Some Commentary on Walking Dresses & Walking Suits From the 1880s

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ne of the more interesting styles to develop during the 1880s was the walking suit/walking dress and they were both practical and stylish, incorporating both a wide variety of cuts, fabrics, and colors and were intended for wear while out in public. Just to preface, from what we’ve seen in the research we’ve done, the terms “walking dress” and “walking suit” seemed to be used somewhat interchangeably and it doesn’t appear that the concept was fully formed until the early 1890s with its characteristic jacket-waist-skirt combination. However, looking at this style in the 1880s, it would appear that first and foremost, the skirt was untrained and the hem tended to be a off the ground. Also, to a great degree, the bodice tended to be styled as a “jacket-bodice” in which the bodice was constructed to mimic a jacket over a visible vest or some sort of decorative treatment- often shirred chiffon. But, as mentioned above, the concept doesn’t seem to have been fully formed and the boundaries could get hazy at times (no doubt influenced by marketing concerns since much of the fashion press of the times was owned by various pattern-making concerns such as Butterick).

File:Woman walking, carrying a child and turning around; another child holding on to the woman's dress (rbm-QP301M8-1887-052a~11).jpg

The walking dress in action…

What ultimately became the distinct walking suit of the 1890s seems to have gotten it’s start by 1884 as a walking dress that was meant as a more practical garment. Below is some commentary from the December 1884 issue of Demorest’s Family Magazine:

In opposition to these dazzling house toilettes are the sober, neat street costumes which are almost universally worn. The material is usually some dark shade of cloth. Heavy serge and bure, a thick worsted goods with a coarse, shaggy surface, are especially popular for walking suits. The skirt is almost plain, simply a plaiting around the bottom, but a broad band of fur encircles it about a quarter of a yard from the bottom. A full overskirt drawn up high over the hips, and a little tight fitting fur-trimmed jacket complete a costume rich in its quiet simplicity. To be worn with it is a little bonnet fashioned from the same material, with plume 3 or tips of some contrasting color and velvet strings.

One suit is of dark-brown cloth, the skirt consisting of bayadère stripes {fabric]1A fabric with bayadère stripes is a fabric with horizontal stripes in strongly contrasted colors. of a lighter hue mingled with a grayish blue traversing the ground. No trimming except the foot plaiting of plain brown. Drapery and corsage are also of plain brown. The latter opens at the side beneath the full plaits of the waist proper so as to leave the striped vest unbroken in front. Cuffs and close collar are of the striped goods, and a band of the same about two inches wide reaches down the shoulder seam from the collar to the insertion of the sleeve.

The above passage defines the walking outfit as streetwear that is plain with an emphasis on darker colors and plain woolen fabrics. Skirts are meant to be simple and untrained with a minimum of gathering. At the same time, it’s noted that that the underlying vest is somewhat more colorful and loud and that the bodice is to be arranged to show it off to the best advantage. Finally, it must be noted that the skirt could be in a contrasting material, striped in the above example. The above points are further discussed in this passage below from the same issue:

The newest winter walking suits consist of skirt, jacket basque, and vest, real or simulated, and street-coat or cloak. The walking-jacket is not at all so indispensable a part of them as formerly. The jacket-basque, with vest, is cut in such a way that it completes a dress fit for the street; and when the temperature demands additional clothing, a longer, more protective. and adjustable garment is found necessary to meet varied requirements.

This is really an improvement, but a greater one is the getting rid of looped and bunched-up drapery from heavy cloth materials. “Tailors” proper—what are known as “ladies’” tailors—would have served a really good purpose, if they had strictly adhered to the original idea, maintained a certain standard, and not endeavored to copy the follies of tulle in solid cloth.

Redfern, the great Isle of Wight tailor, has done this less than others. He gets up astonishing contrasts in colors; his “yachting ” suits, his “men of war” costumes for girls, and his cloth “gowns,” are original and striking, but they are useful and suitable; his coats are full of inside pockets, and his traveling costumes seem made for the “road” and to have a satchel, or lorgette slung across them.

The above comments on Redfern are also interesting in that we see tailors trying to incorporate elements in their work that are more in the area of dressmaking, much to Demorest’s disapproval. Below is an illustration from the April 1885 of Demorest’s that illustrates some of the ideas expressed in the above passages in regard to the utility of the walking suit/walking dress. In the right figure, the skirt is simple with a minimum of gathering and the pattern provides a nice contrast to the solid colored skirt front and bodice sides and back. The jacket/bodice is also faced in the same material as the underskirt and helps create the appearance of a long waistcoat reminiscent of early 18th Century styles.

And just to show some of the variations in jacket/bodice styles, here’s another illustration, this time from the May 1885 issue of Demorest’s:

And lest we think it was just Demorest’s that was presenting this style to the public, below is an illustration below from the October 1886 issue of Peterson’s Magazine:

Below are some extant walking dresses from the 1880s, starting with this one from circa 1885:

Walking Dress, c. 1885; Metropolitan Museum of Art (1978.295.8a, b)

And below is another example from circa 1884-1885; and yes, it’s labeled as being a day dress and that’s true but it also encompasses elements of the walking dress style.

Day Dress, c. 1884-1885; Museum of London (32.26/2a)

Finally, we have this circa 1885 walking dress from Worth:

Worth, Walking Dress, c. 1885; Metropolitan Museum of Art (2009.300.771a, b)



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