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, 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, Steel Frame, c. 1884; Victoria & Albert Museum (T.131C-1919).
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:
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.
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
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 Magazine, November 1886
Peterson’s Magazine, February 1887
Peterson’s Magazine, June 1888
Fashion plates are great but let’s take a look at some actual dresses:
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)
Day Dress, c. 1887 – 1891; Metropolitan Museum of Art (C.I.55.40.1a, b, e)
Close-Up Of Bodice
Detail Of Shoulder
Pingat, Promenade Dress, 1888; Metropolitan Museum of Art (2009.300.7758a, b)
Left Side Profile- Unfortunately, the photography does not do justice to the dress.
Right Side Profile
Day Dress, c. 1887 – 1889; Metropolitan Museum of Art (C.I.53.68.2a–c)
Close-Up Of Bodice
Worth, Day Dress, 1888; Metropolitan Museum of Art (2009.300.665a, b)
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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