Some Gilded Age Inspiration

HBO’s new series The Gilded Age has been on our minds lately, especially since it’s returning for a second season,  and this circa 1880-1882 dinner dress captures that feeling for us:

Dinner Dress, c. 1880-1882; Metropolitan Museum of Art (C.I.63.23.2)

In terms of general style, this is almost identical to our gold brocade & blush pink dress shown above and it only shows that the dividing line between “evening dress” and “dinner dress” or “reception dress” is pretty thin. Of course, the dress could have simply been mislabeled (it happens more than one would think) but still…in the end, it can be pretty subjective and we by no means profess to have the answers, it is though-provoking.

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The State Of Fashion- Spring 1889

The 1880s were drawing to a close and with it the Late Bustle Era. While the fashion press hinted at new trends for the 1890s, older styles still prevailed as revealed by this commentary in the April 1889 issue of Peterson’s Magazine when it discussed Parisian fashions:

The fashions of the present spring show but little positive change, so far, from the styles, of the past winter. This was to be expected, after the thorough revolution in the make of dresses which has taken place during the past six months. The .adoption of flat-plaited skirts, of short demi-trains, and of modified leg-of-mutton sleeves, together with the revival of dresses with corsage and skirt or over-skirt cut in one piece, such as the redingote, and the polonaise, and the princess dress, are sufficient to mark the* inauguration of a new era in feminine toilette. Hooped skirts are abolished, to the great misery of the dressmakers who have discovered, after years of disuse, that it is much harder to make a gracefully cut skirt falling in straight plain folds, than one that admitted of being looped up here and bunched up there whenever any irregularity presented itself.

It’s interesting that the writer notes that dressmakers used loops and folds characteristic of 1880s dresses to conceal their mistakes. What’s also interesting is that reference of made to the leg-of-mutton sleeve although its manifestation was no doubt a lot more muted that what was to come in the Mid-1890s. 🙂 The writer further notes that:

The polonaise and princess-cut dresses are very advantageous for spring wear, as they can be worn for promenading without a wrap as soon as the mild weather definitely makes its appearance. A very elegant form of the latter style of costume is to have the dress in cashmere, with underskirt, plaited vest, and corsage-revers in satin. The satin underskirt is made in flat square plaits in front, the perfectly plain princess-cut dress in cashmere falling over it in straight loose folds…

The redingote is universally adopted for the more elegant form of demi-toilette, such as is in vogue for small dinners, soirees musicales, and such like informal entertainments. It is made in brocade, usually in a solid color, and opens from the throat downward over an underdress that may be in lace, or in satin, or embroidered gauze, or in crepe de Chine, being about a quarter of a yard shorter than the round underskirt. Very often the sleeves are made with high puffed epaulettes. When the underdress is in crape or gauze, a wide belt in some soft silken material is often added with good effect. The whole dress should be in one color, every portion of it matching in shade..

So what this might have looked like? Well, to begin, here’s one fashion plate from the same issue of Peterson’s:

Peterson’s Magazine, April 1889

The redingote style is further illustrated in this plate:

The left dress above is interesting in that the redingote takes on the appearance of a elongated tail coat and the overall effect is distinctly neo-directoire.

The above plates illustrate a number of variations on the redingote with an princess line underneath and what’s interesting is that the line between outerwear and garments worn inside is blurred. And just to be complete, here’s a couple of extant dresses that captures many of the elements described above. First, this dress from 1888 embodies the whole idea of the redingote combined with a princess line dress:

Mme. Uoll Gross, Day Dress, 1888; Metropolitan Museum of Art (2009.300.618a, b)

From all appearances, both the outer redingote and the inner princess line dress both appear to be continuous and in fact, appear to be of one piece. Of course, these are only photos so without the benefit of examining closer, they may be in two pieces but we seriously doubt it. Style-wise, we see a large vertical sweep that draws the eye up towards the center bodice.  The patterned “interior” fabric really stands out when combined with a solid dark outer fabric. Finally, it’s interesting that the rear silhouette has been softened, lacking the sharply defined bustle silhouette characteristic of earlier 1880s dresses. Next, there’s this day dress that was made in 1889:

Mme. Uoll Gross, Day Dress; Metropolitan Museum of Art (2009.300.619)

Although hidden by the netting, the bodice features a faux vest underneath:

While it appears that the bodice and skirt are two separate pieces, the overall effect is still vertical with an emphasis on the large vertical paisley design motif in skirt.  While we acknowledge that some of our conclusions may be stretching a bit, it’s interesting to note the various micro style trends that were going on towards the end of the bustle era. Here you can see the beginnings of the transition to 1890s style and to us, the transition is fascinating to watch.

The Bustle Dress – A Brief Overview, Part 4

In our last post, we focused on the influence of the princess line style on the Mid-Bustle Era. Today, we take a step back to fill in the reset of the picture with non-princess line styles.

Le Moniteur De La Mode, No. 47, November 1876

To continue our story, the Mid-Bustle Era was an interesting time in the fashion world where the bustle silhouette style characteristic of the early and mid-1870s give way to the late 1870s to a slim, upright, cylindrical silhouette. Often referred to as the “natural form era” or Mid-Bustle Era, the period from roughly 1878 through 1883 saw a dramatic reversal in dress styles: where once the style focused on draping and gathering of varied fabrics over a bustle, the emphasis was now on the controlled use of fabrics and trim to create a style with clean, sharp lines. Below are some examples, albeit idealized, of the basic style which could be found for both day and evening wear:

Le Moniteur De La Mode, No. 27, July 1876

Journal des Demoiselles, September 1878

Petersons_Sept 1880

Peterson’s Magazine, September 1880

Journal Des Demoiselles 1880

Journal Des Demoiselles, 1880

Revue de la Mode_1880_1

Revue De La Mode, 1880

Journal Le Printemps October 1881

Journal Le Printemps, October 1881

Journal Le Printemps June 1881

Journal Le Printemps, June 1881

Journal Des Demoiselles 1881

Journal Des Demoiselles, 1881

In examining this relatively short-lived period, it must be noted that “natural form” is somewhat of a misnomer in that the term refers to the ideal of the reform dress movement which centered around the idea that clothing should enhance the body’s natural form rather than constrict and re-shape it. The styles of 1878-1883, like their predecessors, relied on structured undergarments to modify the body’s appearance- something that dress reformers did not have in mind.

We start with this circa 1878-1883 day dress:


Day Dress, c. 1878 – 1883; McCord Museum (M2003.76.1.1-3)



The silhouette is definitely later 1870s with a long cuirass bodice extending down over the hips and there’s no bustled train at the top. At the same time, there is a train extending out, above the hem of the skirt; an train extending out at a low level was one style variation found during this period and in extreme cases was known as the “mermaid tail.” This was probably meant as more of a reception dress and a dress meant for everyday activity. Also, note that these dresses often came equipped with a “train hook,” a small loop attached to the end of the train that allowed the dress’ wearer to pick up end of the train so it would not drag on the ground.

Color-wise, we see the use of two shades of red with silk for the lighter shade and velvet for the darker shade that read as a jewel tone. The use of velvet for the dark burgundy red provides a contrast to the lighter silk in that the velvet traps the light while the lighter silk provides a more reflective luster. This is a common effect used during much of the late 19th Century but a beautiful one nonetheless.

Here are some more examples of daytime dress styles, starting with this one from circa 1877-1878:

Constructed from a gold silk taffeta, this dress consists of a separate bodice and skirt. The bodice is cuirass style, extending over the hips, and has full sleeves and trimmed with rows of knife pleating. The is constructed in two pieces with a flat front of horizontal and vertical ruched strips and a rear has fullness running the entire length of the skirt. One could argue that this look is a trained or “bustled” but it still flows on a vertical plane. Here’s one more example of this style from circa 1878:

Afternoon Dress, c. 1878; Museum at FIT (70.65.6)

This dress is constructed of a combination of solid and patterned dark blue silk taffeta for both the skirt bodice. On the bodice, the patterned silk frames the center front of the bodice and ends in the collar. On the skirt, the underskirt is solid blue and the two layers of swagged material on the dress front is the black patterned material- it’s hard to tell and you have to really blow up the picture to see it. From the two above examples, it’s interesting to note that both are either monotone or near-monotone in color and use various textures such as ruching and gathering to create the design effects.

Finally, here’s one last example that utilizes designs elements that were very characteristic of late 1870s style, contrasting fabrics in two different colors/patterns:

Day Dress, c. 1870 – 1880 (more likely 1878-1881); De Young Museum (52.12.1a-b)

In terms of silhouette, the bodice is a cuirass bodice with three-quarter sleeves combined with double layer skirts. Most of the bodice and the underskirt are a green silk taffeta and the front bodice and outerskirt are a blue-colored floral patterned silk jacquard (or similar, it’s hard to tell from the picture). The patterned silk fronts on the bodice make for a harmonious contrast with the solid colored silk, especially since each silk’s luster is a bit different. For the skirts, the two fabrics provide a similar contrast and the v-shaped outerskirt draws the eye upwards, following the path of the patterned silk. Using a v-shaped outskirt in a contrasting fabric was one style device that was often used during this period.

Next, we turn to evening wear such as this circa 1877 dinner dress created by Worth:

Worth, Dinner Dress, c. 1877; Metropolitan Museum of Art (C.I.69.33.3a, b)

This is another brilliant illustration of the late 1870s silhouette- the bodice and overskirt are constructed of a gold-colored silk jacquard in a floral pattern combined with a pistachio-green front underskirt that appears to be made of silk taffeta. Below is a closer view of the silk jacquard:

Close-up of fashion fabric.

Below are views of the rear train. As with the first example, the drapes from the bottom. The double-layered train has an underlayer of the same green pistachio used in the front underskirt, shown off through a series of folds, and is combine with an overlayer of the fashion fabric; it’s an interesting design effect. Below are some more pictures that show off the train:

Side Profile

Rear View

The above pictures give a really dramatic view of the train, especially with the rear bow giving the illusion of being the only support for the gold jacquard train.

Close-up of rear

Generally speaking, Mid-Bustle Era style emphasized vertical lines but at the same they could also emphasize horizontal lines as with this reception dress from the early 1880s:


Reception Dress, French, c. 1881 – 1883; Metropolitan Museum of Art (C.I.38.61a, b)

The dress silhouette is definitely slim and cylindrical with a bodice that’s somewhat shorter than what one normally finds with dresses of this period and a very high-waisted skirt to compensate. The dress is constructed from a gold silk satin with alternating layers of ruffles and gold metallic appliques; the same appliques are also on the bodice front and sleeve cuffs. The multiple layers on the dress front emphasize horizonal lines while keeping within the overall silhouette. Below is a closer look at the bodice front and upper skirt:


Close-Up Of Front

One interesting thing of note here is that in contrast with the prevailing norm of a longer bodice coming over the hips, this one has a shorter bodice and relies on a form-fitting upper skirt to do the work.


Side Profile

From the side profile, one can discern a small amount of fullness running up the entire length of the skirt that creates a small train. Here’s some rear views:


Three-Quarters Rear View

Rear View

 While not as elaborate as the front, the back of the dress has three layers of knife pleating extending to about mid-way on the dress. In contrast to the front, vertical lines are emphasized. Just for completeness, here’s some details:

Detail of bodice.

The above dress illustrates several elements of the Mid-Bustle Era style and in particular, the silhouette which is slim and cylindrical with a minimal bustle. Day dresses tended to have either no train or at most, a demi-train while evening dresses and ball gowns retained a longer train. However, either way, the train was low, flowing from the bottom of the skirt rather than off of an elevated bustle.

Luis Alvarez Catala, “Woman Before a Mirror,” 1878

And just for one final example, this circa 1880 evening or ball gown:

Evening/Ball Gown, c. 1880; Augusta Auctions

The silhouette on this evening or ball gown (it could really work for either, in our opinion) is interesting in that while it maintains the cylindrical silhouette characteristic of the period, the skirt has been shaped so that a train of sorts is created that runs down the entire skirt length and there’s no train leading away from the skirt hem. Both skirt and bodice are constructed from a yellow silk taffeta trimmed in white lace. The bodice is an extreme cuirass shape with deep points, both front and back. The flatness on the front of the dress is emphasized with horizontal rows of pleats and ruches trimmed with white lace. To the rear, the fashion fabric is fairly plain with two layers of lace trim running along the hem.

The side and rear profiles give a good idea of how the skirt is shaped in the rear and we can see a deep gentle pouf running down from the upper to mid-skirt combined with fullness leading to the bottom. While this skirt follows the basic design aesthetic of the period, it’s made some gentle departures with the rear skirt shaping and the lack of a train of any sort.

The above examples and those in the previous post give only a hint of the variety of Mid-Bustle Era styles and there were a wide variety of fabrics, colors, and trims that were utilized and the possibilities were endless. Stay tuned for more… 🙂

(To be continued…)


Style Analysis – The Early 1890s

When starting out to study any fashion era, it’s easy to get lost in the details- the old phrase of not seeing the forest from the trees comes to mind here. 🙂 But this situation is easy to overcome by approaching things in a systematic manner. To help, we found the following method to be very helpful in approaching l1890s styles.  Some key elements to look for when classifying garments are:

  • Silhouette- What basic shape is the garment or dress (since that is mostly what we are dealing with)? The easiest characteristic to look for is the bustle- is there one? Maybe a vestigial one? Does it have a sharp, shelf-like appearance or is it softer?
  • Skirt- Is it straight or does it have a train? Many formal dresses has some sort of a train, usually extending out from the bottom of the dress (for example the “fan train” or “mermaid tail” commonly found with Mid-Bustle dress designs). Is there just one skirt or a combination over and underskirt?
  • Bodice- Is there just a single bodice or is it a combination of an outer bodice/jacket and an under bodice/vest? Are the sleeve caps extended or blend in with the bodice body? The leg-of-mutton sleeve is an extreme case of this and reaches its height during the 1895 – 1897 time frame (although there were always exceptions).
  • Fabrics- What is the basic fashion fabric? Wool? Silk? Cotton? Some sort of a combination? Woolens were very common for day dresses and especially those meant to be more “practical” such as with the house dress. Cashmere was (and still is) a better grade of wool and of course, silk was used for more finer dresses for wear in public or for some sort of social event. China silk, dupioni, shantung, taffeta, faille, and bengaline were some of the more popular choices for silk fabrics. Brocades and velvets were also employed although often only as contrast fabrics. There was a wide variety of yardage used and one could easily write a book on it.
  • Trims- What sort of trim is there? Knife-pleated fabric along the hemline? Netting? Embroidery? Buttons? The possibilities are almost endless.

The above is only a very cursory review but it provides a good roadmap in analyzing fashion and especially if one is designing their own dress or simply classify a dress.

In this post we’re going to apply the above scheme a bit towards understanding the development of one of the key trends of 1890s fashion- the development of the jacket-bodice/jacket and skirt style. To begin, below are some examples of extant garments from the early 1890s that should give a better idea of what to look for. We start first with wedding/day dress from 1891:


Wedding Dress, 1891; Minnesota Historical Society (9444.10.A,B)

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Side View

The above was made as a wedding dress and has provenance as such but it also illustrates one of the more typical day dress styles that are characteristic of the period. This dress was obviously meant to worn in public and could have been used for visiting or as a dress to be worn at home to receive visitors; the beadwork gives it a simple elegance. Style-wise, we see that the bodice is acting as a jacket (somewhat) and some sort of shirt-waist or vest was worn underneath (the display mannequin just has some black velvet filler). Here’s another example, a little more elaborate day dress from circa 1887-1891:


Day Dress, c. 1887 – 1891; Metropolitan Museum of Art (C.I.55.40.1a, b, e)




This is clearly a much more fancy dress than the first one but it does share the same over-bodice/jacket style. If you look at the top two pictures carefully, you can see that the fashion fabric is a light brown faille or taffeta. The fabric lining the inside of the collar and trimming each side of the bodice appears to be a peach-colored chiffon and it acts as a contrast to better show off the beading.

Below is another example, this time a visiting/reception dress from circa 1891:


Visiting/Reception Dress, c. 1891, attributed to Mme. Lambele de St. Omer, No.30 E. 21st St, New York; Smith College Clothing Collection (1985.5.4ab)


The above dress utilizes a combination of rust-colored silk faille, rust/gold brocade, and a claret-colored velvet. The brocade overskirt skirt is covered with rust-colored silk tails leading down from the bodice/jacket and underneath is a matching silk underskirt. The bodice is styled as a jacket, suggestive of a bolero with its high sleeve caps and wide lapels/revers. The sleeves are made of velvet and contrast with rust-colored silk on the rest of the jacket/bodice. The vest is also made of a rust-colored silk. Also, it must be noted that the skirt does have a small bustle made of spring steel. Besides the classic bolero style effect, we also see the overskirt being topped off with a waistband of the same brocade material giving the appearance of a sash wrapped several times around the waist, giving the effect of an obi found on a kimono. It is interesting that the brocade pattern runs at a 90 degree angle to the pattern on the skirt.

Each of the above dresses attempts to utilize color and trim in different ways. The first dress is a mono-colored and uses the leaf-patterned embroidery to provide a contrast. The second dress uses two different colors- a light brown/khaki color as the base combined with peach-colored chiffon accents covered with elaborate beadwork. Finally, with the third dress, we see the use of three different colors (rust, claret, and gold) in three different fabrics to achieve its effect. The third dress is far more ambitious and it succeeds.

In the above three pictures, we have seen three very different dresses that still share come common style elements. In particular, each dress’s bodice is styled as more of a jacket than a true bodice and it continues a trend that stared in the 1880s and would culminate with the development of “tailormade” walking suits during the mid to late 1890s. While an under-bodice or vest was usually worn underneath, a shirtwaist could also be used. Below are some early examples of the walking suit style:

Redfern, Bodice Jacket, 1892; National Gallery of Victoria- Melbourne (D187-1974)

Walking Suit, c. 1892; Metropolitan Museum of Art (1982.82.6a, b)

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

Front Close-Up

Ultimately, all the above dresses feature a jacket and skirt style but each executes it in a different manner and this trend was present throughout the 1890s. Where before dresses tended to consist of a bodice/skirt or princess line styles, they were now supplemented by the jacket/jacket-bodice and skirt style. One of the end results was a style that was extremely practical for everyday wear which reflected women’s increasing involvement in public life.


Fabric Trends- Spring 1890

Fabrics are a major part of fashion and often are the center of focus of a dress design. In terms of style, a fabric could be said to consist of three elements: 1) the fabric’s specific type and construction; 2) the fabric’s decoration (i.e. does the fabric have some sort of decorative motif or is it plain?); and 3) the fabric’s color. This is illustrated in this commentary from the April 1890 issue of Peterson’s Magazine:

In the way of dress materials, the newest is a gauze with wide woven stripes in a fabric much more transparent than the ground of the material, these stripes being figured in large patterned designs in the thicker stuff. The effect thus produced is very pretty, and, when the gauze is made up over a colored satin underskirt, the toilette thus composed will be charming.

Interesting, that could be referring to Edwardian styles. 🙂 As for silks, brocades were definitely in vogue:

The newest silks are brocades, having very small sprays of flowers in their natural colors scattered over a black ground. Some of the designs are very tasteful as well as novel, and especially one representing a single stalk of the fuchsia with its pendent blossoms, and another showing one of the crimson clover. These floral designs are repeated on the foulards of the season- snowdrops or ears of wheat being represented on the black grounds, and fuchsias on cream-white or pale silver-gray.

Here are some fashion plates from Peterson’s that help illustrate this a little:

Peterson’s Magazine, March 1890

Peterson’s Magazine, May 1890

And here are some extant examples of garments that incorporate one or more style elements noted above:

Worth, Evening Dress, c. 1889; Metropolitan Museum of Art (C.I.59.20)

Worth, Ballgown, 1889; Metropolitan Museum of Art (C.I.68.53.11a, b)



Worth, Afternoon Dress, c. 1890; National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne (2015.688.a-b)

Sara Mayer & A. Morhanger, Day Dress, c. 1889-1892; Victoria & Albert Museum (T.270&A-1972)



Worth, Dinner Dress, c. 1890-1895; Metropolitan Museum of Art (2009.300.636a, b)

The above examples are only a small sample but they serve to underscore some of the fashion trends that were underway during the later 1880s/early 1890s.