Fashion Push-Back: Tailormades

Walking Suit

It’s pretty much a given that fashions change but it doesn’t mean that change is necessarily accepted and there’s often push-back. One interesting example of this phenomenon was in during the 1890s with the increasing popularity of suits for women (aka “tailormades”). According to one commentator, a one Comtesse de Champdore, in the April 5, 1894 issue of Vogue (the precursor to today’s Vogue Magazine):

The great Parisian couturiers, with Worth, Laferriere, Felix and Doucet at their head, have put down their foot and at length carried out their threat of declaring war against tailor-made garments,which in future they will oppose tooth and nail. You may take it for granted that they would not have ventured upon such a momentous step unless they had previously assured themselves of the sanction and support of our principal leaders of fashion.

Inasmuch as the latter, at least those who influence La Mode, are no longer in the first bloom of youth it is perhaps only natural that they should have agreed to the proposal of the couturiers, since the severe simplicity of the tailor·made gowns requires a young face and figure to carry them off well, whereas beauty of a more mature type looks best when enshrouded in all kinds of flounces and furbelows. There is to be a complete change of fashion. We have done with 1830 and are back again in the Louis Quinze [Louis XV] epoch.

The balloon sleeves, the flounced skirt, the brimmed hat with feather tufts are from to-day obsolete, and the painters whom the couturiers’ designers are now studying at the Louvre are Boucher, Watteau, Lancret and Nattier. We are to come back to the paniers [panniers]; the genre Pompadour is to prevail, materials are to he transparent, colors are to be light, plenty of lace, plenty of guipure [Guipure lace], and, above all, plenty of essentially Parisian frou·frou. To use the words of Worth, “Woman is once again to become woman, and fashion is to find its task in giving emphasis to feminine form instead of concealing it. Masculine modes are to be abandoned.”

(Note: I have broken the original passage into several paragraphs for clarity.)

Well, that’s a pronouncement. 🙂 Getting past the concept of “designer-as-dictator,” this passage is interesting in that we see a style being rejected out of hand not only do we have primarily on the basis that it’s a “masculine mode” and as such, fashion’s primary objective is “giving emphasis to feminine form instead of concealing it.”

Why the resistance? The most obvious answers are simple: resistance to change in the status quo; it challenged established norms; and resistance to the changing role of women as more they began to enter the workforce in many Western countries for this first time in large numbers. It’s also interesting in that the style that the couturiers are advocating was the “Louis XV” style, a style that drew upon elements from the early to mid- 18th Century characterized by pale colors, silk brocades, lace, and elaborate trim.

Walking Suit c. 1896

Walking Suit, c. 1896; Nasjonallmuseet, Norway (OK-1962-0073)

But there’s also another interpretation: economics:

The decision meets with universal approbation alike on the part of our mondaines [worldly] and their tradesmen, for the Louis Quinze style is perhaps the most luxurious of all, and necessitates no end of jewelry and trimmings of every fashion and kind, all of which will help to revive trade, and perhaps render our fournisseurs [suppliers] less inclined to torment us for the payment of our bills on the time-worn pretext that “times are bad.”

Elaborate styles require more trim, expensive fabrics, and of course, accessories to include jewelry and that would keep the suppliers employed, an argument often heard today in regard to haute couture and the fashion industry in general.

Of course, one must ask if this is the opinion of just the writer or did this represent a major sentiment? Although a cursory online search yielded nothing helpful in this regard, there are hints scattered about that trends in Great Britain and America during the 1890s were going in the direction of simpler outfits for daywear as exemplified by the tailormade suit and skirt/waist combination. Yes, more conventional day dresses were also extant but what we see is greater variety of styles that were becoming available to women and especially those who were middle class.

1896 Waist Skirt Fahsion Plate

One element that would give this idea some weight is that going back to the early 1870s, Redfern, a house that had gotten its start in Britain, had built a thriving business offering women’s suits of various types aimed at women who were of the same class that also patronized Worth, Doucet, et al.

The idea of clashing trends between simpler styles and the traditional has always been a constant throughout fashion history and in many instances, it also symbolized conflicts between social and cultural ideas and in extreme instances, symbolizing seismic shifts in social and cultural attitude (the 1960 provide a prime example of this). Or perhaps we’re reading way too much into this… 🙂 In any event, it certainly reveals some cracks in the wall of seeming Victorian Era uniformity when it came to fashion and that bears further examination.

1890s Style- 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.

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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:

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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.

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

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Side Profile

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

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Front Close-Up

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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:

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

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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.

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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:

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Miss Annie Burbury, c. 1895, Sidney, Australia

And this day dress… 🙂

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

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Close-Up Of Sleeve

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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 Style- 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.

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The “X” Silhouette

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.

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The Ideal

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

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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:

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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”:

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

 

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

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Side Profile

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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

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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:

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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.

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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:

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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:

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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…

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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 Style- Day Wear, Part 2

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… 🙂


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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:

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Journal Des Demoiselles, 1892

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Journal Des Demoiselles, August 1893

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The Delineator, 1894

 

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Le Mode Illustree, 1894

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Journal Des Demoiselles, August 1894

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.

1894

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:

Day Dress 1894

Day Dress, c. 1894; Metropolitan Museum of Art (35.134.13a, b)

Day Dress 1894

Close-Up Of Bodice Front

Day Dress 1894

Side Profile

Day Dress 1894

Rear View

Day Dress 1894

Detail Of Sleeve And Cuff

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:

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Day Dress, c. 1893 – 1894; Metropolitan Museum of Art (C.I.58.2a, b)

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:

1893 Walking Dress

Walking Dress, c. 1893; Metropolitan Museum of Art (1979.163a, b)

1893 Walking Dress

Close-Up Of The Bodice

1893 Walking Dress

Side Profile

1893 Walking Dress

Rear View

 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. 🙂