1890s Style – More Than Just Gigot Sleeves And Wasp Waists

Fashion-wise, the 1890s have always been a source of fascination for us and one that we’ve been focusing on intensely in recent posts. While this may seem somewhat excessive, we would argue the contrary in that 90s are one of the most misunderstood periods for fashion. In the popular mind, 1890s styles seem to be nothing more than a never-ending parade of women in with excessively large Gigot, or leg-of-mutton sleeves and wasp-waists created by tight-laced corsets. It’s an era of excess with lots of “stuff” going on and for many it’s a major turn-off, especially compared to the liberating styles that were to be developed in the 1910s and 20s by Poiret, Chanel, Vionnet, and others.

However, we would argue that the 1890s marked the beginnings of major fashion shifts that were to come to full flower in the following decades and it’s evident in day wear. During the 90s, we seen the introduction of more functional day wear styles that reflected women’s shifting roles in society and especially in going to work outside of the home and participating in outdoor activities such as bicycling. Also, in terms of design we see a simplification of dress styles that relied less on trim and excess yardage (especially compared to the 1870s and 80s) and more on the decorative effect of the existing fashion fabric.

Naturally, as with all of fashion there were exceptions to every rule and many styles of the 90s retained elements of previous ones but we’re painting with a broad brush here. With that said, let’s proceed…

Today we take a look at one unique example of 90s style:

Day Dress c. 1894 -1896

Day Dress, c. 1894 -1896; Metropolitan Museum of Art (1979.346.25a–c)

Day Dress c. 1894 -1896

Front View

Day Dress c. 1894 -1896

Rear View

Day Dress c. 1894 -1896

Close-Up Of Collar

Day Dress c. 1894 -1896

Close-Up Of Sleeve

This dress ensemble was an ensemble made for  James McCreery & Co. (1867 – 1954), a major New York dry goods retailer that was active during the late 19th Century. The dress has the silhouette typical of mid-1890s styles to include the gigot sleeves and cinched wasp waist. The purple fashion fabric is a wool combined with black silk velvet for the sleeves. The same velvet is also used as trim along the skirt hem and stripes along the bodice front and back. Also, depending on how you view it, the sleeves are trimmed with stripes of the purple wool fabric. Finally, note must be made of the striped black and white waist that’s visible under the upper bodice and at the sleeve cuffs- this is probably a faux waist that’s part of the overall dress.

However, what is most notable about this design is that the front bodice is cut asymmetrically, a feature that’s emphasized by the black and white trim panels running along the front bodice edges. The bold front bodice treatment balances out the black gigot sleeves, serving to create a style that’s both balanced and bold. Interestingly enough, the Metropolitan Museum of Art website terms this as a half-morning dress but to us, that really just doesn’t seem to be the case but that’s just our opinion.

But wait, there’s more! Although there’s no information from the Met website, it appears that this was an ensemble that also came with a black velvet jacket and separate waist:

Day Dress c. 1894 -1896

Day Dress c. 1894 -1896

 There isn’t a good picture of the waist but it appears to be made of a white silk with gold embroidery and this is also carried over into the wide collar seen on the jacket. As with the bodice, the jacket is cut asymmetrically at the top. Compared to the bodice in the first set of pictures, the look is definitely more restrained and almost unexceptional. Perhaps that’s where the “mourning” aspect comes in but we seriously question that. 🙂

The above dress is an interesting example of one of the better dress designs to come out of the mid-1890s and especially since it did not directly come out of the Paris couture house (although they did license designs for the American market) with a specific designer name. We would certainly love to know more about the design and how it got its initial inspiration but we fear that this information is probably lost to the ages. We hope you’ve enjoyed this little excursion into the 1890s- in future posts we’ll be bringing more 1890s dress designs to light. 🙂

Looking Back…

I‘ve been going through the photo archive and came across a couple of pictures that were taken of me at an event at Old Tucson Studios. Here I am wearing an early 1880s day dress made of antique (pre-WW1 era)  plum/wine-colored silk matte brocade for the bodice and overskirt, and the skirt is a dyed to match silk faille trimmed with burgundy silk velvet, thrown in the dye batch to coordinate. The chapeau is an original 1880 (and rare) “flowerpot” hat, complete with original milliner’s tag on the inside, the sterling sash pin is from the time period as well.


And in this picture, I’m sneaking out to Chinatown…


Adam and I hamming it up for the camera…


It was cold the day we were there and it even hailed- but all the better excuse to be able to wear my winter clothes. 🙂

More Worth 1890s Style…

To continue the theme of yesterday’s post, we present some more examples from the House of Worth as it relates to 1890s style and using of the whole dress silhouette as a canvas for the fabric pattern with a minimum of extraneous trim. We begin with an afternoon dress made in 1896:

Worth Afternoon Dress 1896

Afternoon Dress, Worth, 1896; Museum of the City of New York (49.125.1A-B)

Worth Afternoon Dress 1896

Worth Afternoon Dress 1896

Close-Up Of Back Bodice

Worth Afternoon Dress 1896

Side Profile

Worth Afternoon Dress 1896

Once again, we see the entire dress as a canvas for silk floral brocade pattern fashion fabric along with an inset faux waist in the front. Compared to most Mid-1890s dresses, the sleeves are somewhat restrained and we don’t see much of the characteristic gigot sleeve effect (although this may be due to the staging of the dress in the museum display).

Below is one more example, in this case a dinner dress made someone between 1890 to 1895. Here we see the characteristic open bodice, lined on both sides with shirred tulle and sleeves cut close to the arm. The lapels and sleeve cuffs are trimmed with beading and the same shirred tulle as on the front of the bodice. Overall, the trim is fairly minimal and acts as a counterpoint for the main decorative effect- the floral pattern on the skirt. The flowers themselves are large and they trace their way up the skirt at several points. Visually, the skirt comprises the largest area and as such, provides the perfect canvas for display.

31.37a-b_threequarter_front 0002

House of Worth, Dinner Dress, c. 1890 – 1895; Metropolitan Museum of Art (31.37a-b)

31.37a-b_threequarter_back 0002

Rear View

The above two dresses are just a few of the many examples of using the skirt as a canvas for decoration and while this style was fairly common, it was by no means the only style during the 1890s nor was it exclusively used by Worth. In the future, we’ll be featuring more from the House of Worth from the 1890s as well as works from some of its competitors. Enjoy!

Our Design Process Or How Do Gowns Get Created At Lily Absinthe?

Strathern Ranch Dress

Often, we are asked just exactly how we go about developing our various dress designs. The short answer, of course, is that we get our initial inspiration from history itself through a variety of media to include paintings, photographs, illustrations, and various extant examples found in museums, private collections, and most importantly–our private museum collection.However, this is only part of the equation- we also draw upon the world around us. Whether it be colors of a certain variety of flowers in a garden, an Arizona sunset, or even a piece of music, these also go a long way in the design process. Designing historically-inspired clothing is not the same as simply creating line-for-line reproductions of historical examples, but rather it’s using what came before to build something completely new. Creating line-for-line reproductions has its place (like recreating a dress for a museum display) but for us it offers little inspiration.

So, just what is the process? Well, there’s no “one” method but broadly speaking, here’s a rough outline of what we do:

  1. Discuss with the client what sort of a dress they desire (eg., day dress, evening dress, ball gown, etc.) and what specific period are they looking at.
  2. Discuss with the client their likes and dislikes and basically determine what sort of vision they have for themselves- in short, how they see themselves.
  3. Assess the client’s skin tone and hair color and crate a palette of complementary colors and review with the client.
  4. Based on the above, work up preliminary sketches and review with the client.

This is a continuous interactive process and in reality is as much a matter of art than scientific process.

However, it must be noted that the above process is also informed by our knowledge of historical styles and textiles because each plays an important role in achieving the most optimal design that is not only historically accurate, but also harmonizes with the specific client.

Now let’s take a look at a specific example…

Inspiration is the starting point for any design and it often comes from unexpected sources and often quite suddenly. This project initially started with the vague idea of wanting to design a fairly simple early to mid-1880s day dress in a style that’s not often recreated. While our reference library and the internet provided a wealth of ideas, nothing was really clicking (it happens, even with us. 😉 )

Then one day we found it! Through our Facebook feed, we’d received some images of a dress on display at a small museum. The two things that stood out were the clean lines and the use of pale greens- shades of celadon, you might say. The lines especially caught our eye in that the utilize a pseudo-jacket with large revers, a style that one rarely sees replicated these days. Eureka!  🙂

After a little close-up photo research, we determined that the dress was held in the collection of the Strathearn Historical Park and Museum in Simi, California. This was even better- we’d be able to get a look at the dress in person and not have to rely on pictures alone. 🙂 A quick 40 minutes later, we arrived at the museum and were able to get a good look at the dress even though it was behind plexiglass:


The dress dates from the late 1870s/early 1880s and is characteristic of the Mid-Bustle period, especially with the cylindrical skirt silhouette and minimal bustle. The material appears to be either a silk or silk/cotton faille and the color is a light celadon (or gray, depending on the light).


From the above pictures, it would seen that the dress colors are almost shades of gray. When we initially viewed the original pictures of the dress in the Facebook feed, it appeared that the dress color was more of a gray. However, when we had a chance to examine the dress in person and to take our own pictures, it was obvious that the dress was of a celadon color with ribbons of a lighter shade of celadon. It just does to show that lighting can make all the difference in a dress color and it’s one of the pitfalls of doing dress research purely online.


Nice close-up- the sleeve fabric appears to be a silk faille.

Now for a little historical background starting with our old standby, fashion plates: 🙂


Revue de la Mode, c. 1879


Revue de la Mode, c. 1880


Journal des Demoiselles, 1882

The following dress is a good example of the pseudo-jacket bodice style although it’s from the Mid 1880s:


Day Dress, c. 1883 – 1886; Manchester City Galleries (1936-61)


Close-Up Of Bodice

And just to be complete:

With all of the above in mind, we set out to create a design for an early 1880s day dress that would incorporate defined lapels (or “revers”) along with a two-tone color scheme of lighter greens. As can be seen below, we opted to use a dark gray with green undertones for the lapels, collar, and an outlining strip that would run along the hem of the overskirt. Here are some views of the dress under construction:

1880 Day Dress Strathern Ranch

Strathern Ranch Dress

Below is a more complete side profile view of one sleeve and the skirt. We opted to put four rows of knife pleating on the underskirt, made from a silk dupioni.

Here is a closer view of the lapels:

1880 Day Dress Strathern Ranch

And yes, there’s definitely a range of green shades going on…here we see Adam’s shirt and vest next to the dress. It’s interesting to note that the greens on the shirt and vest are “warm” while the shades on the dress are “cold”. 😉

When the dress was finally completed, Karin decided to unveil at the Helldorado Days event which is held every October in Tombstone, Arizona. Here are just a few pictures of the completed dress: -)


Strathearn Ranch Day Dress 1880s Karin

The Final Touches…

Strathearn Ranch Day Dress 1880s Karin

And Of Course, The Obligatory “Selfie.”


And Here We Are!

And so the it is! This is just one example of how our design process works. What really surprised us about this project is how a simple off-hand picture posted on social media lead us on a path of discovery that ultimately led us to bringing an early 1880s dress style back to life. We hope you’ve enjoyed this little journey through the creative process and we hope to be able to design a dress for you.


Mac, our creative consultant, has decreed that there’s been enough fashion for one day and that he’s ready for dinner.