combined with a voluminous skirt and bodice: broadly speaking, the silhouette was now of an “X” shape.

1894

When viewing these fashion plates, it would seem that dresses had become more loose (i.e. natural) with much less of the sculpted structure that characterized the 1880s. However, 1890s style was just as structured but in a different way. Whereas the 1880s skirts were characterized by draping and bustled trains, 1890s skirts were characterized by gored skirts that were wide at the bottom and culminated in a narrow waist, emphasizing free movement. To balance the wide skirts, bodices were also cut full. Of course, there was a variety in the individual details but the ultimate silhouette was still there.

Fashion plates can be informative but only go so far in helping to understand style. As with the 1870s and 80s, there were several basic styles that could be worked in a seemingly infinite combination of fabrics and trims. As with all late 19th Century styles, while the overall silhouette tended to remain the same, choices in fabrics, cut, and trim often varied, ranging from the very plain and utilitarian to the elaborate on a scale suitable for the most formal of day affairs.

Below are a few different examples:

Day Dress 1894

Day Dress, c. 1894; Metropolitan Museum of Art (35.134.13a, b)

Day Dress 1894

Close-Up Of Bodice Front

Day Dress 1894

Side Profile

Day Dress 1894

Rear View

Day Dress 1894

Detail Of Sleeve And Cuff

Naturally, the one is first attracted by the striking effects of the silk overskirt with its pattern of waving stripes in light and dark gray (or light and dark silver, depending on your interpretation); it’s an incredible weave. What is also interesting is the juxtaposition of velvet sleeves and collar and bodice trim, all in brown- you have the cold grays combined with a warm brown. The center is the bodice is a bit busy with a lace front but is framed by more light gray silk that matches the light gray stripes. Finally, the bullion soutache adds further embellishment that further adds to the dress’s overall effect. The use of fabrics and trim all combine to create a three-dimensional effect of various textures.

In terms of silhouette perspective, the use of the over and under skirt combination would seem to be a throw-back to the 1880s (it wasn’t for the the sleeves and bodice which are definitely characteristic of the 1890s). It’s an interesting anomaly and one can see a few examples in fashion plates- perhaps this is more of a transitional style but definitely not the norm.

Now for a something more plain:

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Day Dress, c. 1893 – 1894; Metropolitan Museum of Art (C.I.58.2a, b)

1890s style for day dresses was often relatively simple with little trim and often monochromatic. Here we see a more developed set of gigot or leg-of-mutton sleeves, narrow waist and full, untrained skirt with multiple gores. The bodice is designed to mimic the waist and jacket combination only all in one color.

Finally, here’s another common style based on the jacket/waist combination:

1893 Walking Dress

Walking Dress, c. 1893; Metropolitan Museum of Art (1979.163a, b)

1893 Walking Dress

Close-Up Of The Bodice

1893 Walking Dress

Side Profile

1893 Walking Dress

Rear View

 Here are a few more views:

The walking suit was a popular style and features a wool check pattern skirt and outer jacket combined with a navy blue waist complemented with wide lapels in the same color. Often, the jacket featured wide lapels which carried over in to the early 1900s, the lapels growing even more extravagant in size.

From the above examples and those in the previous post, we can see the emergence of the classic wasp waist or “X” silhouette of the Mid-1890s. In the next installment, we’ll take a closer look of this classic 1890s style and especially the “leg-of-mutton” sleeve style so stay tuned. 🙂