Black- Not Just For Mourning

Mourning wear was a major element of Victorian clothing, governed by elaborate protocols that dictated style, color, and material. Naturally, the use of the color black was central in mourning wardrobes and early on, the color was for the most part co-opted for this express purpose. However, by the end of the 19th Century, we see some relaxation of the “rules” and the color black started to make it’s appearance in more everyday wear and especially with evening wear. Below is just one example that was created by the House of Worth sometime in the 1897 to 1899 time frame:

Worth Evening Gown c. 1897-99

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

Worth Evening Gown c. 1897-99

Three-Quarter Rear View

The use of the term “evening gown” is a bit misleading in that this dress would have worked either as an evening dress (any event that was not a ball) or a ballgown. The sleeves are relatively restrained, lacking the gigot silhouette. The bodice has a deep wasp-waist and the skirt has a minimal train. Although it’s hard to see with the lighting, the skirt front is decorated in two patterns of jet beading using a vine motif. For the skirt back,  we see beading on an overlayer of net. The bodice front is also decorated with floral bead patterns that extent to the neck line. Along the front neckline, the black fabric has been cut out so as to create the appearance of leaves rising up on their own combined with a lighter silk/net inset. To complete the look, there’s a strip of ivory/cream lace running along the rear neckline.  Overall, the beaded black fashion fabric combined with artful cutting has created a very dramatic effect using a minimum of color- this dress definitely depended on the ambient light to create its effect.

As with many of the examples we find online, there always seems to be a lack of information and close-up pictures. We would have been very interested in seeing the details of the beadwork and the bodice inset panels. So, there it is- black can be used in ways that are by no means limited to mourning so why not give it a try? 🙂

1890s Style – More Than Just Gigot Sleeves And Wasp Waists

Fashion-wise, the 1890s have always been a source of fascination for us and one that we’ve been focusing on intensely in recent posts. While this may seem somewhat excessive, we would argue the contrary in that 90s are one of the most misunderstood periods for fashion. In the popular mind, 1890s styles seem to be nothing more than a never-ending parade of women in with excessively large Gigot, or leg-of-mutton sleeves and wasp-waists created by tight-laced corsets. It’s an era of excess with lots of “stuff” going on and for many it’s a major turn-off, especially compared to the liberating styles that were to be developed in the 1910s and 20s by Poiret, Chanel, Vionnet, and others.

However, we would argue that the 1890s marked the beginnings of major fashion shifts that were to come to full flower in the following decades and it’s evident in day wear. During the 90s, we seen the introduction of more 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, in terms of design 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 90s 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- in future posts we’ll be bringing more 1890s dress designs to light. 🙂

1890s Designs- Doucet

While the House of Worth was the leading fashion house during the late 19th Century (and 1890s in particular), it was by no means the only fashion house- there was also Doucet, Pingat, and Paquin, just to name a few, and each was in constant competition with each other. In today’s post, we’ll be taking a look some of Worth’s competitors and illustrate their “take” on 1890s style.

Doucet Ballgown c. 1898 - 1902

Jacques Doucet was one of Worth’s leading competitors and like Worth, he utilized a number of marketing techniques that are now standard in the fashion industry to include dressing celebrities (and especially actresses). Doucet’s creations tended to have a softer silhouette, utilizing large quantities of lace, tulle, and chiffon as well as metallics and lame.

Doucet Ballgown 1898 - 1900

Doucet, Ballgown, 1898 – 1900; Metropolitan Museum of Art (2009.300.3275a–c)

Doucet Ballgown 1898 - 1900

Three-Quarter Front View

The above ballgown, made sometime between 1898 and 1900, is made from what appears to be a silk chiffon backed by layers of lame. Unfortunately there are no close-up pictures available- it would be very interesting to have a close look at the fabric. With the exception of some tulle at the top of the bodice and leaf garlands on the shoulders, there is no trim and the dress relies on the richness of the materials themselves.

However, Doucet’s designs were not always so “simple”. Here we see one of Doucet’s more iconic work, a ballgown made sometime in the 1898 – 1902 time frame:

Doucet Ballgown c. 1898 - 1902

Doucet, Ballgown, c. 1898 – 1902; Metropolitan Museum of Art (2009.300.3274a, b)

Doucet Ballgown c. 1898 - 1902

Side Profile

Doucet Ballgown c. 1898 - 1902

Rear View

Here once again we see the fabric itself as the central focus of the dress style only this time there is an elaborate floral pattern created by leaves and foliage appliques on a gold lame background backed by what appears to be a silk chiffon underlayer. The upper bodice and sleeves are lace the overall effect is of shimmering gold.

So what about day wear? Here’s one example:

Day Dress Doucet c. 1890

Doucet, Day Dress, c. 1890; Kyoto Costume Institute (AC10445 2001-4AC)

The fashion fabric for this dress is a silk crêpe de chine with a stencil print pattern of bamboo stalks and the sparrow motif has been hand-painted separately. The fabric was most likely made in Japan for the export market and is an excellent example of the Japonisme theme that was often utilized by fashion designers during the 1880s and 90s. One again trim is minimal, limited to the hem, sleeves and collar finished off with a silk chiffon fichu.

However, designers could also works against type as with this ballgown that Doucet made sometime around 1890:

Doucet Ballgown c. 1890s

Doucet, Ballgown, c. 1890; Mint Museum, Charlotte, North Carolina (1998.13A-B)

Doucet Ballgown c. 1890sDoucet Ballgown c. 1890s

Doucet Ballgown c. 1890s

Close-Up of Bodice

Doucet Ballgown c. 1890s

Rear View

The use of black and white stripes, artfully cut and blended together (especially on the bodice) reads “modern”, something we would expect to see from the 1950s. The black and white chevrons on the skirt front are especially bold and they immediately draw the eye. Unfortunately, there is not a lot of information about this dress (at least from what I could tell from the museum website) and it raised some interesting questions in regard to provenance- it reads so differently than the majority of Doucet’s work that we almost wonder if this is a dress that’s been mislabeled- it certainly bears further study.

Although we can see two different approaches to design by Worth and Doucet (with a bit of overlap), it’s evident that there was an increased emphasis on making using the dress itself as a canvas for creating the design’s major effect. By this time, the use of trim is completely secondary and does little to distract the eye from the main attraction of the fabric design and this can be especially seen with Doucet’s two very different ballgown designs.

We hope you have enjoyed this post and stay tuned for yet more…. 🙂

More Worth 1890s Style…

To continue the theme of yesterday’s post, we present some more examples from the House of Worth as it relates to 1890s style and using of the whole dress silhouette as a canvas for the fabric pattern with a minimum of extraneous trim. We begin with an afternoon dress made in 1896:

Worth Afternoon Dress 1896

Afternoon Dress, Worth, 1896; Museum of the City of New York (49.125.1A-B)

Worth Afternoon Dress 1896

Worth Afternoon Dress 1896

Close-Up Of Back Bodice

Worth Afternoon Dress 1896

Side Profile

Worth Afternoon Dress 1896

Once again, we see the entire dress as a canvas for silk floral brocade pattern fashion fabric along with an inset faux waist in the front. Compared to most Mid-1890s dresses, the sleeves are somewhat restrained and we don’t see much of the characteristic gigot sleeve effect (although this may be due to the staging of the dress in the museum display).

Below is one more example, in this case a dinner dress made someone between 1890 to 1895. Here we see the characteristic open bodice, lined on both sides with shirred tulle and sleeves cut close to the arm. The lapels and sleeve cuffs are trimmed with beading and the same shirred tulle as on the front of the bodice. Overall, the trim is fairly minimal and acts as a counterpoint for the main decorative effect- the floral pattern on the skirt. The flowers themselves are large and they trace their way up the skirt at several points. Visually, the skirt comprises the largest area and as such, provides the perfect canvas for display.

31.37a-b_threequarter_front 0002

House of Worth, Dinner Dress, c. 1890 – 1895; Metropolitan Museum of Art (31.37a-b)

31.37a-b_threequarter_back 0002

Rear View

The above two dresses are just a few of the many examples of using the skirt as a canvas for decoration and while this style was fairly common, it was by no means the only style during the 1890s nor was it exclusively used by Worth. In the future, we’ll be featuring more from the House of Worth from the 1890s as well as works from some of its competitors. Enjoy!

And Now For A Little Worth, 1890s Style…

By the late 1890s, the House of Worth was a major institution and the cornerstone of the fashion world. While there were many worthy competitors such as Doucet, Pingat, and Paquin, Worth had the cachet and anyone with pretensions of social standing (and the financial means) made Worth their primary fashion destination. That said, there was little dispute that Worth produced some of the most fabulous fashions and was a trend-setter for half a century. One of Worth’s major strengths was its materials, many of which were custom commissioned from various vendors and most notably, the silk weavers of Lyon, France, and this is evident in the many extant examples that exist today (the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City has one of the largest collections of worth dresses in the world).

Although easily overlooked, the styles of the 1890s provided a fresh approach to style in that the visual effect of the garments relied more upon the fashion fabrics rather than trim, a trend facilitated by a shift towards an upright, cylindrical silhouette and the use of a single gored skirt rather than the underskirt/overskirt combination. For bodices/tops, we see an increased use of either jacket styles or unadorned one-piece (a trend that started in the 1880s). In short, we see the dress itself being the focus. Of course there were exceptions and influences from past decades lingered on but nevertheless it was clear that fashion was evolving.

OK, theory aside, let’s take a look at this reception/day dress that we found quite by accident (as usual, we were looking for something else… 🙂 ):

Worth c. 1895

Worth, Reception/Day Dress, c. 1895; Metropolitan Museum of Art (2006.558.1a-c)

Worth c. 1895

Bodice Rear View

Worth c. 1895

Bodice Back

Worth c. 1895

Bodice- Shoulder Detail

Worth c. 1895

Close-Up Of The Fabric

The silk brocade fabric has a relatively large pattern/repeat which is only workable on a large surface and this bodice answers to this purpose perfectly, especially with the gigot sleeves. Looking at the back of the bodice, one can really appreciate the full magnitude of the fashion fabric and especially with the large flowers. Also, it must noted that that the flowers on the center back of the bodice have been perfectly matched and joined from two pieces of the fabric. Finally, the use of matching plum color for the underbodice also helps to emphasize the pattern itself, bringing it into sharp relief.

Now, it must be noted that when looking at the pictures of the rest of the dress, it appears that the pattern color is more of a red and it looks like a completely different dress. However, on closer examination it IS the same dress- no doubt the lighting of the photography changed the color, a phenomena that we have noted in previous posts. Also, the staging of the dress is not optimal, it’s simply photographed flat which is a shame because we believe that it diminishes the aesthetic impact of the dress. So here’s the rest of the dress:

We would certainly love to view this in person because it does raise interesting issues as to skirt construction and, of course, color values.

Fashion trends rarely have neat beginning and end points, rather they tend to bleed into each other and there’s seldom uniformity and styles of the 1890s were no different. However, it’s fair to say that the evolution of styles during the 1890s did permit fabric design to become more prominent while reducing the influence of trims- in short, a more simplified style that would eventually come into its own decades later. We’ll be examining these style trends in more detail in future posts so stay tuned. 🙂