The Writer’s Guide to 1880s Women’s Fashion

The 1880s saw the slim fitted princess line fall from fashion and the bustle make a comeback. The decade is also marked by a profusion of trim on all pieces of clothing and accessories. There was, however, concern over the tight corsetry and a growing artistic movement that drew from historical influences.

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

The Fashionable Silhouette

There were two fashionable silhouettes during the 1880s. The snug fitted princess line was the style until around 1883. [1] For more information on this style, I encourage you to read my Writer’s Guide to 1870s Women’s Fashion.

After that, the bustle came roaring back into popularity. However, rather than the soft rounded protrusion of the 1870s, this version was sharp and angular. [2] It stuck out straight from the small of the back. It grew over the years, reaching its largest by 1886. One writer at the time said the bustles were so big that “whereon a good-sized tea tray might be carried.” [3] They began to shrink starting in 1888 and by 1891 had vanished altogether. [4] Draped overskirts were worn over decorated underskirts in either matching or complimenting colors or patterns. The overskirt could be bustled up quite high or gently draped. [5]

Both styles used an abundance of embellishment. Ruffles, box pleats, ribbons, flounces, flowers, trim, lace, ruffles, shirring, and bows were used with abandon for both daytime and evening. [6]

Undergarments

The standard undergarment was combinations, a joining of a chemise and bloomers or drawers into one garment. They were usually made from cotton or linen, although woolen combinations were recommended wear for sports. Most of these had open crotches to make going to the bathroom easier. A women would just have to lift the front of her skirt and straddle the toilet or position the chamber pot.

Over this was worn the corset, which featured a split busk in the front, making it easier for women to put it on without help.

A petticoat was usually put on next. A lobster tail bustle was used to achieve the fashionable “junk in the trunk.” It was like the semi-circular boned bustles of the 1870s, only longer. It folded easily for sitting or storage. [7] Over it was worn at least one more petticoat. A bustle petticoat, with rows of flounces in the back, helped to support the skirts.

1885 undergarments, including a lobster tail bustle. Photo source.

Day Dress

Dresses worn during the day were usually narrow and modest. Necklines were high, often with standing collars. The sloping shoulders of the previous decades were replaced with a higher shoulder seam and snug sleeves. The dramatic fit was achieved using darts and a smooth line was maintained by adding boning to the seams of bodices. Skirts ended just above the floor. [8]

In both styles, the long basque bodice, which extended over the hips, was popular. Inspiration was also taken from men’s styles and women’s jackets commonly featured a contrasting central panel that invoked the look of a vest and coat.

An 1880 fashion plate showing two princess line dresses. Photo source.
An 1886 fashion plate depicting prominent bustles. Photo source.

Eveningwear

Dresses for evening had low wide necklines and short sleeves, or sometimes only shoulder straps. [9] Long, heavily decorated trains were common. Opera length gloves were essential, usually in white although other colors could be worn.

An 1885 painting showing three evening dresses. Les Demoiselles de Province by James Tissot. Photo source.

Outerwear

Jackets, mantles, and coats replaced cloaks and capes for outerwear. They were tailored to fit over and emphasize the bustle. [10] A style of mantles known as the dolman was especially popular. The back had a connected tie that went around the waist, so the garment was fitted in back. However, the front had long hanging ends and the sleeves were usually cut wide. [11]

A silk and fur dolman. Photo source.
A front and back view of a traveling coat. Photo source.

Hairstyles & Headwear

Hairstyles were restrained, with tight buns being popular, especially with the standing collars of the mid-1880s. [12] The frizzy bangs of the previous decade were still in style and were nicknamed “Josephine curls.”

The hat had almost completely replaced the bonnet. During this decade they grew to impressive heights and were ridiculed as “Four Stories and a Basement.” [13] With so much space and the decade’s love of decoration, hats were elaborately trimmed. Sprays of feathers and entire stuffed birds were all the rage. This trend devastated bird populations, causing many species to become endangered and leading to the founding of the American Audubon Society in 1886, and the English Royal Society for the Preservation of Birds in 1889. [14].

A back view of a high bun with frizzy bangs. Photo source.
An 1880 evening hat with a whole stuffed bird. Photo source.

Footwear

The standard shoe for daytime was a mid-calf heeled boot that either laced or buttoned. Today we call them “granny boots.” For evening, fabric or leather slippers were worn.

Embroidered suede boots from 1885. Photo source.

Accessories

The standard accessories from the previous decades were still popular, mainly for their practicality. These included the parasol, fan, muff, and pocket watch. Gloves were still standard for evening but were being worn less for daytime.

The Aesthetic Movement and Dress Reform

The Aesthetic Movement was an artistic Bohemian rebellion against the mainstream fashions of the day. Fashion was becoming increasingly industrialized and artists such as the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood longed for the less-restrained styles of the past. They drew much of their inspiration from medieval and Renaissance designs. [15] It was usually worn without a corset, bustle, and petticoats. [16]

There were also groups, such as the Rational Dress Society, that advocated against the restrictive styles out of fear of the damage to women’s’ health. [17] They directed much of their anger against the corset. [18]

Neither of these movements become mainstream and both were mercilessly mocked in the press. [19] The closest they became to popularity was their influence on tea gowns, which were only worn in the privacy of the home.

A poster of Annie Oakley wearing shorter skirts without a bustle. Note that she is still wearing a corset though. Photo source.

I hope this was helpful. Let me know if you have any questions or suggestions by using the Contact Me form on my website or writing a comment. I post every Friday and would be grateful if you would share my content.

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Copyright © 2021 Rebecca Shedd. All rights reserved.

[1] Fukai, Akiko, ed. The Collection of the Kyoto Costume Institute: Fashion, A History from the 18th Century to the 20th Century. Kyoto: Taschen, 2013 p. 214.
[2] Tortora, Phyllis G. and Keith Eubank. Survey of Historic Costume, 5th ed. New York: Fairchild Books, 2010 p. 386, 390.
[3] Shrimpton, Jayne. Victorian Fashion. Oxford: Shire Publications, 2016 p. 24-25.
[4] Fukai, Akiko, ed. The Collection of the Kyoto Costume Institute: Fashion, A History from the 18th Century to the 20th Century. Kyoto: Taschen, 2013 p. 239.
[5] Cunnington, C. Willett. English Women’s Clothing in the Nineteenth Century: A Comprehensive Guide with 1,117 Illustrations. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 1990 p. 320B-321.
Tortora, Phyllis G. and Keith Eubank. Survey of Historic Costume, 5th ed. New York: Fairchild Books, 2010 p. 391.
[6] Fukai, Akiko, ed. The Collection of the Kyoto Costume Institute: Fashion, A History from the 18th Century to the 20th Century. Kyoto: Taschen, 2013 p. 216.
[7] Laver, James. Costume and Fashion: A Concise History, 5th ed. London: Thames & Hudson, Ltd, 2012 p. 198.
[8] Tortora, Phyllis G. and Keith Eubank. Survey of Historic Costume, 5th ed. New York: Fairchild Books, 2010 p. 391.
[9] Fukai, Akiko, ed. The Collection of the Kyoto Costume Institute: Fashion, A History from the 18th Century to the 20th Century. Kyoto: Taschen, 2013 p. 225-235.
[10] Tortora, Phyllis G. and Keith Eubank. Survey of Historic Costume, 5th ed. New York: Fairchild Books, 2010 p. 392.
[11] Cumming, Valerie ed., The Dictionary of Fashion History. New York: Berg, 2010 p. 67.
[12] Tortora, Phyllis G. and Keith Eubank. Survey of Historic Costume, 5th ed. New York: Fairchild Books, 2010 p. 393.
[13] Ginsburg, Madeliene. The Hat: Trends and Traditions. London: Studio Editions, 1990 p. 92.
[14] Shrimpton, Jayne. Victorian Fashion. Oxford: Shire Publications, 2016 p. 26.
Ginsburg, Madeliene. The Hat: Trends and Traditions. London: Studio Editions, 1990 p. 92.
[15] Ellis, Martin, Victoria Osborne, and Tim Barringer. Victorian Radicals: From the Pre-Raphaelites to the Arts & Crafts Movement. New York: American Federation of Arts, 2018 p. 35-36.
[16] Tortora, Phyllis G. and Keith Eubank. Survey of Historic Costume, 5th ed. New York: Fairchild Books, 2010 p. 384.
[17] Laver, James. Costume and Fashion: A Concise History, 5th ed. London: Thames & Hudson, Ltd, 2012 p. 200.
[18] Mitchell, Rebecca N., ed. Fashioning the Victorians: A Critical Sourcebook. London: Bloomsbury, 2018 p. 77-83.
[19] Laver, James. Costume and Fashion: A Concise History, 5th ed. London: Thames & Hudson, Ltd, 2012 p. 200.

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