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 LĂ©oty, 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. 🙂

1890s Style- Day Wear, Part 1

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:

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Le Mode Illustree, 1889

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Peterson’s Magazine, April 1889

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Peterson’s Magazine, June 1889

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Peterson’s Magazine, August 1889

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:

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Godey’s Fashions, September 1890

 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:

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Peterson’s Magazine, March 1890

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Peterson’s Magazine, April 1890

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:

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Peterson’s Magazine, September 1890

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Peterson’s Magazine, 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:

1890 Day Dress

Day Dress, c. 1890 with label: “Mme. Chamas, 66 rue des Petits Champs, Paris, France,”; Kent State University Museum (1983.1.178 ab)

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.

Redfern Walking Dress c. 1889

Walking Dress, John Redfern, c. 1889; Kerry Taylor Auctions

Redfern Walking Dress c. 1889

Side Profile

Redfern Walking Dress c. 1889

Rear View

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.

Some Seaside Fashion…

With the increasing interest in outdoor activities and in particular going to the beach, there was a corresponding increased interest in having the “right” fashion for such occasions. For beachgoing, yachting, or simply spending time at the seashore, designers were quick to respond and by the 1890s, there was a plethora of styles available to women.

Beach 1890s

Sometimes bathing costume was not available…

It could probably be argued that the first seaside fashions per se where those created for yachting, an activity that was decidedly limited to the upper classes. John Redfern was one of the first to popularize Yachting costume in the 1870s, being conveniently located on the Island of Cowes, the site of the Cowes Regatta which was one of the largest yachting events in Europe. Yachting costume pretty much followed regular day fashions with the only difference being an incorporation of nautical themes derived from naval uniforms, both officer and enlisted (i.e. sailors). Because of the nature of sailing, fabrics tended towards wool, cotton, and linen and trim and ornamentation tended towards the more minimal (although there were always exceptions).

Redfern Yachting Fashion Queen 1887

Some of Redfern’s “boating” or yachting fashions in the July 16, 1887 issue of The Queen.

Here is one example of yachting dress that’s possibly attributed to Redfern (according to the auction website) from c. 1895:

Yachting Dress c. 1895

Yachting Dress, c. 1895 (originally made in 1890, sleeves have been modified); Kerry Taylor Auctions Website.

Yachting Dress c. 1895

Full Front View

Yachting Dress c. 1895

Another Close-Up Of Bodice

Yachting Dress c. 1895

Close-Up Of Bodice

Yachting Dress c. 1895

Side Profile

Yachting Dress c. 1895

Rear View

This dress is constructed from a cream-color wool with matching upper sleeves made from a silk “grosgrain”- we suspect that it might be a silk bengaline or faille but the picture quality is not good so it’s hard to determine. It would be interesting to know how it looked in its original configuration before the leg-of-mutton sleeves were installed but we can only assume that the sleeves would have been fairly close to the shoulders with perhaps a small “kick-out” at the top.

Here’s another example from 1897 constructed of a cream-colored linen:

Yachting Fashion c. 1897

Yachting Dress, c. 1897; Preservation Society of Newport County

This yachting dress was part of the wedding trousseau for Mrs. John Nicholas Brown (née Natalie Bayard Dresser) who had the dress embroidered with the insignia of the New York Yacht Club in 1897.

And as an aside, we have always wondered just how women managed to get on or off of a yacht, given the somewhat confining nature of late 19th Century fashion… 🙂

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But it wasn’t all about yachting dress, the nautical theme was carried over into dresses intended simply to be worn at the seashore, whether on the beach or close by:

Day Dress 1900 Linen Nautical Theme

Day Dress, American, c. 1900; Metropolitan Museum of Art (1980.171.3a–c)

Day Dress 1900 Linen Nautical Theme

Close-Up Of Front

Day Dress 1900 Linen Nautical Theme

Front Three-Quarter Profile

Day Dress 1900 Linen Nautical Theme

Rear View

This dress is made of a mocha or dark khaki-colored linen and was made around 1900; based on the full blouse silhouette (suggestive of the pigeon-breast style), we believe it dates from the early 1900s. With its free-flowing lines, this dress allowed freedom of movement and the linen material was the perfect choice for wear in warm weather.

Taking the nautical theme further, here’s a similar dress from c. 1895:

Day Dress 1895 Linen Nautical Theme

Day Dress, c. 1895; Metropolitan Museum of Art (1986.150a–e)

Day Dress 1895 Linen Nautical Theme

Side Profile

Day Dress 1895 Linen Nautical Theme

Rear View

Like the first dress, this one is also constructed of linen, also in a shade of khaki. This dress is a little more fitted than the first with a slightly longer, narrow skirt and a more fitted blouse but is still practical for wear on the beach on hot summer days. 🙂

Finally, here’s another dress from 1895 that employs a different color combination:

Day Dress 1895

Day Dress, American, c. 1895; The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, New York ( P84.25.2)

The above dress is made from a white cotton pique with salmon-colored cotton trim that’s utilized on the hem, cuffs, belt, and collar. In contrast with the first two dresses, this one is a more structured and definitely has a typical 1890s silhouette (of course, the difference between the dresses may be simply be a matter of staging).

Beach 1890s

And sometimes one had to improvise at the beach…

Whether or not people had the “right” fashion, the seashore never failed to attract people and especially on a hot summer day. Enjoy your summer! 🙂