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

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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. 🙂