Some More 1890s Style

When it comes to fashion, the 1890s have always been a source of fascination for us and to us, it’s been one of the most misunderstood periods for fashion; visions of a never-ending parade of women with excessively large Gigot sleeves and  extreme wasp-waists created by tight-laced corsets. It was an era of excess with lots going on and for many, it’s a major turn-off and especially when compared to the free-flowing unstructured (to a point) styles that came later in the 1910s and 20s.

However, it could also be argued that the 1890s marked the beginnings of major fashion shifts that were to come to full flower in the following decades and especially with day wear. The 1890s saw the introduction of functional day wear styles that reflected women’s shifting roles in society and especially in going to work outside of the home and participating in outdoor activities such as bicycling. Also, design-wise, we see a simplification of dress styles that relied less on trim and excess yardage (especially compared to the 1870s and 80s) and more on the decorative effect of the existing fashion fabric. Naturally, as with all of fashion there were exceptions to every rule and many styles of the 1890s retained elements of previous ones but we’re painting with a broad brush here. With that said, let’s proceed…

Today we take a look at one unique example of 90s style:

Day Dress c. 1894 -1896

Day Dress, c. 1894 -1896; Metropolitan Museum of Art (1979.346.25a–c)

Day Dress c. 1894 -1896

Front View

Day Dress c. 1894 -1896

Rear View

Day Dress c. 1894 -1896

Close-Up Of Collar

Day Dress c. 1894 -1896

Close-Up Of Sleeve

This dress ensemble was an ensemble made for  James McCreery & Co. (1867 – 1954), a major New York dry goods retailer that was active during the late 19th Century. The dress has the silhouette typical of mid-1890s styles to include the gigot sleeves and cinched wasp waist. The purple fashion fabric is a wool combined with black silk velvet for the sleeves. The same velvet is also used as trim along the skirt hem and stripes along the bodice front and back. Also, depending on how you view it, the sleeves are trimmed with stripes of the purple wool fabric. Finally, note must be made of the striped black and white waist that’s visible under the upper bodice and at the sleeve cuffs- this is probably a faux waist that’s part of the overall dress.

However, what is most notable about this design is that the front bodice is cut asymmetrically, a feature that’s emphasized by the black and white trim panels running along the front bodice edges. The bold front bodice treatment balances out the black gigot sleeves, serving to create a style that’s both balanced and bold. Interestingly enough, the Metropolitan Museum of Art website terms this as a half-morning dress but to us, that really just doesn’t seem to be the case but that’s just our opinion. But wait, there’s more! Although there’s no information from the Met website, it appears that this was an ensemble that also came with a black velvet jacket and separate waist:

Day Dress c. 1894 -1896

Day Dress c. 1894 -1896

 There isn’t a good picture of the waist but it appears to be made of a white silk with gold embroidery and this is also carried over into the wide collar seen on the jacket. As with the bodice, the jacket is cut asymmetrically at the top. Compared to the bodice in the first set of pictures, the look is definitely more restrained and almost unexceptional. Perhaps that’s where the “mourning” aspect comes in but we seriously question that. 🙂

The above dress is an interesting example of one of the better dress designs to come out of the mid-1890s and especially since it did not directly come out of the Paris couture house (although they did license designs for the American market) with a specific designer name. We would certainly love to know more about the design and how it got its initial inspiration but we fear that this information is probably lost to the ages. We hope you’ve enjoyed this little excursion into the 1890s and we hope to have more styles to feature in future posts. 🙂

And Now For Some Japonisme Inspiration…

As noted in a recent post, the transmission of cultural influences in fashion are often a two-way street. Recently, we came across this striking example of a day dress, circa 1876, influenced by Japonisme. Starting with the opening of Japan to the West in the 1860s, Western fashion and specifically, female fashion, saw the use of imported Japanese textiles as well as incorporating various Japanese-inspired decorative motifs in domestic-produced textiles of which Liberty of London was one of the leading producers. However, at the same time, Japan was also adapting to Western fashion although it was on a more limited scale. Here are a few views of the dress:

Day Dress c. 1876

Day Dress, American, made by Martha J. De La Mater, c. 1876; The Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown, NY (N0129.1966)

Day Dress c. 1876

Close-Up Of Bodice

This basic fashion fabric is made from a brown/copper silk combined with a silk brocade patterned with chrysanthemums- a fairly common Japanese motif. The trim is minimal except for metallic gold beading running along the front waist and edges of the overskirt. In terms of style, the pseudo-waist sash and knotted front overskirt combined with the pleated front bodice are suggestive of a kimono. At the same time, mandarin collar gives the front bodice a clean, crisp finish that doesn’t distract from the rest of the dress- no excess lace, netting or trim.

Here are a few more views:

Day Dress c. 1876

Side Profile – Close-Up

Day Dress c. 1876

Side Profile – Full View

Day Dress c. 1876

Three-Quarters Frontal View

Day Dress c. 1876

The Maker’s Label – Martha J. De La Mater

This dress was made by a Martha De La Mater who was one of several dressmakers working in Albany and she’s is listed in the 1889 edition of the Albany City Directory. Also, the dress was made for a one Lucy Clark. The world of Japonisme never fails to interest us and it’s been a fertile field for design inspiration with us and hopefully it will be for you.  🙂

Looking At The Meiji Era

Today we travel to Japan to talk about the impact of Western fashion during the 1880s and 90s. As it’s been often said, fashion influences are a two-way street and while Japonisme developed in Western Europe in response to contact with Japan, the converse occurred in Japan. We hope you enjoy this little introduction.


Toyohara Chikanobu (豊原周延) (1838–1912), better known to his contemporaries as Yōshū Chikanobu (楊洲周延), Women and girls in Western dress with various hairstyles.

The the mid to late 19th Century, or more properly the Meiji Era (1868 – 1912, saw the rapid modernization of Japan as it strove to position itself as a nation of stature equal to the West. As part of this modernization process, the adoption of many elements of Western culture was seen as desirable and not only when it came to building and maintaining military and economic strength. The consequences of not modernizing were starkly apparent, they only had to look to their unfortunate neighbor China which was rapidly being subjugated by European imperialism, either directly through the outright seizure to territory or indirectly through economic domination and all enshrined in various unequal treaties.


Toyohara Chikanobu (豊原周延) (1838–1912), better known to his contemporaries as Yōshū Chikanobu (楊洲周延), The Emperor Meiji, 1887.

In their quest to strengthen themselves vis-a-vis the West, the Japanese adopted many Western cultural elements to include dress, viewing the adoption of Western dress as a way of being taken seriously by Westerners.  In much the same way individuals in the West (.e., America and Western Europe) chose their clothes with an eye towards maintaining respectability, the Japanese as a nation sought to emulate the West by adopting its fashions. g themselves to world at their best, so did that Japanese when it came to interacting with the West. However, at the same time, the Japanese also impressed their own design aesthetic on Western clothing and making it their own.


Yoshū Chikanobu – The Emperor, the young Crown Prince and the Empress are accompanied by court ladies on an outing to Asuka Park (1890)

Starting mainly with military uniforms, the Western was gradually adopted by ordinary Japanese, spurred along by the Emperor and the Imperial family’s example. The adoption of Western dress was formalized in 1871 when the Emperor Meiji issued an edict directing that all his officials and men at court were to wear Western dress:

The national polity is indomitable, but manners and customs should be adaptable. We greatly regret that the uniform of our court has been established following the Chinese custom, and it has become exceedingly effeminate in style and character. We should no longer appear before the people in these effeminate styles, and we have therefore decided to reform dress regulations entirely.[1]


Emperor Meiji (1852 – 1912)

A similar edict for women was issued by the Empress Haruko on January 17, 1887:

Now we can no longer restrict ourselves to bowing from a kneeling position, but will have to observe the Naniwa style of bowing while standing.  Moreover, if we look at contemporary Western women’s wear, we find that it combines a top or jacket and a skirt in the manner of our ancient Japanese system of dress.  This is not only suitable for the formal standing bow but also convenient for action and movement and makes it only natural to adopt the Western method of sewing.[2]


Empress Haruko (1849 – 1914)

Also, edits were issued directing that Western dress (principally prescribed uniforms) was to be worn when conducting official business.


Family Portrait

For many Japanese of lesser rank, the adoption of Western dress was at first somewhat superficial in that it would be worn outside the home during “business hours” but at home they would change into traditional clothing. Also, it should be noted that Western dress was not  always the most practical, especially when it came to removing one’s shoes when entering a house or maneuvering around the house in a bustle dress. Finally, the adoption of Western dress was largely restricted to larger urban areas; it would take longer for more isolated rural regions.

Below are some illustrations of Japanese women wearing Western dress:


The above illustration also includes hairstyles.



The Imperial Family




Adachi Ginkō, illustration of Ladies Sewing, 1887. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Along with the adoption of Western fashions were the methods of creating those fashions as can be seen from the above illustration. Below are a few examples in photographs:




Unfortunately, we were unable to date the above photograph but the style would suggest the 1890s, either early or late judging from the sleeves.

Japan Meiji Era

Nagako Nabeshima (1855-1941)

Japan Meiji Era

Nagako Nabeshima (1855-1941)

Japan Meiji Era

Nagako Nabeshima (1855-1941)

Nagako Nabeshima was married to the Marquis Naohiro Nabeshima, a nobleman who was connected with the Imperial family and had spent a lot of time in the West serving in various official positions. Below is a photograph of Akiko Maeda, Marquise and first wife of the Toshitsugu Maeda, another high-ranking noble:[3]

Japan Meiji Era

Akiko Maeda (1870 – 1949), c. 1887

Japan Meiji Era

Akiko Maeda, c. 1887, back side of picture.

Akiko’s day dress is firmly in the late 1880s in regard to style and would not be out of place in any major City in either America or Europe. From the picture, it appears that the outer skirt and bodice are silk accompanied with  cut velvet underskirt. The same cut velvet is on the front of the bodice.

Just for contrast, here’s something more in the “street style” category:

Street Style1

This picture is interesting in the somewhat awkward pose as well as the incongruous cigar that’s clearly been added in later (early Photoshop 🙂 ). The sack suit and bowler hat are a bit too large while the dress appears to fit pretty well. Judging from the styles, it appears that this picture was probably taken sometime in the late 1890s.

So far we’ve seen various pictures, both illustrations and photographs, of Western fashion in Japan. What about actual extant examples? Well, here’s a formal day dress that belonged to Nagako Nabeshima:

Day Dress Japonisme c. 1880s

Day Dress/Reception Dress, c. 1880s, belonging to Marquise Nagako Nabeshima; Jingu Chokokan Museum

Japonisme Day Dress c. 1880s

Close-up of the train.

Unfortunately, the Jingu Chokokan Museum website did not have any pictures of the front of the dress but nevertheless, this dress is a spectacular example of cultural fusion in dress. One can see the traditional Japanese design motifs in the fabric and the trim. We wish there was more information available in English on this dress.

The impact of Western dress during the Meiji Era was somewhat superficial in that, outside of the Imperial Army and Navy, it was mostly adopted by the Imperial Court and those with some sort of connection with the government. In many Japanese, Western dress was worn for public occasions or when performing official duties; at home they switched to traditional dress. In later decades, one would see a resurgence of traditional dress and especially with the Kimono. This is admittedly just a brief overview of a somewhat complex history and in future posts we hope to explore this them of cultural interaction more closely. 🙂

1. Nakagawa, Keiichiro, and Henry Rosovsky. 1963. The Case of the Dying Kimono: The Influence of Changing Fashions on the Development of the Japanese Woolen Industry. Business History Review 37 (1 & 2):59-78.

2. Ibid.

3. Both Marquis Naohiro Nabeshima and Marquis Toshitsugu Maeda were former Daimyos, or feudal lords who had lost their hereditary land holdings with the consolidation of the Meiji regime. Essentially, these former feudal lords were co-opted into a Western-style nobility which had been created as part of Japan’s modernization. Naturally, many of these former feudal lords were put to work for the new Meiji regime.

Happy Birthday Charles Worth!

Happy Birthday Charles Worth! Born October 13, 1825, Charles Worth was a pioneer in the development of the fashion industry and laid the foundation for many key details of the fashion world that survive to this day. In commemoration of the day, albeit belated, here’s an interesting circa 1878 reception dress he created: 🙂

Worth, Reception Dress, c. 1878; FIDM Museum (2006.25.2AB)

This skirt and base bodice of this dress is constructed from a black silk velvet combined with sleeves of a dark gold covered in black lace with black beaded passmentarie. More black beaded passmentarie covers the front skirt and bodice front. Below is a close-up of the front bodice:

And here’s a view of the rear upper shoulders and neck:

And here’s a rear profile view:

In terms of the age of the dress, it would appear that the skirt is fuller than what would be expected for a natural form/Mid-Bustle Era dress silhouette. Also, the bodice  hem appears to be riding high on the hip, something that was done to optimize the drawing of the train to the rear through use of a bustle. Of course, it could also be a matter of staging, without viewing it in person it can often be hard to tell. Time-wise, we’re inclined to place this one more towards 1875-1876. Well, hopefully we’ll one day have an opportunity to view this dress in person but in the meantime, enjoy the pictures and once again, happy birthday Charles Worth!

Correct Dress- The View From The 1870s & 80s…

This post did not set out to delve into social commentary but in the course of researching fashions of the late 1870s and early 1880s, we came across some interesting statements made in the fashion press of the time in regard to the proper etiquette for wearing specific dresses. While this in itself is no surprise, what did strike us is the degree to which the concept of dress and fashion were intertwined with wealth and class and especially here in America.

While in many ways America was free of the rigid social structures of nobility vs middle class vs the lower classes, in reality it had its own social structures that acted in much the same manner only with money substituting for birth being the determining factor. Along with this was the idea of social mobility and opportunity- anyone could rise to a higher social standing by making money and America had plenty of opportunities to do so.

In terms of fashion, in order to properly maintain one’s social station, it was essential to have the appropriate dress and especially when it came to women. The ideal portrayed in the popular fashion press of multiple outfits for each of the day’s activities was only attainable to those who had the means. However, at the same time, with industrialization and mass production, clothes were becoming increasingly less expensive and this in turn made this ideal achievable for more women. So, in the end, it could be argued that the popular fashion press took the idea of exclusivity and opened to the masses (at least the masses of a rising middle class).

That said, we now turn to the question of why there’s so many badly dressed women in spite of an abundance of moderately-priced good clothing…

“Why are there so many badly dressed women?”

The eternal question that has been asked as long as fashion has existed and asked countless times throughout history. The 19th Century was no exception and today, we take a look at one attempted to answer this question from the January 1879 issue of Demorest’s Family Magazine (page 43):

The question is often asked, why there are so many badly dressed women when the choice is so great in the selection of materials, and greater skill in the industrial arts constantly makes fabrics more beautiful. The answer to this question is to be found in the enormous choice, and this very variety which confuses inexperienced persons much more than it assists them in making a selection.

Taste, also, has improved with the development of true art in design, and the woman is now tested by far more rigid rules, so far as clothing is concerned than formerly. There was a time when ordinary dress was so simple, and so little diversified, that no more thought was required in regard to it, than to decide on the suitable material and color for the purpose for which it was required. But now colors have been multiplied and these again broken up into an infinite number of ones and shades; instead of the few standard fabrics, we count them by the hundreds, half at least being only an imitation of the original by whose name it is called.

Instead of the straight skirt, and plain tight body, we have complete designs in never-ending supply clearly outlining the form, and depending on little details of style and finish, and minute differences of cut for the wide distinction between elegance and crudity, if not vulgarity.

A knowledge of all this minutia presupposes time, and means sufficient to make oneself acquainted with the changes as they occur in every department of dress and fashion, and this, to the majority is not possible. The actual work of life absorbs all the strength, and most of the hours not spent in sleep, with the larger number, and their clothing becomes not a matter of selection, or the gratification of cultivated taste, but a concession to the law of necessity which compels the substitution of something new for the old, when the latter is worn out. What it shall be depends upon what is thrust upon the attention at the moment the new clothing is needed, modified by the length of the purse, and the concessions which have to be made to the existing state of the wardrobe.

The most of the clothing of women is bought piecemeal, and this is why it so often happens that one part of it seems to bear no relation to the other. It is for this reason, also, that it is of great importance to ladies of restricted incomes that they should adopt a few principles or permanent ideas, in regard to the material of their dresses at least, and stick to them. The dark colors, which have become fashionable of late years, and the long complete designs are a great small amount of material for which it can be advantage to all who do not wish to bestow much thought upon their dress. Given these two central ideas for a starting point, and the dress must be unobtrusive, and almost as certainly neat, and ladylike looking. Moreover, the difference of a few inches in the length of a skirt makes a difference between a plain walking, and more stylish indoor dress. Black, or wine-colored cashmere is not superlative fashion, but the wearer cannot help looking like a lady particularly if it is plainly cut, and allowed to fall with natural, and therefore artistic grace.

The peculiarity about the fashions of to-day is, that they may be made either very costly, or very economically. The fine soft woolen fabrics are no less desirable than the richest silk and satin. In fact, they are much more in demand by those who wish to realize pure art conceptions; the best dressing is not that which costs the most, but that which is most effective, and best suited to for the age, means and requirements of the wearer.

The above basically attributes poor dressing to several reasons:

    • Too much variety in styles, materials and trims.
    • Women do not have the time and resources in order to learn all the necessary details, especially with all the demands of everyday life.
    • Because of lack of knowledge, fashion choices are due to on-the-spot snap decisions dictated by immediate need rather than any sort of planning.

These are all valid points and are still valid today- not a day passes that one doesn’t see this sort of commentary in popular fashions blogs and magazines. At root, the problem is one of too many choices and not enough knowledge to determine what the right choices should be. The solution? Demorest’s suggests that women should “adopt a few principles or permanent ideas, in regard to the material of their dresses at least, and stick to them.” Sound advice, to be sure, and especially when grounded in the idea that “dress must be unobtrusive, and almost as certainly neat, and ladylike looking.” As with Peterson’s fashion etiquette, the ideal was that one should select their dresses consistently on the basis of creating a modest, tidy appearance.

Demorest’s then goes on to state that:

The difference, in fact, between good and bad dressing is less a difference of individual taste than of fitness. The poor parade their one flimsy, showy best on all occasions. The rich can afford to dress suitably, and reserve their displayed toilets for occasions when they are demanded, and may be properly worn. All that ingenuity can invent money now can buy, and we are no longer restricted to one fashionable style, color, or fabric. It is difficult to make inexperienced persons believe that the deep Spanish lace collars, for example, have not superseded the plated [pleated] ruffle, and the narrow rim of linen at the throat. It takes some time to learn that all neat, unobtrusive styles are retained for street wear, while whatever can lend a charm, or add to the picturesque effect, is pressed into the service of those who can afford to make themselves beautiful at home.

The above reflects the zeitgeist or spirit of the time in that dress is intertwined with class and wealth. In order to be properly dressed for society, one needs to be equipped with several dresses that will properly match the occasion for which they are being worn. More fancy dresses be reserved for proper occasions than indiscriminately worn all the time. As part of this, it is noted that the rich can afford a variety of dresses/outfits for various occasions and thus, they can maintain a more modest appearance for everyday purposes yet have the ability to dress fancy as the occasion demands.

Perhaps, we are reading way too much into this but when considered along with what was previously noted in the past two posts (Here and Here) in regard to Peterson’s notes of dress etiquette, one definitely can see that being properly dressed reflected one’s social position and wealth and as such, wealth provided the foundation for social position. While this may seem to be a concept that is more in keeping European class attitudes, it really is not because in America, the only measure of class status was wealth rather than a varying combination of noble birth and wealth.

OK, we have strayed a bit afield here and we completely admit it. 🙂 To get back on track, let us consider the issue of the over-abundance of fashion choices- it’s a situation that confronted Victorians and it’s one that confronts us today. 🙂  In both instances, the solution is relatively the same- plan your outfits around a few basic principles and use that to shape your purchases. Rich or poor, this is a plan that was, and still is, easy to follow. What’s interesting is that the problem then and now is pretty much the same although it could be argued that perhaps the scale is a bit less with today’s emphasis on more casual fashions. We hope you have enjoyed this brief excursion through Victorian fashion philosophy and we hope to unearth more information in the future. 🙂