The Advent of Sportswear- 1880s Style

During the 1880s, sportswear became increasingly prevalent in women’s wardrobes as women increasingly spent more time outside the house and participated in various sporting activities. Cycling, tennis, and yachting were some of the more popular outdoor pastimes and while these started with women from affluent backgrounds, they gradually began to trickle down to the middle class.

Tennis costyme1881 - 1880s in Western fashion - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia


As mentioned in an earlier post on John Redfern/Redfern & Sons, one of Redfern’s specialties was designing sports clothes and in particular, yachting dresses. Below is a plate from the July 31, 1887 issue of Harper’s Bazar:

Yachting and Tennis Dresses from Harper_s_Bazaar_1887

Moving from left to right, each dress is described:

Fig. 1- This youthful gown has a red serge Eton jacket, a white cloth waistcoat with gilt cord and buttons, and navy blue serge skirt with white cloth panels and a short apron. Gilt anchors of cord are on the white cuffs of the red jacket and anchors trim the skirt on the hips and at the foot. The red straw sailor hat has a white ribbon band and bow.

Fig. 2- This pretty dress for either tennis or yachting is of blue and white stripped serge or flannel, with a blouse-waist of dark blue India silk or of surah. The jacket is of simple sacque shape, quite short behind, pointed in front, open from the collar down. The lower skirt has wide pleats, and the apron is deep and pointed. White cloth sailor hat with blue ribbon band.

Fig. 3- This costume has a blue jacket, skirt, and cap, decorated with red anchors. The draped bodice is of white washing silk or of white wool, with a gilt belt and gilt buttons. The jacket is short and adjusted behind, but falls open in front in square tabs; it is lined throughout with red silk, which shows at the top when turned back.

Fig. 4- This gown is of white wool, with surplice belted waist and plastron, belt, sash, and borders of blue and white striped wool or of washing silk. It can also be made of navy blue with jersey webbing of blue and white stripes. Quite dressy toilettes of white nuns’ veiling or of challi are made by this simple design and trimmed with Pompadour-stripped silks, or those with Roman stripes or metallic stripes, or else with the silk tennis scarfs that have tennis bats, stripes, etc. wrought in them.

The first three dresses feature a jacket over a shirtwaist (or “blouse-waist”), a look that was characteristic of the 1880s and 1890s.1The Eton jacket was especially popular. The fourth dress is somewhat more formal and features a plastron bodice. Combined with masculine hats such as boaters or flat cap, the first three dresses give an air of casualness and ease of movement that is tempered somewhat by the bustled skirts. The fourth dress stands in contrast to the first three.


Of all the sporting activities women participated in, tennis was probably one of the most strenuous, requiring freedom of movement. Naturally, dress styles followed and here is just one example:


Sports Dress, c. 1885 – 1888 ; Metropolitan Museum of Art (2009.300.2477a, b)

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Back View

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Side Profile

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While the above dress gives an air of vigor and free movement, it is still anchored to the 1880s in that the bustle still remains, thought to be an aid to stabilizing the frail female body. At the same time however, we do see a shortening of the skirt to ease movement and a minimum of trim.

Below is a tennis dress, circa later 1880s:


Tennis Dress, c. 1880 – 1890; Powerhouse Museum (1880 – 1890)


The 1880s version of sportswear was not the most practical by today’s standards but it was a start and it represented a major departure for women in the way they lived their lives. No longer did life center around the home but it now included other spheres of life. During the 1890s, sportswear was to evolve even further and especially with the growth of cycling and this trend would ultimately combine with other trends that propelled women into playing a greater role in public life, thus giving rise to the “New Woman.”

This post only gives a taste of what was to come later in the 1890s but it’s interesting to see how it got its start. What is especially jarring to modern eyes is how the bustle still remained a style element even though it hindered the body’s free movement. But nevertheless, the die was cast and there were going to be changes in the role of women, changes that are still playing out to this day.

1890s 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.


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:


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.


Corset, Worcester Corset Company, American, c. 1893; Metropolitan Museum of Art (2009.300.3119a–c)


Side Profile


Corset, 1894; Metropolitan Museum of Art (C.I.57.51.1)


Front Close-Up


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:


Corset, c. 1885 – 1887; Metropolitan Museum of Art (2009.300.3497a–c)


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.


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:


Miss Annie Burbury, c. 1895, Sidney, Australia

And this day dress… 🙂


Day Dress, c. 1894 – 1896; FIDM Museum (S2006.870.22AB)


Close-Up Of Sleeve



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:

Image result for fibre chamois fabric

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.



Image result for skirt construction 1890s


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.


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 Day Wear, Part 3

By 1895, the 1890s “look” for day wear had fully defined itself. In contrast with the relatively static 1880s, styles gave emphasis to a more flowing silhouette that suggested mobility and constant movement. More significantly, in response to the rise of the “New Woman,” we begin to see a proliferation of day styles intended for various specific activities, many of them occurring outside of the home. One of the most profound fashion trends of the 1890s was the development of day wear that was suitable for the workplace. More and more women were taking up newly emerging opportunities to work outside the home and thus there was a need for practical day which was answered by the waist/jacket/skirt combination. Women were also now participating in sporting activities in increasingly numbers to include tennis and golf. And finally, one cannot overlook the radical (for the time) styles that emerged in response to the growth of bicycling- both for sport and as a practical method of transportation.

In terms of style elements, no matter the outfit was, they all tended to follow, more or less, the X-silhouette (or hourglass figure) characterized by a combination of the wasp-waist created by corsetry along with A-line skirts and bodices that widen out towards the top with large gigot sleeves. In short, big on the top and bottom and narrow in the middle.


The Ideal

  Below are a few examples of the variety of day wear that was extant:

5_1895 tweed

Day Dress, c. 1895; Daughters of the American Revolution Collection

In the above picture we see an extremely LARGE set of gigot sleeves, each one almost as large as the bodice front. While the waist is not a severe wasp-shape, it still is structured and defined by the corset underneath and as such, measures 21 1/2 inches. The skirt has clean lines, simply flaring outwards and the bodice features a front with shirring. The basic fashion fabric is a wool tweed combined with shirred silk crepe and velvet trim.

 Below is another example only this time, the bodice is a solid piece that matches the rest of the dress:


Day Dress, c. 1895; August Auctions

Once again, a basic day dress style only with the bodice being completely made of the same fabric as the skirt. The striped cotton fabric makes for an interesting visual effect combined with the collar, cuffs, and waist belt in a black velvet.

Walking Suit

However, this was not the entire picture…with the New Woman going off to work outside of the house, there was a need for more practical day wear and this was reflected in such styles as the “walking suit” or “tailormades”:


Walking Suit, Jacques Doucet, 1895; Victoria & Albert Museum (T.15&A-1979)



Waking Suit, 1892; Metropolitan Museum of Art (1982.82.6a, b)


Side Profile


Rear View

For the top, women’s suits either consisted of a separate jacket and waist or a a faux waist/jacket that were actually one unit. This idea can be seen first seen during the 1880s but it wasn’t until the 1890s that one sees this style pushed further as can be seen with this example:

Walking Suit 1892

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

Walking Suit 1892

Front Close-Up

Walking Suit 1892

Side Profile

Walking Suit 1892

Rear View

The lines on this suit are very clean and the overall effect is very plain except for the soutache on the front and back of the jacket and cuffs as well as running all the way around the skirt hem. The jacket is cut so that it’s mostly open with wide lapels accentuating the top along with the puffed sleeves- the sleeves are relatively undeveloped but this example was made in 1892 before the gigot sleeve trend had set in. What is especially striking about this example is that one can also view the waist separately from the suit:

Finally, we come to the most extreme example of the women’s suit: the bicycling suit:

Cycling Suit 1896

Cycling Suit, 1896; Metropolitan Museum of Art (2009.300.547a, b)

Cycling Suit 1896

Rear View

Cycling Suit 1896

Skirt Top Detail


Cycling Suit, c. 1896; Philadelphia Museum of Art (1980-110-1a–d)

This is a relatively tame example of the cycling suit in that while the skirt was shorter (essential for clearing the bike chain while riding), it was still a skirt. Later, this style would also feature bloomers, an even more practical garment for riding. Below are some more examples:


C. 1897- The individual in the picture does not appear to be happy.

Besides “suits”, bicycling clothes could also consist of separate skirts and jackets or simply waists and skirts.


The Delineator, September 1896

Black broadcloth cape and bicycling outfit in 'The Ladies Home Journal', March 1896.:

The same basic outfit worn for bicycling was also practical for other activities such as golf:


Vasser Students Playing Golf, c. 1895

Besides suits, skirts, and jackets, sporting activities also had an effect on other items of women’s clothing such as sweaters:


Women’s College Sweater, c. 1895; DAR Collection

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Women’s Sweater, c. 1895; Metropolitan Museum of Art (2009.300.1111)

Yes, you see that right- sweaters with gigot sleeves! In some circles, this would be considered scandalous- no bodice whatsoever. 🙂 And of course, the logical combination was for the sweater to be worn with a skirt…


Sweater & Skirt Combination; Metropolitan Museum of Art

In terms of fashion, the 1890s spawned a wide variety of styles intended for various activities outside the traditional home and while this may seem somewhat tame by today’s standards, it marked the beginning of a major shift in the roles of women in society and we begin to see an increasing number of women pursuing public life, whether through desire , necessity, or a combination of both and it’s a process that’s still playing itself out to this day.

In future installments, we’ll be taking a closer look at day styles of the mid to later 1890s where we see the gigot sleeve grow to sometimes absurd proportions and the subsequent reaction. Stay tuned! 🙂

1890s Suits…Day Styles At Their Best


What a fun day, still one of my favorite old suits and not a pleat to be had on it…check out that wavy straw hat, that’s a treasured antique of mine. <3