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.
The above shirtwaist has a band collar, intended for use with a detachable collar as pictured below:
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:
And it came in colors, mostly cotton prints:
The shirtwaist/skirt combination was extremely versatile and could be used as an early form of sportswear for activities such as golf:
And of course, bicycling 🙂 :
Ties were sometimes worn with the shirtwaist for a more formal look:
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:
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.”
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.
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:
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:
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.