Trending For October 1881 (Or Thereabouts…)

1881 American Fashion Croquet Dresses1881 was an interesting year both for the fashion world and the Arizona Territory. As well all know, the long-simmering conflict between the Earp Brothers and the “Cowboys” was coming to a head and would ultimately lead to that 30-second gunfight later known as “The Gunfight at the OK Corral.” For fashion, events were of a more sedate nature as the Mid-Bustle Era (1877 – 1882) swung into high gear, characterized by a cylindrical, upright silhouette, minimal bustling, and low train. Moreover, we see the princess line dress style take hold and develop.


Illustration from Peterson’s Magazine, October 1881

Although the silhouette was fairly universal, specific dress designs came in a large range of fabrics, trims, and construction details. Below are a few illustrations of the variety that was out there:

Journal Le Printemps October 1881

Journal Le Printemps, October 1881

Cross-hatching and solids with embroidery could be employed…

Journal Le Printemps June 1881

Journal Le Printemps, June 1881

Floral prints and checkered fabrics could also be employed…

Journal Le Printemps December 1881

Journal Le Printemps, December 1881

 Or contrasting colors… Below are some more fashion details along with accessories:

Ladies Home Journal 1

Ladies Home Journal, January 1881

From the above plate it’s evident that bodices could take a variety of forms and shapes ranging from the asymmetrical casaque to bodice styles reminiscent of the men’s justacorps worn during the reign of  Louis XIV with their characteristic long lapels. Moreover, the backsides could also be quite elaborately worked (although this element is easily overlooked).

Ladies Home Journal 4

Ladies Home Journal, January 1881

What is especially striking in the above plates are the variety of dernier (or back) arrangements that could be employed ranging from rows of bows and knife pleating to cascades of pouffs, ribbons, and lace. The possibilities are nearly endless and it’s evident that the dernier provided a canvas for the designer to show their flair.

As for the princess line dress style, here are some examples:

Day Dress 1881

Day Dress, c. 1881; Metropolitan Museum of Art (2009.300.162a, b)

Day Dress 1881

Three-Quarter Rear View

Princess Line Dress c. 1878

Day Dress, Princess Line, c. 1878; National Museum, Prague (H2-193316)

Day Dress 1876 - 1878

Day Dress, Princess Line, c. 1876 – 1878; Manchester City Galleries

Day Dress 1880 - 1882

Day Dress, Princess Line, c. 1880 – 1882; Manchester City Galleries

Princess Line1

And how was that silhouette achieved? Well, here are a few details:

Le Moniteur De La Mode 1876

The above illustration is interesting in that it illustrates perfectly just HOW the silhouette of the Mid-Bustle Era was achieved through subtle additions and reshaping of the body. While not as extreme as what was found in the early to mid 1870s, it still achieves its goal of body modification, a phenomenon present as long as fashion has existed.

As a side note, we at Lily Absinthe take great pride in ensuring that the proper silhouette is achieved with all our clients. That is why we were extremely surprised when one of clients entered an historical costume contest and was told that the tornure (or bustle) simply did not exist during the Mid-Bustle Era and thus her dress was incorrect. Needless to say, we find this dismaying in that even with a minimal amount of research online, one can find plenty of tornures and other foundation garments of the period. C’est la vie.

Finally, we draw attention to this extremely practical petticoat which provides a useful underframe for the skirts:


We rest our case.

Moving on, another style trend we see during the early 1880s is the lowering of the bodice hem so it begins to cover the hips:

Day Dress 1881

Day Dress, c. 1881; Metropolitan Museum of Art (32.76a, b)


Day Dress 1881

Side Profile

Day Dress 1881

Three-Quarter Rear View

The above dress is constructed from an ivory-colored silk brocade fabric that is trimmed with pearls and beading. The silhouette is typical fairly slender and upright with s small bustle. The bodice covers most of the hip and there is no train. The overskirt contains swags of fabric combined with rows of ruffles towards the bottom. Below are some details of the fabric and beading:

As can be seen from the above fashion plates and other illustrations, there was quite a bit of variety of styles available.

So far, we’ve seen mostly daywear. Here’s an evening dress:

Evening Dress 1881

Evening Dress, 1881; Metropolitan Museum of Art (2009.300.440a, b)

Evening Dress

Rear View

In contrast to day dresses, evening and reception dresses (as well as ball gowns), had trains, either short or full. The above evening dress is constructed of a dark blue cotton or silk  velvet bodice and overskirt while the underskirt is of a silk brocade (you can just barely make out the pattern in the picture (unfortunately, there are no close-ups available of the fabric). The bodice is constructed with a Medici collar and it extends completely over the hips and there appears to be no bustle (although it could have been omitted in staging the dress for display- if there had been a bustle, it would have been fairly minimal).

What is striking about this dress is the stark color contrast between the dark blue bodice and overskirt and the white underskirt. The use of contrasting colors was just one of several styles and when employed correctly, it definitely made a lasting impression.

To  further our discussion, the October 1881 issue of Peterson’s Magazine offers some insight to  what was trending, at least in Paris:

The fall fashions are, at once, pretty, becoming, and sensible, though, of course, one cannot tell what vagaries may not seize upon the goddess of La Mode, a little later in the season. But for the present, people are permitted to array themselves pretty much after the style that best pleases them.

The revival of Pekin, as I said in my last, is one of the noticeable innovations of the present season. These Pekins are used for the long Louis XV waists, which are worn with skirts of the same hue as the waist, but of contrasting materials. Thus, the waist of a dress may be of figured or brocaded material, or of Pekin; but it most all be in solid colors, and the corsage [bodice] and skirt must always match in hue precisely.

I have seen a very stylish black costume, made with the waist of Chinese crape [crepe], embroidered all over in a fine, close arabesque- pattern, with black silk; while the skirt was of black satin merveilleux, with an elaborately draped, broad scarf-sash at the back. Coinages, worked all over with fine-cut jet beads, and finished with a jet fringe, are very handsome for cashmere costumes. The beads may be put on in a floral, or arabesque pattern; but they are more stylish, when simply dotted all over the garment. In that case, they must be put on very closely.

Below is an example of Pekin fabric:

“Pekin” or Peking fabric is a fabric that was originally developed in China, consisting equal-width patterns of varying colors woven from silk.

And further on:

One of the most tasteful and simple toilettes of the season, has just been finished, for transmission to the United States. It is in dark-violet surah. The skirt is short, and is covered with three plaited  [pleated] flounces, each of which is finished with a fringing, formed by raveling out the stuff. The corsage is long, and pointed before and behind. It Is laced up the front, a slight shirring just, below the throat, and just above the waist, partially concealing the lacing, in the narrow perpendicular fold thus formed.

The corsage has a plaited flounce of the surah set around the edge, of the same depth as those on the skirt which it meets, thus completing the rows of flounces. The sleeves fit the arm loosely, and are finished at the wrist, with three rows of shirring, from which falls a narrow ruffle of surah.

It is impossible to give any idea of the dainty grace, and stylish simplicity, of this dress. It is very pretty, when duplicated in cashmere, with the flounces gathered and edged with embroidered scallops in sewing-silk. I have seen it in marine-blue cashmere, and also in black. In the former instance, the embroidered scallops that edged the flounces were worked in pale-blue silk.

In regard to colors, the following note is made of what is currently popular in Paris:

The favorite combination of color, this autumn, is dark red and marine-blue. A brilliant gold-color is sparingly used on black dresses, for brunettes.

Here are the approximate colors for dark red and marine blue:

From this brief survey, it’s clear that while fashion was dominated by very specific silhouettes, there was a wide variety of styles available that could be utilized with those silhouettes. For the individual desiring to recreate the Mid-Bustle Era look, there are many choices available and it ultimately comes down to personal preference. What is amazing is that there is such a variety of choices and while we have our personal preferences, each style is equally valid.

So, while the year 1881 was a tumultuous one for Tombstone, and the Arizona Territory in general, it was a bit more restrained in the fashion world. Changes in fashion are usually a product of evolution rather than dramatic events (although there are a few noteworthy exceptions) but still never fail to fascinate us.

Wool curiass bodice

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