The Writer’s Guide to 1870s Women’s Fashion

The First Bustle Era continued into the 1870s from the tail end of the previous decade. The focus was put on the back of the skirt, but they also went crazy for embellishment. Then Alexandra, Princess of Wales, came on the scene and popularized the natural form or princess line dress. The bustle dropped from popularity, although it reappeared in the 1880s.

For an overview of fashion for the entire century, please read my Writer’s Guide to 19th Century Fashion.

Undergarments

The standard first layer was either a cotton or linen chemise or increasingly, combinations. Combinations married the chemise and pantalettes or bloomers into a single garment. [1] The reduction in bulk was especially important under the slim princess line styles. They could have a closed crotch or be open, known as split bloomers, to make going to the bathroom easier.

The corset was essential for achieving the fashionable silhouette. They had a split busk in the front. They achieved the curvaceous shape through clever tailoring of the panels and steam-molding to a form. [2] Whalebone and cording were the most popular types of boning. Both are pliable and had some give. They also molded to the wearer’s body over time. Corsetry became more severe with the princess line since the silhouette was very slim, sometimes down to the knees. [3] The corset cover was becoming more common. It was worn over the corset to protect the dress from rubbing against the corset’s hard edges and to soften those edges from showing through the outer layers.

The bustles of the beginning of the decade were originally supported by the crinolette. But it was gradually replaced by the bustle. Both garments used a semi-circular formation of fabric-covered wire hoops to create structure. [4] Both would fold up to allow for the wearer to sit or for storage.

A cage crinolette, 1872-1875. Photo source.
Corset, 1875-1885. Photo source.

The First Bustle Era

The bustle was popular until around 1876. The waistline was slightly above the natural waist and the shoulder was long and sloping. At the beginning of the decade, the bell-shaped sleeves of the previous decade were still popular. [5] The bustles of this period could be quite pronounced and frothy.

Embellishment was taken to extreme levels with an impressive profusion of ruffles, pleats, gathers, bows, trim, and multiple layers of draped fabric. Dresses from this period more closely resembled decorated pastries than clothing. Overskirts were often layered over underskirts in complex arrangements.

Bodices known as basques, extended over the top of the skirt. They were just as heavily embellished as the skirts and frequently matched. [6] For daytime, necklines were high although V shaped, or squared necklines became popular. The neckline could be filled in with a partlet.

For evening, bodices were slightly off-the-shoulder with short, puffed sleeves or no sleeves at all. The bertha was still a popular embellishment.

An 1870 fashion plate. Photo source.
An 1874 evening dress. Photo source.

The Princess Line

The natural form or princess line came into fashion about 1876. It was pioneered by Alexandra, Princess of Wales, who married Queen Victoria’s eldest son, Albert Edward, in 1863. She had a statuesque frame and the new line showed it off to greatest advantage. She had a busy social calendar and always appeared in the latest fashions. [7]

The style was characterized by a figure-hugging line that usually extended to the hips but could go as low as the knees. The bodice generally didn’t have a waist seam, the fit instead being achieved with darts. They usually extended over the hips, echoing the basque styles of the First Bustle Era. [8] This style became known as the cuirass bodice. Most princess line dresses had cascading fullness at the bottom of the skirt and trains were common, even for daytime. [9] The shoulder seam rose to the natural line and sleeves became tighter, echoing the overall snug fit.

Even with the changing styles, daytime dresses were still long-sleeved and high-necked and those for evening were off-the-shoulder with short sleeves.

An 1876 fashion plate. Photo source.
An 1878 evening dress with opera-length gloves. Photo source.

The Casual & the Artistic

This decade saw two rebellions against the restrictive fashions of the day.

The first was the tea gown and the other the leisure dress. The tea gown was a loose, unstructured garment meant to be worn at home with female friends and allowed women to loosen their corsets or abandon them completely. [10] Since tea gowns did not have waist seams, some experts speculate that the princess line developed from them. [11] Leisure dress also made an appearance, such as that for the seaside. While it usually followed the fashionable silhouette, it tended to be brighter and more daring. [12]

Artistic dress was a product of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and drew heavily from medieval styles. It was frequently worn without a corset.

A tea gown from 1875-80. Photo source.
An artistic dress worn by Countess Brownlow, 1879. Photo source.

Outerwear

Coats and jackets, with back vents to accommodate the bustle, were popular during this decade. Those inspired by men’s styles such as the chesterfield were especially fashionable. [13]

Hairstyles & Headwear

The elaborate curly hairstyles of the previous decade remained popular, with elaborate knots and braids and a cascade of curls. Hairpieces were common. [14] During this decade, short curly bangs became all the rage. [15] With the introduction of the princess line, hairstyles became tighter and more confined, the loose curls disappearing.

Bonnets and hats vied for popularity but increasingly the hat was winning out. By the end of the decade, bonnets were for Sunday best or older, conservative women. [16]

Hair and headwear styles from 1878. Photo source.

Footwear

Low, thick-heeled button boots were the norm for daytime while silk slippers were worn for evening.

Accessories

Common accessories included reticules, muffs, parasols, and fans. Gloves were still common but were slowly fading from use. Women had begun to wear pocket watches of their own, although they were smaller than men’s.


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Copyright © 2021 Rebecca Shedd. All rights reserved.

[1] Tortora, Phyllis G. and Keith Eubank. Survey of Historic Costume, 5th ed. New York: Fairchild Books, 2010 p. 386.
[2] Shrimpton, Jayne. Victorian Fashion. Oxford: Shire Publications, 2016 p. 20.
[3] Cunnington, Phillis. The History of Underclothes. London: Michael Joseph, 1951 p. 179.
[4] Cumming, Valerie ed., The Dictionary of Fashion History. New York: Berg, 2010 p. 35.
Shrimpton, Jayne. Victorian Fashion. Oxford: Shire Publications, 2016 p. 17-18.
[5] Cunnington, C. Willett. English Women’s Clothing in the Nineteenth Century: A Comprehensive Guide with 1,117 Illustrations. Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, 1990 p. 258.
[6] Severa, Joan L. Dressed for the Photographer: Ordinary Americans and Fashion 1840-1900. Kent, Ohio: Kent State UP, 1995 p. 301, 329.
[7] Strasdin, Kate. Inside the Royal Wardrobe: A Dress History of Queen Alexandra. London: Bloomsbury, 2017 ch. 3.
[8] Cumming, Valerie ed., The Dictionary of Fashion History. New York: Berg, 2010 p. 61.
Tortora, Phyllis G. and Keith Eubank. Survey of Historic Costume, 5th ed. New York: Fairchild Books, 2010 p. 386.
[9] Cunnington, C. Willett. English Women’s Clothing in the Nineteenth Century: A Comprehensive Guide with 1,117 Illustrations. Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, 1990 p. 256.
[10] Tortora, Phyllis G. and Keith Eubank. Survey of Historic Costume, 5th ed. New York: Fairchild Books, 2010 p. 387.
[11] Coleman, Elizabeth Ann. The Opulent Era: Fashions of Worth, Doucet, and Pingat. London: Thames and Hudson, Ltd., The Brooklyn Museum, 1989 p. 47.
[12] The Girls in Green: Women's Seaside Dress in England, 1850–1900, Deirdre Murphy, The Costume Society, Vol. 40, 2006
[13] Cumming, Valerie ed., The Dictionary of Fashion History. New York: Berg, 2010 p. 46, 213.
Shrimpton, Jayne. Victorian Fashion. Oxford: Shire Publications, 2016 p. 21.
Tortora, Phyllis G. and Keith Eubank. Survey of Historic Costume, 5th ed. New York: Fairchild Books, 2010 p. 392
[14] Cunnington, C. Willett. English Women’s Clothing in the Nineteenth Century: A Comprehensive Guide with 1,117 Illustrations. Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, 1990 p. 296.
[15] Shrimpton, Jayne. Victorian Fashion. Oxford: Shire Publications, 2016 p. 22.
[16] Ginsburg, Madeliene. The Hat: Trends and Traditions. London: Studio Editions, 1990 p. 91.

5 Comments on “The Writer’s Guide to 1870s Women’s Fashion”

  1. Pingback: The Writer’s Guide to 1880s Women’s Fashion | Rebecca Shedd - Author

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