Fashion in the 1890s



1890 saw the establishment of a very slim, perpendicular silhouette. The voluminous bustle skirt skirt had collapsed and disappeared almost overnight in 1889. Most of its applied drapery had gone with it. The new skirt was usually cut in three to five gored panels, narrow at the top and wide at the bottom. Almost all of the fulness was drawn to the back of the waist and disposed in an inverted pleat at the very centre, falling in soft folds to the hem. This made the front quite plain and tight, though some skirts were still cut with a horizontal fold or two at the back, which caused the front to form a gentle swathe of drapery. By 1892 this was eliminated, as was the train that was often found on the skirts of day-dresses of the early '90s.

An alternative to the gored skirt was the one-piece circular skirt, called a bell, fan or umbrella skirt. This skirt was not usually formed from a complete circle but consisted of a close-fitting front continuous with a section of a circle, from an eighth to a quarter on each side, for the back. (A hybrid of these two styles combined a narrow front gore with a circular back). Again, all the fulness or spring in the skirt was at the back, making the front seem narrow and perpendicular.

The bodice too, gave the same impression: the waist was long, sometimes an inch below the natural level and as tight as ever; the sleeves, a little full at the head, rose upwards above the shoulder, rather than outwards, and any bodice trimming such as revers or gathers were drawn into a narrow v-shape at the front. The whole effect was narrow, upright and rather prim - not a very promising start to a new decade, it would seem. But in this look were sown the seeds of a more wearable dress than had been seen for several decades, and it would be heartily embraced by the New Woman of the nineties.

The emphasis on the skirt that had dominated the crinoline and bustle eras would give way to an emphasis on the bodice, rather like the 1830s, and the skirt would often remain free of trimming. The sleeves would become the most important feature of the dress. They gradually grew in size from the ordinary tight sleeve with a few upright gathers at the shoulder, of 1890, filling out at the top and often tapering to a point over the wrist, forming the classic leg-of-mutton sleeves of the mid '90s. The alternative cut was the puffed sleeve, which could be short, three-quarter or full length, a full length puff sometimes being called the bishop sleeve. Leg-of-mutton, puff and bishop all reached enormous proportions by 1895 and required stiff interlinings to maintain their width. Unlike those of the 1830s, the '90s sleeve did not droop from the shoulder. Instead it projected confidently upwards and outwards and was often set well into the armhole to facilitate this.

As the sleeves widened at the shoulder, the skirt widened at the hem to balance the look. The gores of the skirt became more triangular and more gores were added, to give a fashionable hem circumference commonly over five yards by the mid '90s. Occasionally skirts could be even wider than this:- in the light summer or evening fabrics of the later '90s, the sunray-pleated, circular skirt could be cut as a complete circle; some gored skirts were as much as seven and a half yards by 1896. Many 1890s skirts were lined with stiff, silk taffeta. Worn with a taffeta petticoat underneath, the result was a fashionable rustling called frou- frou.

Perhaps frou-frou was the confident sound of a confident, prosperous fin de siecle. It expressed itself in other ways, from the bold, vibrant combinations of yellow and purple, black and red, emerald and pink, a reaction against the subdued splendour of the '80s, to the floral eighteenth-century-inspired brocades and vivid striped taffetas. '90s fashion seemed set to make a bold fashion statement at the close of the century. It also heralded an increase in ready-to-wear clothing - making fashionable dress a little more accessible to a broader class of women. Fashion magazines flourished as the cost of printing fell, as more women tried to keep up with the fashionable elite and as the thirst for novelty and consumer goods widened. We are not accustomed to thinking of the Victorians as consumers, but our modern taste for the new and innovative, for regular changes in fashion and for affordable "High Street" clothing were set in the Victorian age and are a direct result of the industrial advances of the nineteenth century.

Fashionable dress always remained somewhat beyond the means of the so-called "ordinary woman". No ready-made item of clothing or etiquette column in a penny weekly magazine could really turn a well-dressed shop-girl into a Duchess, but it could certainly make her feel like one. The finest fashions, however, were still custom made, exorbitantly priced and uncomfortable to wear.

Bodices were heavily boned, and the waist remained as tight as it had ever been, (despite the continued objections of the medical profession and of many fashion writers). A plain buckled belt or fancy cummerbund of pleated silk drew attention to the tiny waist, set between the great expanses of sleeve above and skirt below. The waistline began quite low at the start of the decade, in keeping with the perpendicular line of the dress, but rose to the natural level by 1893. The neckband or standing collar of the 1880s continued, though higher now and stiffened. The tight waistline, stiff, high neckband and excessive sleeve would seem to have been another expression of the helpless, restricted Victorian woman. But this was countered by the skirt, which though wide, if stiffened adequately at the hem to hold itself away from the feet, was the least restrictive form of skirt since 1830. The cut did not require a multitude of petticoats, a cage crinoline or a steel bustle to support it and was suited to walking and other active pursuits. As always though, any progress made in terms of freedom, was always hampered by some foolish invention of fashion. In this case, the fulness at the back of the skirt could pose a problem. Fashion intended it should fall from waist to hem in sculpted flutes like those of an umbrella. The back gores were often fully interlined with buckram or hair-cloth to achieve this, and elastic straps were tacked on the inside of the flutes to hold them in position. Furthermore, for a woman a little deficient of figure behind, it was fashionable to wear a small bustle pad to enhance the curve. All this must have required frequent adjustment after sitting down.

The term "New Woman" was first used in the English press by "Punch", to ridicule the new generation of energetic and active young women. But with these women lay the hope of freedom and modernity. They held their own in society, but took part in sports such as golf, tennis and bicycling and were not afraid to take up the opportunities at university and in the workplace that were opening up to them. Some of them even espoused the rising women's suffrage movement. Women like this could not hamper themselves by day with fully boned and interlined costumes. The suit as we know it now, consisting of separate jacket and matching skirt, with contrasting blouse, developed in line with their needs. The fashionable woollen tailored costume that had been favoured in the previous decade consisted of a skirt and a tailored bodice, often in the form of a jacket with a fitted lining and a loose, false front, that resembled a blouse. It remained the most fashionable tailored costume in its '90s form. But the alternative suit, with its unboned jacket and separate blouse, allowed the wearer much more freedom. This was the uniform of the New Woman. She was captured in the drawings of the American artist Charles Dana Gibson and was sometimes known as the Gibson Girl.

The widespread adoption of the blouse was arguably the greatest development in dress in the 1890s. It allowed a more versatile style of dressing - one skirt could be worn with a number of different blouses, suitable for different occasions. It could also be purchased ready-made, as the fit was not as important as that of a bodice. (The same was true of the jacket compared with the jacket bodice). At last the consumer could have her say!

A loose belted tunic-like blouse that contrasted with the skirt, had been worn informally in the 1880s, but it came into its own in the '90s as the alternative to the matching, boned bodice. The 1890s blouse was originally a loose bodice, without a lining, but with the fashionable high collar and large sleeves. Worn with or without a jacket over it, it became an acceptable form of day wear. Soon it would acquire a fitted and boned lining beneath it, (comparable to that of any tight dress bodice), which would detract from its practicality. Dress bodices too, were sometimes made to contrast with the skirt. Thus the sharp distinction between the blouse and the bodice would be blurred by fashion. But the plain, unlined blouse persisted, either as a shirt blouse with stiff collar and tie, like that of a man, or in a more dressy, silken and lacy form, suitable even for dinner dress. Whether blouse, bodice or the hybrid blouse-bodice, all forms showed the large sleeves, leg-of-mutton, bishop or puffed, beloved of the 1890s woman.

The sleeve reached its zenith in 1895 and early '96. As it widened, other features of the bodice also contributed to the effect of width across the bust and shoulders. Gathers were sometimes drawn together in the middle at bust height. Lapels and revers became very wide, masking the bodice underneath. Bodices were often made with yokes, or trimmed with the outline of one, surrounded by a frill. Sleeves were often trimmed with large sleeve caps or epaulettes.

Dress in the 1890s seems to reflect a conflict between the enfeebled femininity of the traditional, Victorian woman and the somewhat masculine confidence of the New Woman. Dress bodices and some blouses were extremely feminine in style, yet the skirt was potentially very practical. Jackets of every description including boleros (very short, open jackets with curved fronts) and Etons (waist length jackets) long coats such as Ulsters and Invernesses (a long caped coat), were as sharply tailored as those of any fashionable man. They often bore the same names as masculine garments and could be trimmed with frogging in a military style. Capes, very convenient at this time for wearing over the enormous sleeves, were also trimmed in a military fashion, though they could also be extremely frilly and feminine. Tailored costumes and suits were at the forefront of fashion (English tailoring was unsurpassed and much in demand). Woollen fabrics, including tweeds of all kinds, cashmere and alpaca, were in vogue for day wear, and lightweight woollens could be worn in summer. Even ordinary dress bodices showed aspects of the jacket, with boleros, revers and lapels applied as trimming. Masculine shirt blouses also reflected the conflict in fashion, with starched, often detachable collars worn with manly ties, contrasting with the large, feminine sleeves and small waist.

On balance, Paris, (the source of most fashion), and the fashionable elite, seemed to favour the less practical and more feminine styles - the impractical sleeves, the tiny waist, the stiffened skirts, even the old fashioned tailored costume; but the average woman in England and America favoured the new - the modern suit, the versatile blouse - and she wore them with the tiny waist and the large sleeves of Paris, thereby enjoying the best of both worlds. It was the first time that the Victorian woman began to feel she could take what she wanted of fashion and leave the rest, without entirely losing her respectability and social position. She also proved how resourceful she could be when she took up a job or a sporting pastime like the new craze for bicycling. She still wore her indispensable corset, (sometimes in a lightly boned, sporting version), and modified the rest of her wardrobe accordingly. In fact it was amazing how much a determined woman could do with what was still a relatively restrictive wardrobe.

While the tight-laced corset persisted in fashion, so did the informal tea-gown, to the relief of the fashionable woman. However, it became so elaborate that it could be worn at home for dinner as well as tea, as long as it did not greatly resemble a dressing-gown. As before, it was usually cut in the princess style with no waist seam and with a watteau back, but sometimes it was cut in the empire style with raised wasitline. This reflected one of the many superficial, historical influences on fashion during the decade. The old rivals of empire and eighteenth century in particular, fought it out over tea-gowns, dressing-gowns and nightgowns, with no definite conclusion, to the satisfaction of all. Attempts were made to rekindle empire in day and evening wear - it was occasionally seen in evening dress but would not succeed widely in day and evening dress until the following decade.

Coiffure during the 1890s was relatively practical. Hair was gently waved and drawn back into a small, high chignon. A hat, sometimes of the straw sailor or boater variety, perched jauntily on top. One popular '90s coiffure somewhat resembled the high top knot of the 1830s and was called the "teapot handle". But the small coiffure began to enlarge and the Pompadour style of puffed hair reminiscent of the eighteenth century came back into fashion. Bonnets were still sometimes worn in the early '90s, though these were like tiny hats which tied with strings. Any kind of old-fashioned bonnet or cap was only really worn by the elderly. Hats, on the other hand were very fashionable and began to reach great heights. Practical boaters vied with outlandish millinery confections adorned with feathers, flowers and even birds' wings. The hat became an object of contention because of its height and the use of endangered birds to decorate it. It is interesting to note that while fur was also widely used for dress, it seems to have generally escaped controversy.

Shoes became a little more practical during the day. They retained the high, curved Louis heel of the previous two decades, but lost much of the elaborate trimming, except the favourite eighteenth century buckle. Boots, worn outdoors only, were plain and could reach very high up the leg, towards the knee, closing with as many as 16 pairs of holes. Evening shoes, however, were as impractical and over-decorated as ever. Both boots and shoes tended to be black, though white and beige were worn with light coloured dresses; any colour to match the dress could be worn in the evening. Stockings, in the best taste, were black or white to match the shoes, but gaudy colours and stripes also abounded, as they did in dress in general.

Any references to masculine dress were firmly put aside in the evening. Evening dress of the 1890s was carried out in the richest silks such as satin, moire and brocade and were often highly decorated around the neckline, hem and up the gored seams of the skirt. They could just as often be untrimmed and very plain indeed, allowing the sumptuous fabric and extravagant cut to hold their own. Trains and demi-trains were often worn. Day and evening bodices could be pointed in front and behind or be cut straight across. They could be draped and gathered or plain. Necklines could be square, oval, V- or heart-shaped. Dinner bodices could sometimes have high necks and long sleeves. They were altogether indistinguishable in cut from formal day bodices. Both day and evening dresses were often cut in the princess style. From 1892-7, evening sleeves were puffed to the elbow, where they met the obligatory long, kid gloves. Decolletage could be less revealing, though for ball dress, some necklines were almost in line horizontally with the top of a puffed sleeve that slipped off the shoulder - this was considered a revival of the 1830s style. Generally, less skin was exposed in the evening dress of much of this decade than before. From 1897, the decolletage became more revealing, and the puffed evening sleeve was reduced to little more than a strap, as it had been at the start of the '90s.

During the course of 1896 a change in the sleeve began to appear. The fulness in the leg-of-mutton began to recede up the arm, well above the elbow. All-important width was still maintained at the shoulder, sometimes emphasised by a small epaulette, but the puffing became smaller. The fuller styles still appeared alongside the modified ones during 1896, but by '97 the enormous puff had gone. The distinctive sleeves of 1897-8 combine the charm of the mid '90s sleeve with greater practicality. By 1899 the former charm was lost and only a slim, tight sleeve remained with a few gathers at the top to hint at what had been.

As the sleeve declined, the bodice became looser in front, pouching very slightly over the belt. The skirt began to lose some of its width and most of its stiffening. It also became less sharply triangular, the gores acquiring a slight outward curve below knee level. The fabrics favoured, such as chiffon and crepe-de-chine, were less stiff and had a definite drape to them. The colours were becoming paler and more muted. The crisp rustle of the decade of frou-frou, the brash, gay nineties, gave way to something softer and more luxurious. The foundations of Edwardian style were laid in the last years of the century, and indeed, of the Victorian age.

Copyright Ladies Treasury 2002

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