1890s Style- A Quick Overview

Probably one of the the most iconic fashion styles is 1890s style with its leg-of-mutton sleeves and the wasp waist. One of the basic rules of fashion is that fashion will emphasize a particular body part until it reaches a point of excess and a reaction sets in and the emphasis then shifting to another body part. For 1890s style, we see it developing in reaction to the excesses of the bustle era and in particular, its last flowering in the mid to late 1880s with the “shelf” bustle:

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

And, invariably, a reaction set in and the bustle silhouette with its emphasis on the derriere (ok, buttocks, let’s just get it out there 🙂 ) now shifted towards a more slender, upright silhouette with emphasis on the shoulders and waist in the form of the leg-of-mutton sleeves combined with an extremely narrow waist (i.e., the wasp waist).

Le Moniteur de la Mode. September 1895

Naturally, these changes do not occur overnight (at least back then) and during the early 1890s, we a see a gradual fashion shift towards the new look (which we discussed previously). By 1895, more extreme versions of the new silhouette were developing with the sleeves and waist. Below are a few examples of this “new look” in fashion plates, as interpreted by the French:

La Grande Dame_1895

La Grande Dame: Revue de l’Élégance et des Arts 32, 1895

La Grande Dame_1895_2

La Grande Dame: Revue de l’Élégance et des Arts 32, 1895

La Grande Dame_1895_5

La Grande Dame: Revue de l’Élégance et des Arts 31, 1895

In the above examples, we see the classic hourglass figure which is created by an A-line skirt combined with a seemingly unstructured bodice that balloons out at the shoulders. The bodice front seemingly gives an impression of a billowy blouse/shirt-waist (another style that began to take hold during this period).

Compared to 1880s and some early 1890s styles, the lines dresses depicted have much softer lines and everything appears to be very free-floating. However, it must be noted that this silhouette is in reality a structured design that relies on a corset to achieve that ideal hourglass figure.

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Assorted Corset Styles, c. 1880s & 1890s

Now that you have seen the basic silhouette as depicted in fashion plates, let’s take it a bit further with some extant originals:

Day Dress, c. 1890s; Museu del Disseney de Barcelona (MTIB 88108-0)

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Day Dress, c. 1895; Augusta Auctions; Black Cotton with raised red and yellow pin stripes.

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

Worth, Day Dress, c. 1890 – 1893; Kerry Taylor Auctions

The above are only a small sample of what was out there- while the silhouette for each of the above dresses is the same, each differs in the materials, trim, and design elements thus creating unique dresses that are still part of a specific style. What is also interesting is that bodices could be open or closed and the open ones continue trends of the 1880s and early 1890s in creating a jacket bodice/skirt combination used with a waist and/or vest.

Day Dress, c. 1895, French;

Day Dress, c. 1895; Fashion Museum Antwerp

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Day Dress, c. 1894 – 1895; Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising (FIDM; 2006.870.19AB)

The above examples vary in materials and trim but they all embody the basic 1890s design aesthetic. The Jacket/bodice dress style was also embodied in the more informal waking suit, a practical garment for daytime wear in public.  Below are a few extant examples:

Walking Suit, 1892; Metropolitan Museum of Art (C.I.53.72.9a–c)

Walking Suit, c. 1892; Metropolitan Museum of Art (1982.82.6a, b)

Doucet, Walking Suit, c. 1895; Victoria & Albert Museum (T.15&A-1979)

Constructed of wool, linen, or cotton, these suits incorporate the hourglass figure but in a muted form with an A-line skirt and a tailored coat with the characteristic leg-of-mutton sleeves, although the sleeves are somewhat muted in the earlier examples.

In conclusion, it is clear that there was no lack of variety in dress styles during the mid-1890s. With daywear, the hourglass silhouette was kept somewhat within limits but as we will see in future posts, this was not always the case with evening wear and the finer forms of daywear and we will see examples of this in future posts. 🙂



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! 🙂

Florals For The Spring & Summer…

Floral design motifs were a major element in dress styles throughout the late Nineteenth Century and especially during the 1880s and 1890s and came in many forms and were utilized both in the fashion fabric and trim to varying degrees. Here’s one interesting example from circa 1889 that was made by Maison Felix:

Day Dress c. 1889 Felix

Felix, Day Dress, c. 1889; Albany Museum of History and Art (u1973.69ab)

Day Dress c. 1889 Felix

Side Profile

The sheer expanse of the side panels utilizing the pattern is amazing and it definitely stands out.

Day Dress c. 1889 Felix

Close-up of  the fashion fabric.

Looking closely at the pictures, it appears that the fabric was most likely a silk brocade.

Style-wise, this dress is simple, sharply defined lines characteristic of the late 1880s and employs a pale green background fabric for the bodice back and sleeves as well as the front and back skirt that offsets the areas with the floral brocade with its various shades of green. The pleating and folds are used to create the effect of an overdress/robe but if you look closer, it’s actually one unit; the bodice and skirt appear to be joined at the waist but whether this is simply hooks and eyes or stitching, it’s hard to tell without a closer examination in person (Hmm..maybe a trip to Albany, New York is in order…). Finally, the total effect is enhanced by the lack of any extraneous trim- the fabric speaks for itself.

Below are a few fashion that show different uses of florals:

 Just for comparison, here’s another dress from the same year thereabouts:

Visiting Dress c. 1889

James McCreary & Co., Visiting Dress, c. 1889; Metropolitan Museum of Art

Visiting Dress c. 1889

Side Profile

Visiting Dress c. 1889

Detail of Cuff

This dress has a more elaborate construction in that we see the use of a rich silk brocade executed in several different colors set against a dark brown brown shades of velvet and silk, creating a multi-tonal color pattern. Also, the luster qualities vary between the fabrics with the silks having far more luster from reflected light versus the silk velvet which tends to absorb light. The above examples give only a small glimpse of the variety of design possibilities and we hope that they might provide some inspiration for people recreating historic fashions.