Designing For The 80s – Part 1

Jean Béraud, Le Bal Mabile, c. 1880

Previously, we discussed our approach to designing an 1870s dress. Today, we’re going to move up a decade to the 1880s and as with the 1870s, there are a seemingly overwhelming number of choices. But more importantly, the decade can actually be split into two distinct periods where we see the basic silhouette drastically shift to first, the slender, upright silhouette of the Mid-Bustle or Natural Form Era and then second, the Late Bustle Era characterized by a drastic return to a full bustle/trained silhouette similar to the one found in the 1870s. Also, as with basic 1870s style, early 1880s style was characterized by a basic all-encompassing silhouette but all of the other details were far from uniform and there were a bewildering variety of choices available in fabrics, trims, and color choices.

Edmond-Louis Dupain, Elegant Lady Walking Her Greyhounds on the Beach, 1882

So where to begin? Let’s start with the silhouette- as can be seen in the above painting, the silhouette emphasized an upright cylindrical look that largely de-emphasized the use of excess fabric and training/bustling. The previous focus on the draping and gathering of varied fabrics over a bustle shifted towards the more controlled use of fabrics and trim to create a style with clean, sharp lines. One can see this shift in focus with some further illustrations:

Petersons_Sept 1880

Peterson’s Magazine, September 1880

Below are some examples, albeit idealized, of the basic style which could be found for both day and evening wear:

Journal Des Demoiselles 1880

Journal Des Demoiselles, 1880

However, we do want to note that while the train was de-emphasized, it didn’t entirely disappear but its use was restricted mostly to evening/reception dresses and ballgowns in the form of a demi-train that added further style impact to the overall dress.1The full train was mostly confined to extremely formal dresses. For day dresses, the demi-was mostly omitted as can be seen in the fashion plates below:

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 the term “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 there predecessors, relied on structured undergarments to modify the body’s appearance- something that dress reformers did not have in mind. So with that said, let us explore a bit…We start with this reception dress from the early 1880s:


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


Close-Up Of Front


Side Profile


Three-Quarters Rear View

Rear View

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. The use of rows of vertical pleating on the rear of the skirt combined with rows of flounces trimmed with embroidered leaves on the front help emphasize the vertical lines. Finally, the ruching on the bodice front also reinforces the idea of vertical lines. Finally, just for completeness, here’s some details:

Detail of bodice.

(To be continued…)

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