The Late Bustle Era/1880s Silhouette

With all our recent discussion of 1880s styles, here’s an excellent illustration of the Late Bustle Era silhouette that we recently came across. Moreover, it’s also an interesting example of the use of texture in fabric selection- a tomato red silk overskirt and bodice combined with a darker red silk velvet underskirt that provides a harmonious contrast.

Day Dress, c. 1887; Metropolitan Museum of Art (C.I.68.53.6a, b)

This dress was clearly a day dress and could easily fulfil the role of visiting or afternoon dress. It was clearly a dress meant to be seen in public.

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Defining Late 1880s Style – The Silhouette

With the recent release of the series “The Gilded Age,” there has been an increased interest in 1880s fashion and all it entails. As with all Victorian Era fashions, they were largely defined by structure and this is especially true when looking at the late 1880s. While late 1880s style sits outside of the time frame depicted in the series, it carries on many of the earlier trends and especially when it comes to fabric and trim selections. In this post, we attempt to give a general overview of late 1880s style and we hope that you find it useful.

When it comes to mid to late 1880s style, it’s easy for one to conjure up visions of dresses with severely sculpted lines that were largely defined by an extremely angular “shelf bustle.” Naturally, as with all fashions, they manifested themselves in both extreme and moderate versions but it was the more extreme versions that caught the attention of the press and assorted satirists. One of the most oft-repeated quips was “one could set a tea service on top of the bustle.” Here’s just one example from an 1883 German humor magazine in which the women is likened to a Centaur:


From Fliegende Blätter; Band LXXVIII (1883), p. 147.

Interestingly enough, the above cartoon was made in 1883 when the bustle was re-emerging- perhaps they were ahead of the fashion curve? 😁 All joking aside, to a great degree, 1880s style was defined by the “shelf bustle” as shown in the picture below:

Evening Dress c. 1884 -1886

Evening Dress, American or European, c. 1884 – 1886, silk; The Metropolitan Museum of Art (C.I.63.23.3a, b)

So how was this style achieved? Structure; structure was everything in Victorian fashion and below are some examples on how the distinctive 1880s silhouette was created:


Bustle, c. 1885; Los Angeles County Museum of Art (M.2007.211.399)

Bustle 1884

Bustle, Steel Frame, c. 1884; Victoria & Albert Museum (T.131C-1919).

Bustle 1880s

Bustle, 1880s

Within the parameters created by the basic silhouette, there was a wide variety of possible styles. As a rule, day dresses were defined by an under and overskirt, one draped over the other, and these could either in complementary or contrasting colors and/or a solid color combined with a pattern or even two different patterns. As for bodices, this could either be  one solid unit or a combination jacket and waistcoat. The waistcoat could either be a separate garment or a faux waistcoat that has been integrated into the jacket to create a single bodice. Below are just some examples:

Godeys_Jan 1887

Godey’s Ladysbook, January 1887

In the above plate, on the left one can see a combination jacket/waistcoat styled bodice combined with with a solid colored overskirt covering a patterned underskirt. Interestingly enough, the waistcoat fabric matches the pattern on the underskirt. On the right, one can see a solid bodice trimmed with an embroidered panel that matches the pattern of the underskirt. At the same time, the pattern on the overskirt matches the basic fabric of the bodice. While there may be contrasts in fabric patterns, the do harmonize in the way that they’re both used on the skirts and the bodices. At the same time, the colors also harmonize even when they’re contrast colors.

As a rule, 1880s day dresses were defined by an under and overskirt, one draped over the other, and these could either in complementary or contrasting colors and/or a solid color combined with a pattern or even two different patterns. As for bodices, this could either be  one solid unit or a combination jacket and waistcoat. The waistcoat could either be a separate garment or a faux waistcoat that has been integrated into the jacket to create a single bodice.

Magazine Des Demoiselles_1887_2

In the above plate, we see the use of different shades of the same color that are used to harmonize. The dress on the left simply combines a lighter brown with dark brown trim on the bodice lapels and are continued down the dress front (the dress appears to be a princess line but it’s hard to tell from the plate). The dress on the right is a bit more sophisticated in that not only do we see a dark and light shades of green combined, but we also see the use of a striped overskirt combined with a striped and patterned bodice. Interestingly enough, in both dresses, the dark color is only used on the trim and patterns, the light color makes up the majority of both dresses.

Below is another example of how colors and patterns could be combined:

Magazine Des Demoiselles_1887_3

Magazine des Demoiselles, 1887

On the left, we see the use of contrasting colors, in this case rose-colored vertical stripes combined with a light gray. The stripes are distributed around the skirt and on the sleeves and front of the bodice. There appears to be only one skirt. On the right, we see a solid dark gray/blue overskirt and bodice combined with a black floral pattern with a rose background for the underskirt, cuffs, collar, and bodice front. It also appears that the bodice cuts away to reveal a waistcoat of the same patterned fabric- to us, the patterned fabric conjures up visions of cut velvet.

The following fashion plates from 1886 and 1887 further illustrate some other possible combinations:

Peterson's_Nov 1886

Peterson’s Magazine, November 1886

Petersons_Feb 1887

Peterson’s Magazine, February 1887

Petersons_June 1888

Peterson’s Magazine, June 1888

Fashion plates are great but let’s take a look at some actual dresses:

Day Dress c. 1885

Day Dress, French, c. 1885; Silk plain weave (taffeta) and silk plain weave with warp-float patterning and supplementary weft, and silk knotted tassel; Los Angeles County Museum of Art (M.2007.211.34a-b)

1887 - 1891 Day Dress1

Day Dress, c. 1887 – 1891; Metropolitan Museum of Art (C.I.55.40.1a, b, e)

Close-Up Of Bodice

Detail Of Shoulder

Pingat 1 1888

Pingat, Promenade Dress, 1888; Metropolitan Museum of Art (2009.300.7758a, b)

Day Dress 1887 - 1889 1

Day Dress, c. 1887 – 1889; Metropolitan Museum of Art (C.I.53.68.2a–c)

Side Profile

Close-Up Of Bodice

Day Dress 1888 1

Worth, Day Dress, 1888; Metropolitan Museum of Art (2009.300.665a, b)

1888 Day Dress

Madame Arnaud, Paris, Morning Dress, c. 1888; The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology (2008.46.1)

For many, the typical 1880s silhouette is off-putting and in our experience, we have found that for most people looking to recreate the styles of the 1880s, they tend to gravitate towards either towards the beginning of the decade with the Mid-Bustle Era styles or towards the end of the decade where the bustle was diminishing and we start to see a more cylindrical, upright profile that was to carry on into the 1890s.

However, we would argue that while there is no denying that the late 1880s fashion silhouette was defined by an often extreme, angular bustle, this was not always the case and there are many instances where women toned it down- just looking at the variety of bustle appliances and pads that were available for sale is testament to that. As with all fashion, there were those who went to extremes and others who tended to be more conservative and especially for those of more modest means.

Just as important, if not more so, the 1880s offers a variety of styles to suit every aesthetic and a lot of room for developing a unique “signature” style that’s unique to the individual. So, why not give it a try? 🙂

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Something Cool From The Late ’80s

When the weather warms up, fabric choices shift towards lighter fabrics such as cotton and linen. Here’s just one example of a late 1880s summer dress:

Day Dress, c. 1885-1890; Metropolitan Museum of Art (C.I.X.54.4.1a, b)

This is a interesting dress both for the simplicity of the silhouette as well as fabric selection. While the Met Museum website indicates that this dress is from the late 1880s, it could have just as easily have been been made earlier in the decade- the basque style bodice completely covers the hips, something not usually seen with late 1880s dresses because of the extensive trains and bustling. At the same time, the skirt is not cut as narrow as earlier Mid-Bustle/Natural Forms.  However, we also believe that the staging might be affecting our judgement- note that the skirt hem isn’t even and that it dips towards the rear. It’s conceivable that some sort of bustle or padding was employed that would have lifted the rear skirt a bit. Of course, this is a bit of conjecture on our part… 🙂

The pictures seen above and below give some good views of the hem and silhouette and give credence to the idea that there some sort of padding out of the rear would have been employed but given the bodice, it would would have been fairly minimal, at least compared to the extended “shelf” bustles normally associated with late 1880s styles. However, one other interesting clue can be seen with the sleeves in that the upper sleeves have some ease and one can see some fullness in the sleeve heads. Perhaps, this belongs towards the 1889-1890 time frame when full bustles were disappearing and the upper sleeve was becoming fuller. It’s an interesting question and in the end we’re going to lean towards 1889-1890 thereabouts.

Turning from the silhouette, the fashion fabrics are a natural white or ivory colored cotton composing most of the skirt and a cotton eyelet featured on the bodice body and lower sleeves. The bodice is interesting in that the cotton eyelet sets the bodice off nicely, especially when combined with the plain natural white/ivory cotton on the upper sleeves. With the open front, the bodice gives the impression of a lace bed jacket or similar (although it’s obvious that there’s an underlayer in the front).

The skirt front has three rows of the cotton eyelet, the row at the bottom serving as a hem and all of these are wide. The rear is plain and unadorned except for the hem. Here’s some close-ups of the cotton eyelet fabric:

The eyelet pattern is amazing when viewed up close and it’s very busy; when viewed from a distance, it almost reads as appliques.

This dress has been a fascinating exercise in dating and while we do not profess to be the “final word,” we believe that date wise, that can be attributed to the 1889-1890 time frame. But just compelling is the extensive use of cotton eyelet, something more characteristic of Edwardian Era lingerie dresses, and as such this dress definitely reads “summer.” We hope you’ve enjoyed this little excursion into late 19th Century summer dresses and we’ll definitely be looking for more examples.