As the 1860s drew to a close, the collapse of the crinoline heralded a fleeting empire-inspired style. It had a slightly high-waisted bodice and a gored skirt and it did not endure, despite the favour of Empress Eugenie, wife of Napoleon III of France. Having popularised the cage crinoline at court, she is said to have encouraged its demise in favour of the style redolent of the glorious days of the first empire. But fashionable women felt the lack of crinoline and soon returned to it, albeit in a much smaller version. Small horsehair frills or tournures were worn with it to fill out the silhouette behind. The alternative skirt support was the horsehair petticoat or jupon, a gored underskirt, which also could be worn with a tournure. The crinoline did not remain small for long but began to increase in size, this time, not at the hem, but behind at hip-level, creating a bustle. By 1870, this was evident in the fashionable silhouette.
The empire period greatly influenced the fashions of the late 1860s. It was rivalled by an eighteenth century interest, which produced a number of Louis Quinze, Pompadour and Marie Antoinette articles of dress. The Marie Antoinette Fichu, for example, was a feature of many costumes. With the fall of "empire" the eighteenth century reigned supreme for most of the '70s and '80s. But, undoubtedly, the greatest influence on fashion in the last decades of the nineteenth century was Empress Eugenie's favourite, Charles Frederick Worth, the father of couture. Fashionable women the world over, flocked to Paris to purchase his one-of-a-kind creations. Worth was the first creator of clothing who became internationally reknowned not as simply a maker of clothes but as a designer. From this time on, fashion would move at a pace that required considerable expense to keep up with it. Though the last quarter of the nineteenth century saw a considerable rise in consumerism and the number of people who could indulge in it, fashion would be led by designers as well as socialites.
The bustle enjoyed two periods of popularity, in the early 1870s and in the 1880s. At no other time before or after has it been worn in quite such an obvious way or by so many women. Many early 1870s bustles looked very much like a small crinoline, with a swelling behind. Half crinolines (also called tournures or crinolettes) also emerged, consisting of a back half of a skirt with steels and with lacing to tie across the front, to make the bustle effect more pronounced. These are what we tend to picture now as true bustles. The new attention to the "behind" was considered quite provocative. Skirts were more than simply back-weighted, they emphasized an area of the body not previously regarded by Victorian fashion.
The early '70s dress bodice could be as high-waisted and round as the '60s but also developed a short tail or basque at the back. The neckline was often square and decorated with a lace frill. Long, two-piece, coat sleeves were set into armholes that were gradually returning to the natural shoulder point. Alternative elbow-length sleeves, widened into a frill below, like the pagoda sleeves of the previous decade, often with a profusion of lace. There was more than a hint of the eighteenth century about the square neck and be-frilled elbow-length sleeve.
Another eighteenth century influence was the re-introduction of high heels after more than half a century of flat footwear. Boots, shoes and even slippers developed what we would describe now as a Louis heel.
The belts with ties worn in the late '60s continued. Sometimes drapery was hung off these belts, often in the form of apron-like overskirts. In fact, drapery became a feature of the skirt. The front was overlaid with the apron and the full back panels of the skirt itself were drawn up at intervals, by vertical ties on the inside, to create a ruched effect. Soon the skirt looked quite unlike the gored late '60s skirt from which it developed, though beneath the drapery and despite the draped back panel, it remained similar in cut. It was often trained, even for day, though a walking length was also available.
Another form of dress was the polonaise, after the looped up dresses of the eighteenth century. It was really a bodice and overskirt combined. The polonaise bodice was similar to the usual form but was continous with its overskirt, which was drawn up in swathes by internal ties. Beneath it, an underskirt was worn which could be trained or not. The polonaise was usually cut like a princess dress, without a waist seam, and often differed from it only in that it was not full length. The underskirt was essential, as it had been for the looped up walking dresses of the 1860s and it often ended in a frill or kilted edging. One form of the early 1870s polonaise costume was the Dolly Varden dress. This consisted of a floral cotton polonaise over a plain, brightly coloured skirt of walking length, and worn with a straw hat, perched forward on the high coiffure. It was a charming, girlish, eighteenth century style costume, beloved of ordinary Englishwomen, and not of Society ladies. Most fashionable 1870s costumes were more mature, sophisticated and decidedly Parisian.
The ordinary dress bodice of 1870 was short and highwaisted. But it began to lengthen into a point at the front. Soon the waist-line descended to its natural level and the bottom of the bodice extended beyond the waist, further dipping at the front in a point. By 1874 the bodice could be almost hip length and pointed - this was named the cuirasse bodice, after the piece of armour. A variation of this could also be hip-length, but even all the way round, often with contrasting sleeves and a contrasting waistcoat effect in front. Plain round and high neck-lines were sometimes worn with lace collars draped in a v-shape. The full-length, seven-eighths or three-quarter sleeves ended in pleated cuffs, trimmed with lace. These long, figure-hugging bodices indicated a new emphasis on the hour-glass figure, created by the very heavily boned corsets of the day. They displayed the outline of the corseted hips, not seen since the diaphonous muslins of the early nineteenth century. In relative terms, it was potentially a very erotic effect.
In the early 1870s, the skirt was trained, with the fullness high, just below the waist, creating quite a domed effect behind. But, in keeping with the lengthening bodice, the fullness soon descended, being caught behind the knees by 1876. For a few years fashion dispensed with the bustle and made do with a small pad at most.
The cuirasse bodice and the low, trained skirt gave a more sleek outline than before. But the love of heavy drapery remained from the early 1870s, often disposed in asymmetrical ways on the skirt, which billowed out at the train. The fashionable skirt was almost always trained, until 1878, when a walking length emerged again. Trains were often conveniently detachable and were decorated on the underside with elaborate frills of lace, partly visible - a balayeuse - which could be removed for cleaning. Horizontal ties on the inside drew the front skirt panels inwards and constrained the excess fullness of the back. With the weight of the train also pulling backwards, this would have shown much of the contour of the limbs had there been no skirt drapery. These, then, were the highly sophisticated, elegant, and once again, very retrictive costumes, of the fashionable woman. The term "gilded cage" is often used to describe the situation of the victorian lady and and it was more true at this period than at any other.
Dress skirts were trained both for day and evening wear, but when the walking length was re-introduced in 1878, the silhouette, still without a bustle, began to change subtly. The absence of the train prevented the skirt from pulling quite so tightly against the wearer. Thus the shorter dress, though still contained by internal ties, actually looked more columnar. The skirt tended to be decorated in horizontal bands consisting of frills, kilting, puffings or shirrings, or any combination of these. Satin was a favourite fabric for these, as its shiny surface highlighted the variety of textures created. Lace frills were also very extravagant and stylish. A further development of the polonaise costume saw side, hip draperies, called panniers, attached to the bodice rather than on separate waistbands. These were inspired by the eighteenth century.
Some of the drapery diminished for informal day dresses. An alternative, one-piece, princess dress also gave a similarly vertical appearance, like the shorter version of the cuirasse dress. It, was often trimmed asymmetrically, but also it could be quite plain.
By 1880, a plainer, lighter and very girlish effect co-existed with the more elaborate sophisticated styles. Even hair, which owed its highly crafted magnificence to the eighteenth century influence during the early seventies, was sometimes plainer. No woman could have hoped to create the sculpted coiffure of the early and mid '70s entirely with her own living hair. False hair pieces were essential. Some of the plainer styles of the late '70s and early '80s, however, could be attempted with the full head of very long hair, possessed of many Victorian women. One of these styles was popularised by the beautiful young Lily Langtry in the late 1870s, when she successfully appeared in London Society. It consisted of a low chignon worn at the nape of the neck and a curled fringe in front - the fringe being an innovation of the late '70s. Another popular style coiled very long plaits daintily around the head. Extremely modest and demure, they heralded a fleeting return to the sense of innocence of earlier Victorian fashions.
This was briefly the general style of about 1880. The figure hugging dress was still quite restrictive round the legs, absent of much of its drapery or with the pannier-style drapery associated with the eighteenth century shepherdess look, and worn with a more simple coiffure. There was something almost girlish about woman of 1880, but she would not remain so. The mature ladies of Society would not give in to this cult of youth for long. They had briefly enjoyed the sense of sophistication that had entered fashion in the era of the bustle, and were loathe to let go of its possibilities. Looking back on the fashions of the entire bustle era, we tend to consider them doll-like, feminine and therefore very girlish, but this is not how they were perceived at the time by the ladies that wore them.
Outerwear during the 1870s and '80s was often very tailored. Jackets and paletots (loose, semi-fitting jackets of hip to almost dress length) and full length coats or ulsters were often worn, especially during the inter-bustle years. They were often decorated in a very military style or were left severely plain and mannish. Some commentators objected to these excessively masculine outer clothes, but they were the perfect foil for the helplessly feminine dress underneath. The most convenient item to wear over the dress was a mantle as it easily accommodated any size of bustle. The Dolman was a favourite style of mantle and was often cleverly cut from shawl fabric. Ordinary shawls were not so popular and tragically were often cut up to make dolmans.
The hairstyle was more important than the head-dress over it. Most women, except older married women, did not wear anything on their heads indoors, during the day, and only combs, flowers or jewellery, in the evening. Bonnets and hats were worn outdoors, though it is difficult to distinguish between the two. Hoods and shawl-like draperies were often worn on the head, outside.
The impracticality and discomfort of dress allowed a few new developments in leisure wear. The jersey costume, supposedly named after Mrs Langtry, popularly known as the Jersey Lily, was a favourite for activities such as tennis and yachting. The loose-fitting blouse, often called Russian or French, grew in importance for informal wear and sporting wear. Tea-gowns were also an innovation of the 1870s. These were unboned, loose-fitting afternoon gowns, often with Watteau style backs, that fell in folds from the neck to the hem. They allowed fashionable women to put off their heavy corsets for a few hours, before the rigours of dressing for dinner.
Perhaps the plainer styles of dress were more favoured by ordinary women, than the fashionable elite, for the fashion drawings circulated from Paris in the early 1880s were highly elaborate and theatrical. In fact, the theatre was exerting an increasingly dominant influence on fashion.
The impracticality of fashionable dress really came to a head in the mid to late 1870s. It was the time of some of the most confining clothing ever worn by western women. The skirt, for example, would only be rivalled for inconvenience by the hobble skirt of the Edwardian era, the corset was the tightest it had been for nearly a century and the total weight of the dress and all its requisite underclothing was excessively heavy. Not surprisingly, there were calls to improve or reform dress from a number of quarters. For over twenty years the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood of artists had promoted the unrestricted clothing and apparently natural figure of the mediaeval women of the time of Raphael and before. Popularly called aesthetic dress, it really came into prominence during the 1870s. Though the loose-fitting dress of "greenery yallery" colours was lampooned in Gilbert and Sullivan's operetta, "Patience", it had an effect on fashion, if only to add charming mediaeval and renaissance elements to the general mish-mash of historical influences in mainstream fashion. It also lent itself to very nice tea-gowns. The foremost retailer of aesthetic clothing and interior design was Liberty's, and a Liberty-designed salon and tea-gown were very desirable accessories.
The Rational Dress Society wished to reform women's dress for reasons less aesthetic and more practical, or as they termed it, hygienic. They, too, wanted the natural figure and the abolition of fashionable trends but also considerable changes to the number and weight of the various items of dress and the introduction of divided skirts.
These dress reform movements wrought no great changes in fashion, but they helped to increase the public awareness of some of the socialist principles that were allied to them and of the wider rights of women. One reform that did make a change was the health cult which introduced Dr Jaeger's wool underclothing next to the skin and breathable cellular fabrics such as Aertex.
During the early 1880s, panniers and other skirt draperies became more bouffant, especially behind, and the bustle soon returned to underpin this silhoutte. The elegant domed effect did not return with the new bustle; instead a shelf began to protrude horizontally behind. There were numerous cartoon allusions to tea-trays and the resting of tea-cups thereon, but the new bustle persisted until the end of the 1880s. This shelf-like bustle was often created by a couple of steel bands inserted into the underskirt of the dress itself, though it could also be a separate bustle underskirt.
The bodices that accompanied these cumbersome skirts were shorter than the preceding cuirasse. They were usually pointed in front and often had short or long jacket tails or basques, behind. Some bodices simply ended evenly all round at the waist. Many bodices had contrasting panels in the front, called a plastron. These had arisen in the mid 1870s and had often been accompanied by contrasting sleeves, giving the effect of a waistcoat. (The full-length centre front panel of princess dresses of the late 70's and early '80s often contrasted with the rest of the dress, too. One popular treatment was horizontal shirring, at intervals, down the front). By the mid '80s the plastron was often in a much lighter silk and gathered, giving the impression of a loose blouse front. Sleeves, plain and tight, were often three quarter-length and necklines often square - the eighteenth century influence was still evident. But v-necklines and high necklines with narrow standing collars also came into fashion, the former mainly on evening dress and the latter on tailored costumes. Tailored costumes in general were becoming more important, and a tailored outfit or two by a London tailor, or the notable Redfern and Co. were a necessity. Sleeves would change at the end of the decade, increasing in fullness at the head, this fullness being cut to project upwards above the shoulder line, giving the appearance of being startled.
The skirt of the mid to late 1880s was quite wide and often rectangular in cut. It was pleated into the waistband, with a concentration of a few deep pleats which jutted out at the centre of the back. The width made walking more comfortable, but the bustle often swayed provocatively, adding to its notoriety. Trains were only worn on evening dress. The skirt often incorporated drapery into the cut and this could also be added on. Drapery remained on the 1880s skirt until the very end of the decade.
During 1889 the bustle speedily went out of favour. The skirt
became much simpler almost overnight, with only a hint of drapery
remaining. This was as a result of a radical change in cut. By
1890, the generous, rectangular skirt became gored, giving a much
slimmer silhouette. Trains and demi-trains returned for day wear.
Most of the excess width in the skirt was pulled round to the
back, and though the hem circumference was comparable to the late
'80s skirts, most of it was disposed behind, so that from the
front, the skirt appeared columnar. The whole appearance of the
dress with its apparently narrow skirt and upright sleeves was
very perpendicular. Having liberated herself from the
preposterous encumberance of the bustle, the 1890 woman
threatened to be constrained once more. But the danger of this
was short-lived, for she would soon embark upon a more practical
style of dress, and indeed, way of life.
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