The New Woman Of The 1890s

Fashion history is integral part of what we do and it never fails to fascinate us. Although much of fashion can have interesting subtleties and nuances, at its core is that fashion reflects the zeitgeist or spirit of the times.


To the casual observer, the 1890s seemed to be little different from previous decades and was simply part of a monolithic seemingly never-ending “Victorian  Era.” However, the reality was far different and during this decade, major social, political, and economic changes were beginning to occur. Some changes would take decades to ultimately play out while others would occur at a much faster rate.

One of the most profound social changes during the 1890s was the rise of the “New Woman,” a woman who pursued an autonomous life independent from traditional marriage and motherhood. One key elements of the “New Woman” was that she was not economically dependent on a husband, pursuing an independent career. While this was the ideal, in practice it did not always work out this way but still it signaled a major change in women’s social roles. Along with this sense of independence, women also pursued leisure time activities outside of the home, something facilitated by the development of various sporting activities such as bicycling.

The rise of the New Woman was naturally reflected in the world of fashion. Most significantly, fashions began to become somewhat more functional (although the corset still remained part as an element of dress). With more women entering the workforce on the white collar level, more practical styles developed, the two most notable being the shirtwaist/skirt combination and the tailormade suit.

First, we turn to the shirtwaist/skirt combination. Shirtwaists were available in an almost endless multitude of styles and materials, the shirtwaist was a basic garment and available at prices for just about every wallet. Some were more feminine, featuring embroidery while others were meant to mimic men’s shirts. Fabrics could vary from sturdy cottons for day wear to silks and taffetas for more formal evening wear and came in white and various colors. Finally, sleeves tended to be larger around the shoulders during the early to mid 1890s, mimicking the distinct leg of mutton sleeve style found in dresses of the period.

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Shirtwaist, American, c. 1899 – 1902; Made of cotton; Metropolitan Museum of Art (C.I.51.15.16a, b)

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Detachable Collar, Metropolitan Museum of Art

The above shirtwaist has a band collar, intended for use with a detachable collar as pictured below:

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Shirtwaist, c. 1890 – 1899; Fashion Institute of Design Museum (2003.793.7AB)

The above examples are interesting in that the pleating is gathered into a band along the bottom of the shirtwaist. This would be covered by the skirt, thus creating a crisp, neat appearance.

Now for something a bit more fancy:

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Shirtwaist, c. 1895; Metropolitan Museum of Art (C.I.56.10.8)

And it came in colors, mostly cotton prints:

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Shirtwaist, c. 1896 – 1898; Metropolitan Museum of Art (C.I.59.32.4)

The shirtwaist/skirt combination was extremely versatile and could be used as an early form of sportswear for activities such as golf:

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Shirtwaist and skirt combination with belt, c. 1893; Kyoto Costume Institute (AC2122 79-6-9AF, AC2123-2124 79-6-10AB)

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Charles Dana Gibson, once again…

  And of course, bicycling 🙂 :

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Charles Dana Gibson, 1896

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Unknown woman, probably early to mid 1890s, judging from the sleeves.

 Ties were sometimes worn with the shirtwaist for a more formal look:

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Radfahrkostüm (Bicycle costume), c. 1900; Wien Museum

Along with waists, walking suits also began to develop. Consisting of a multi-gored skirt and jacket and worn with a waist underneath, walking suits were extremely practical and were perfect for everyday wear outside of the house and especially for going to work. These were mass-produced at lower price points and made by tailors for individual order and were often referred to as “tailormades.”1The term “Ladies’ Tailor” was often used during the 1890s and it was a recognized sub-speciality in the tailoring trade.

Below are just a few examples of the walking suit:

Walking Suit, c. 1896; Nasjonallmuseet, Norway (OK-1962-0073)

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

Front Close-Up

The lines of the above suit are clean, the skirt relatively narrow although this could vary depending on the number of gores used Jackets could vary in style and overall, there is little adornment. Jackets cold be cut wide to expose the shirtwaist underneath s with the above example or more buttoned up as with the top example. Wide lapels were used to catch the eye and the trim patterns were often used to set them off. Overall, an understated look that reflected the rise of the “New Woman.”

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

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Another view.

Materials ranged from varying weights of wool to linen and cotton for the warmer parts of the year. Once again we see clean lines only now the skirt is perhaps a little wider and the sleeves taking on the leg of mutton style. There is little in the way of decorative adornments except for the lapels but even here it’s hard to make out.

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Suit, c. 1898; McCord Museum (M2003.12.2.1-2)

Finally, we have an example representative of the late 1890s. The lines of the suit are still clean only now both the skirt and sleeves are narrow and restrained. There is some decoration but it’s subtle. Also, like their male counterparts, Tailormades could also take the form of a three-piece suit:

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Finally, walking/tailormade suits also were a logical choice for women who wanted to ride bicycles and the market responded with some of the first examples of “sportswear”. Often, the only difference between the cycling suit and a regular tailormade suit was that the skirt was shorter. Below is one example:

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Cycling Suit, American, c. 1896 – 1898; Metropolitan Museum of Art (2009.300.532a–d)

The 1890s saw women taking on a more independent, autonomous existence and fashion followed this trend. While it fell short of what was to come during the mid to late 20th Century, it was still a major departure for women and one can see the traditional order of male/female relationships begin to shift. Fashion is constantly adapting to social change and the 1890s were no exception. The Victorian Era was definitely on its way out.



Something New In The Works- Continued

And to follow on to a previous post, as promised, here’s some more progress pictures of the circa 1899 jacket. 🙂

First sleeve attached. I had to re-do the cuff to shorten the sleeve length first.

Close-up of sleeve and sleeve head. Compared to many jacket-bodice designs, I opted for a little less structured look.

Sleeve head. Compared to mid-1890s styles, the sleeve heads have relatively little excess on top so they’re pretty restrained compared to earlier styles.

Sleeves attached, time to take a break.

There’s still a lot of work to do but at least the basic structural elements are in place. Stay tuned for more! 🙂



Fashion Push-Back: Tailormades

Walking Suit

It’s pretty much a given that fashions change but it doesn’t mean that change is necessarily accepted and there’s often push-back. One interesting example of this phenomenon was in during the 1890s with the increasing popularity of suits for women (aka “tailormades”). According to one commentator, a one Comtesse de Champdore, in the April 5, 1894 issue of Vogue (the precursor to today’s Vogue Magazine):

The great Parisian couturiers, with Worth, Laferriere, Felix and Doucet at their head, have put down their foot and at length carried out their threat of declaring war against tailor-made garments,which in future they will oppose tooth and nail. You may take it for granted that they would not have ventured upon such a momentous step unless they had previously assured themselves of the sanction and support of our principal leaders of fashion.

Inasmuch as the latter, at least those who influence La Mode, are no longer in the first bloom of youth it is perhaps only natural that they should have agreed to the proposal of the couturiers, since the severe simplicity of the tailor·made gowns requires a young face and figure to carry them off well, whereas beauty of a more mature type looks best when enshrouded in all kinds of flounces and furbelows. There is to be a complete change of fashion. We have done with 1830 and are back again in the Louis Quinze [Louis XV] epoch.

The balloon sleeves, the flounced skirt, the brimmed hat with feather tufts are from to-day obsolete, and the painters whom the couturiers’ designers are now studying at the Louvre are Boucher, Watteau, Lancret and Nattier. We are to come back to the paniers [panniers]; the genre Pompadour is to prevail, materials are to he transparent, colors are to be light, plenty of lace, plenty of guipure [Guipure lace], and, above all, plenty of essentially Parisian frou·frou. To use the words of Worth, “Woman is once again to become woman, and fashion is to find its task in giving emphasis to feminine form instead of concealing it. Masculine modes are to be abandoned.”

(Note: I have broken the original passage into several paragraphs for clarity.)

Well, that’s a pronouncement. 🙂 Getting past the concept of “designer-as-dictator,” this passage is interesting in that we see a style being rejected out of hand not only do we have primarily on the basis that it’s a “masculine mode” and as such, fashion’s primary objective is “giving emphasis to feminine form instead of concealing it.”

Why the resistance? The most obvious answers are simple: resistance to change in the status quo; it challenged established norms; and resistance to the changing role of women as more they began to enter the workforce in many Western countries for this first time in large numbers. It’s also interesting in that the style that the couturiers are advocating was the “Louis XV” style, a style that drew upon elements from the early to mid- 18th Century characterized by pale colors, silk brocades, lace, and elaborate trim.

Walking Suit c. 1896

Walking Suit, c. 1896; Nasjonallmuseet, Norway (OK-1962-0073)

But there’s also another interpretation: economics:

The decision meets with universal approbation alike on the part of our mondaines [worldly] and their tradesmen, for the Louis Quinze style is perhaps the most luxurious of all, and necessitates no end of jewelry and trimmings of every fashion and kind, all of which will help to revive trade, and perhaps render our fournisseurs [suppliers] less inclined to torment us for the payment of our bills on the time-worn pretext that “times are bad.”

Elaborate styles require more trim, expensive fabrics, and of course, accessories to include jewelry and that would keep the suppliers employed, an argument often heard today in regard to haute couture and the fashion industry in general.

Of course, one must ask if this is the opinion of just the writer or did this represent a major sentiment? Although a cursory online search yielded nothing helpful in this regard, there are hints scattered about that trends in Great Britain and America during the 1890s were going in the direction of simpler outfits for daywear as exemplified by the tailormade suit and skirt/waist combination. Yes, more conventional day dresses were also extant but what we see is greater variety of styles that were becoming available to women and especially those who were middle class.

1896 Waist Skirt Fahsion Plate

One element that would give this idea some weight is that going back to the early 1870s, Redfern, a house that had gotten its start in Britain, had built a thriving business offering women’s suits of various types aimed at women who were of the same class that also patronized Worth, Doucet, et al.

The idea of clashing trends between simpler styles and the traditional has always been a constant throughout fashion history and in many instances, it also symbolized conflicts between social and cultural ideas and in extreme instances, symbolizing seismic shifts in social and cultural attitude (the 1960 provide a prime example of this). Or perhaps we’re reading way too much into this… 🙂 In any event, it certainly reveals some cracks in the wall of seeming Victorian Era uniformity when it came to fashion and that bears further examination.

1890s Suits…Day Styles At Their Best

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What a fun day, still one of my favorite old suits and not a pleat to be had on it…check out that wavy straw hat, that’s a treasured antique of mine. <3