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. ❤
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. ❤
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 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:
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:
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.
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:
And this day dress… 🙂
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:
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.
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.
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.
By 1895s, 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.
Below are a few examples of the variety of day wear that was extant:
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:
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.
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”:
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:
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:
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:
Besides “suits”, bicycling clothes could also consist of separate skirts and jackets or simply waists and skirts.
The same basic outfit worn for bicycling was also practical for other activities such as golf:
Besides suits, skirts, and jackets, sporting activities also had an effect on other items of women’s clothing such as sweaters:
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…
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! 🙂
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… 🙂
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:
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.
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:
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:
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:
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. 🙂
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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.
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.