Black As A Fashion Color Revisited…

Our recent post on the subject of black as a dress color prompted me to do a little more digging into the role of black in styles of the 1880s and 90s so here we go… 🙂


In the course of researching the use of black dresses for other than mourning wear, we were struck that there aren’t many extant black dresses/gowns in pure black. On the other hand, one sees black frequently used in combination with another color or colors with black being predominant. The utility of black as a dress color is commented on in the June 1892 issue of Demorest’s Family Magazine which notes in its commentary on current fashions that:

Old-fashioned gauzy-looking stuffs are used for dresses as well as for the elaborate garnitures which are now so popular. There are all-wool and silk-and-wool crépons in black, which are very much liked by conservative ladies; and as all-black dresses are not only tolerated, but highly commended for evening wear, attention has been drawn to the preparation of many elegant and
appropriate fabrics for this purpose.

Black’s utility is also noted in the November 1891 issue of Demorest’s when commenting the use of black foundation skirts or petticoats:

…though not an individual part of each costume, the foundation skirt is by no means abandoned: made. of silk, most perfectly fitted, trimmed at the foot with narrow ruffles or one or two plaitings, and just escaping the ground, it replaces the conventional petticoat, and when one wears black dresses habitually, one petticoat, or foundation skirt will serve for several dresses. When colors are worn, it is usual to have this undershirt matching in color the material of the dress, and on the street only the dress skirt is raised.

And just to give an idea of what one of these foundation or under skirts might have looked like, here’s one example:

Underskirt, c. 1893 (Metropolitan Museum of Art (C.I.42.54.2)

Demorest’s also notes in its March 1892 fashion commentary that:

A NOTE of black runs through many of the fashions for spring. Black garnitures are used on almost all colors, in silks black forms a. background for brilliant or delicate blossoms or vines, all-black dresses trimmed with jet are considered very stylish, and when a touch of color is necessary for becomingness, the vest is the favorite point for introducing it. Vests in plain red, blue. yellow, or the favorite sage-green, when used in all-black dresses are either veiled with lace having a more or less decided pattern, or seeded with finely cut jet beads or the more conspicuous clone, or nail-heads.

Now, lest you think that the commentary in Demorest’s was only there to sell patterns, here’s a passage from the fashion commentary in the March 1892 issue of Peterson’s Magazine:

Black dresses are much too useful, especially when the wardrobe is a limited one, to be discarded. A black dress with change of vests, or ribbons or other trimmings, can be transformed into a great variety of costumes and is always lady-like. Black net is rather newer than black piece-lace, for dresses.

And, as for underskirts (aka foundation skirts), in the same issue, Peterson’s notes that:

Underskirts At Present: probably because the upper skirt must be held up, are richer than ever. They are even richer than the dress itself. Thus, under a woolen dress of the most modest description, you may see a rich silk skirt of the same. color as the over-dress, and trimmed with a deep lace flounce, beaded with rows of velvet. Then again, under a black dress you may see a shot silk skirt, trimmed with a black lace flounce or pinked-out frills of the same silk. There is a new silk made especially for these under-skirts and is called the frou-frou silk- the “rustling ”
silk. one might say in English.

To show just how black was worked with, let’s start with this evening gown made in 1895 from Maison Worth:

Worth, Evening Gown, c. 1897 – 1899; Galleria del Costume di Palazzo Pitti, Florence, Italy (00000113)

Three-Quarter Rear View

What’s interesting about this evening gown is that the black silk fashion fabric is given further pops of “color” in the form of beading that reflects any ambient light. It’s a very clever effect and definitely draws the eye. At the same time, the wearer’s face would have been lightened up by the ecru/ivory lace running along the neckline. To take this idea further, here’s a day dress from c. 1897-1899 where we see a similar color scheme:

Day Dress, c. 1897-1899; Galleria del Costume di Palazzo Pitti

And for one one example of manipulating black in dress styles, here’s this day dress from Maison Felix:

Maison Felix, Day Dress, c. 1893-1895; FIDM Museum (2008.5.51AB)

With this day dress, we see a lighter color used as an underskirt combined with shirring around the neckline of the bodice, both in an ivory color. The distribution of color is more vertical and the contrast is toned down by the use of a black lace overskirt in the front.

And there were instances where black was more of a background color as with this circa 1896 evening gown design from Worth:

Worth, Evening Dress, Worth, 1896; Palais Galliera, musée de la Mode de la Ville de Paris (GAL1978.20.1)

Here we see the gold appliques take center stage while the white neckline trim plays the role of lightening up the wearer’s face.

This has only been a small sampling of what’s out there but we think it goes a long way towards establishing that black was very much part of the period fashion aesthetic and could be utilized in a number of different ways to achieve various style effect. In the future, we’ll be examining this topic in more depth so stay tuned! 🙂

The Fashion Insight Of Maison Worth: An Interview With Jean-Philippe Worth

During his lifetime, Charles Worth revealed very little of his design philosophy or how he approached the design process. From a business perspective, Worth was prudent given the rampant fashion piracy of the period. However, for posterity, it’s sheer frustration. In the case of Maison Worth, Charles Worth for the most part revealed little and granted few interviews with journalists. Moreover, he took great pains to ensure that journalists had no access to his atelier whatsoever for fear that they’d gather information that would ultimately be used to pirate his designs (a very real threat).

Fortunately for posterity, Charles Worth’s son Jean-Philippe Worth was more forthcoming. In an interview by a Marie A. Belloc for the 1896 edition of Lady’s Realm, Worth provided some insight into Maison Worth’s design process. When asked where he looked for inspiration, Worth replied:

I am always on the look-out for new and old ideas and new schemes of colouring. Colouring, as you are aware, plays an important part in modern dress. I even yet remember with what difficulties my father met when he tried to impose the slightest modifications in the hard, metallic tints which were for so long literally the only colours introduced into dress. An attempt at anything artistic was looked at with terror and suspicion…

To quote but one instance: every woman in Paris possesses some garment in which a combination of blue and green plays a
subtle part. For years my father tried to introduce this eminently becoming harmony of colour. Some of the most beautiful brocades ever made to our own order were tinted in this fashion. But it was not till an accident- in other words, the courage and audacity of one of our handsomest clients- brought the beautifying qualities of this combination before the public that we were ever able to make the experiment on a large scale; and the same may also be said of yellow and pink, pale blue and
violet, and many others of the symphonies of colour now universally adopted. Of course, it is only fair to add that nothing can be more horrible than these violent contrasts, unless combined and imagined by a really artistic eye. But that is more or less true with anything connected with colour and form; for what looks well on a red haired woman makes a brunette look sallow, and so on.

Worth’s comments is revealing in that while it’s possible to come up with new fashion ideas, it’s far more difficult to get people to adopt them. In the example he gives, basically it wasn’t until one of Worth’s more influential clients adopted the idea of a harmonizing color scheme of blue and green that it was adopted by others. In short, it took a “fashion influencer.”

Illustration from the article.

Worth further discusses fashion inspiration, noting:

As to where I get my ideas: sometimes from a piece of old Church embroidery or a scrap of Louis Quinze brocade, picked up in an old curiosity shop. Often I have reconstituted a whole piece of material from a small breadth taken out of a Court costume or vestment. When I am satisfied, or as satisfied as I am ever likely to be, with a design, it is reproduced to my order in different schemes of colouring, and even of material. I very much enjoy designing picture-costumes. Often an artist will come with his future sitter, and together we will discuss what kind of material and what genre of colouring will suit the lady in question…

I am as ready to take an idea from a primitif [primitive] of a martyred saint as from a Lely or a Gainsborough. There is no greater mistake than to decide too long beforehand on the models of the coming winter or summer, for it is really impossible to tell at any given moment what the coming season will bring forth…for instance, a very bitter winter will to a certainty mean the prevalence of fur on every kind of gown, while an exceptionally mild season brings out light cloths, and even lace.

In this somewhat rambling statement, Worth indicates that inspiration can come from just about anywhere- pretty much something that just about any designer will say. What’s interesting is his observation that one can’t wait for too long in selecting the fashions for the next season and that the weather of a particular season affects the succeeding season- that pretty much sums up the fashion cycle today.

As for changing fashion, Worth notes that :

As for me, I naturally do not concern myself with the popular modes. The moment a fashion becomes exaggerated- in other words, universal—we have to begin to think of something to replace it. I am often asked by English clients whether the big sleeve has come to stay. All I can say is, that exaggeration will kill any model, however becoming. Not only does it make the fashion common, but a woman rarely looks well or artistic in an outré garment.

In the above, Worth gives an abbreviated version of the fashion cycle: fashions are introduced, become exaggerated, and then are replaced by new fashions. The fashion cycle is a constant that’s been present throughout history in one form or another.

Ultimately, while Jean-Philippe Worth’s comments really don’t offer any unique insights in regard to Maison Worth, they do demonstrate that many of fundamental ideas underlying modern fashion design were also present back in the 1890s. In future posts, we hope to unearth more about fashion theory as it applied to the couture of the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries.

Trending For February 1887- A Snapshot

The late 1880s saw the penultimate development of the bustle silhouette along with a variety of dress styles that incorporated this silhouette. The 1880s are especially well documented with the rise of the fashion press and while the styles portrayed often depicted idealized forms, they were rooted in reality. Moreover, the fashion press is useful for tracking shifts in trends and even while the late 1880s bustle style was in full flower, there were signs that this was not to remain the case for long as illustrated by the following comment from the February 1887 “Our Paris Letter,” a monthly column in Peterson’s Magazine describing the fashion trends in Paris, notes:

The diminution of the tournure, the falsely- so-called “dress-improver” appears to be definitely decided upon. Worth is using all his powerful influence in that direction, as he dislikes very much the ungraceful stiffness imparted to the upper portion of the toilette by its undue dimensions. The newest articles of this description are composed of ruffles of hair-cloth- the genuine “crinoline”- and the sides are simply laced together underneath, neither steel springs nor whalebone being used in the rubric. The most stylish toilettes have simply a silk cushion, stuffed with horse-hair, set just in the back of the skirt-band, and three rows of steel springs are set in the lower part of the skirt to hold it out. This is merely a return to the combination which was in vogue before the present- or, rather, the recent- exaggeration of his detail in feminine dress.

From the above, it would appear that the the sharp, angular “shelf bustle” was on its way out, at least in Paris, and bustle pads with steel springs were going to be the new thing. As for other trends, let’s take a look at this fashion plate from the February 1887 issue of Peterson’s Magazine:

Petersons_Feb 1887

Peterson’s Magazine, February 1887

The above plate is described as follows:

FIG. I. – VISITING-DRESS, OF YELLOWISH GREEN CASHMERE. The back of the skirt (which falls in straight folds) is made of plain cashmere. The front drapery is of India silk of the same color, figured with red palms. A wide ribbon sash, of the color of the cashmere, and striped crosswise with emerald-green velvet, is tied in long loops, and forms panels at the sides. The full bodice is of the figured silk. The extremely stylish jacket is of emerald green velvet, faced with silk the color of the back of the skirt, and is ornamented with large buttons. Hat of yellowish – green felt, trimmed with ribbon of the same color and a red bird, and faced with emerald-green velvet.

The Directoire style jacket with its wide lapels definitely sets this out apart from more conventional day dresses.

FIG. II. – WALKING-DRESS, OF DAHLIA-COVERED SPOTTED CLOTH. The underskirt is of velveteen. The upper skirt laid to fall in wide plaits, and is shorter in front than at the back. The drapery at the back is short at the top, but falls in jabot-plaits almost to the bottom of the skirt. The close-fitting jacket is braided, and trimmed with gray fox-fur The muff is of the material of the dress, decorated with a bow of ribbon. Hat of purple velvet, trimmed with a yellow bird.

This one interesting in that it takes the jacket style to an outdoor style with the fur trimming. It’s unknown if there was a waist or under-bodice for wear indoors.

FIG. III. – WALKING-DRESS. The long cloak is made of fawn-colored striped cloth. The sleeves are very long at the back, wide, and trimmed with velvet. A band of velvet passes over the shoulders, and narrows at the waist. High collar of the velvet. Bonnet of red plush, with white plumes.

This one appears to be a cloak with extremely wide sleeves.

FIG. IV. – VISITING -DRESS, OF OLIVER-GREEN-COLORED SILK AND STRIPED VELVET. The under part of the skirt and side panels is made of the striped silk and velvet. The full front and back drapery is of plain olive-green silk. The bodice is also of the plain silk, laced, and the little close-fitting jacket is of green velvet, with elbow-sleeves, and trimmed with green jet-bead passementerie. Hat of olive-green velvet, trimmed with green feathers and a white bird.

This seems to be a fairly standard style but it’s really hard to tell from the fashion plate what exactly is going on. The description is very interesting and the fashion plate doesn’t do it justice which is very unfortunate.

FIG. V. – HOUSE-DRESS, OF POPPY-COLORED SILK. The underskirt is made of cream -colored silk, striped with red velvet. The overskirt opens on the right ride, and is faced with cream-colored silk, brocaded in red velvet. The plain red silk is arranged diagonally, in full plaits, oil the skirt, It is draped far back on the left side, and in loose folds at the back. The bodice opens over a cream-colored diagonal-plaited vest, and is trimmed on the right side with a velvet revers. Velvet collar.

While this is termed a “house dress,” this is a pretty loose definition and would easily work as a afternoon/visiting dress suitable for wear at social occasions. The bodice is executed in the a jacket-bodice style with wide lapels/revers running down the length of the bodice. Overall, in terms of style, one still sees the late 1880s bustled silhouette but it looks somewhat more restrained in this particular fashion plate. Of course, this being a fashion plate, some license is to be expected so perhaps one should not read too much into it; one must also consider other evidence such as original photographs and extant original garments. Nevertheless, it is still interesting and gives a hint of what is coming in the 1890s.

Turning to fabrics, one sees the velvet and velveteen being used and combined with silk and cashmere for winter day wear. This is to be expected, considering the time of year. The only exception to this is the house dress in Figure V. Finally, based on the above descriptions, computer color-matching, and some subjective guess-work, below are some of the more dominant colors:

While the above is by no means an exhaustive overview of fashion in 1886- 1887, it is helpful as a means of determining what sort of fabrics, color, and silhouette should be employed in designing a late 1880s day dress that is suitable for fall or winter. The key points to keep in mind are that the fabrics used were of heavier weights (although nowhere near upholstery or curtain weight) and colors tend towards the darker tones. We hope that you have enjoyed this little window into the styles of early 1887 and while fashions moved slowly during the 1880s (as compared to today), they were still moving, let by fashion leaders such as Worth.

Out Of The Gilded Age…

Today the theme is burgundy velvet and what better way to show it off than in an evening dress by Worth. 🙂 Better yet, we have both the dress AND a portrait of the individual that it was made for! The itself was made by Maison Worth around 1898 and belonged to Edith Kingdon Gould, the wife of railroad tycoon George Jay Gould and is on display at Lyndhurst Mansion in Tarrytown, New York; Lyndhurst had belonged to the Goulds at one time and is now a museum belonging to the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Worth, Evening Dress, c. 1898; Lyndhurst Mansion, Tarrytown NY

The evening dress is interesting in that it’s a relatively simple style, unadorned by any trim or decoration (if you don’t count the fur stole she wears with the dress in her portrait). Overall, the effect is very restrained, reflecting Ms. Kingdon-Gould’s status married to a wealth railroad tycoon (she had been an actress prior to marrying Gould). And now for the portrait itself:

Théobald Chartran, Portrait of Edith Kingdon Gould, c. 1898

Unfortunately there’s not a lot of information available in regard to the dress or the portrait- they were part of an exhibition at Lyndhurst that’s ended. This dress provides a fascinating snapshot into a bygone era made more interesting in that the dress style is very restrained when compared with some  of the more over-the-top designs of the era.

Parisian Fashions- Trending For Spring 1890

Fabrics are a major part of fashion and often are the center of focus of a dress design. In terms of style, a fabric could be said to consist of three elements: 1) the fabric’s specific type and construction; 2) the fabric’s decoration (i.e. does the fabric have some sort of decorative motif or is it plain?); and 3) the fabric’s color. This is illustrated in this commentary from the April 1890 issue of Peterson’s Magazine:

In the way of dress materials, the newest is a gauze with wide woven stripes in a fabric much more transparent than the ground of the material, these stripes being figured in large patterned designs in the thicker stuff. The effect thus produced is very pretty, and, when the gauze is made up over a colored satin underskirt, the toilette thus composed will be charming.

As for silks, brocades were definitely a thing:

The newest silks are brocades, having very small sprays of flowers in their natural colors scattered over a black ground. Some of the designs are very tasteful as well as novel, and especially one representing a single stalk of the fuchsia with its pendent blossoms, and another showing one of the crimson clover. These floral designs are repeated on the foulards of the season- snowdrops or ears of wheat being represented on the black grounds, and fuchsias on cream-white or pale silver-gray.

Here are some fashion plates from Peterson’s that help illustrate this a little:

Peterson’s Magazine, March 1890

Peterson’s Magazine, May 1890

And here are some extant examples of garments that incorporate one or more style elements noted above:

Worth, Ballgown, 1889; Metropolitan Museum of Art (C.I.68.53.11a, b)

Sara Mayer & A. Morhanger, Da Dress, c. 1889-1892; Victoria & Albert Museum (T.270&A-1972)

Worth, Dinner Dress, c. 1890-1895; Metropolitan Museum of Art (2009.300.636a, b)

The above examples are only a small sample but they serve to underscore some of the fashion trends that were underway during the later 1880s/early 1890s. In future posts, we hope to further document this most interesting period of fashion transition.