The Writer’s Guide to 1890s Women’s Fashion

The 1890s was a transitory period between the stuffy Victorians and the modern Edwardians. The world was changing quickly. Technology such as trains, telephones, and electricity were leading to a forward-thinking world connected like never before. Woman had more opportunities to work and socialize outside the home and the suffragette movement was gaining steam.

For an overview of fashion for the entire 19th century, please read my Writer’s Guide to 19th Century Fashion. Another example of the clothing from this period is HBO’s “The Nevers.” Although it’s a fantasy show, the costuming is quite accurate.

Silhouette

The dramatic bustled silhouette of the 1880s died out by 1892. Sleeves widened, first with a small puff at the shoulder. [1] Then the gigot or leg-of-mutton sleeves of the 1830s returned with a vengeance. After 1895, the width shrank again, returning to the narrow fit and small shoulder puff at the beginning of the decade.

The sharp angular bustle disappeared, replaced with first a bell-shaped skirt, then ones with more of a trumpet shape. Both styles were gored to lay smoothly over the hips.

The waist was nipped in to balance out the wide sleeves and skirts. [2]

About 1897, the “pigeon-breasted” silhouette came into style and carried into the next decade. As the name implies, a large, thrust forward bosom was the style with a nipped-in waist and the hips tilted toward the back. [3]

An 1892-3 fashion plate of evening dresses with gigot sleeves. Photo source.
An 1899 fashion plate showing the “pigeon breasted” silhouette. Photo source.

The “New Woman” & the Gibson Girl

The “New Woman” was one that enjoyed greater freedoms than ever before. She was usually young, intellectual, and financially independent, with a love of sports. Thanks to the Industrial Revolution, the growth of cities, and the widening implementation of electricity, women had many more opportunities to work outside the home. During this decade, the number of women employed outside the home almost doubled. [4] In fact, a woman could make enough money as a secretary, librarian, or shop assistant to support herself without relying on her family or a husband. Work hours were shortening with mechanization and the passage of labor laws. This gave women more leisure time. Women’s participation in sports such as tennis, golf, and especially bicycling, exploded. The bicycle was also an independent and practical way for women to get to work. [5]

The spirit of the “New Woman” was idealized through the illustrations of Charles Dana Gibson, which became known as the “Gibson Girl.” Gibson’s girls were confident, self-assured, independent, and always dressed in the latest styles. They soon became the feminine ideal [6] In fact, the curly, swept-up hairstyle seen in many of Gibson’s illustrations is still called the “Gibson Girl” hairstyle today.

Three women dressed for cycling. Photo source.

Undergarments

Combinations in cotton were the base layer.

Over this was worn the corset. At the beginning of the decade, it had an hourglass shape. However, in 1897, the straight front corset was introduced. This style forced the hips back, creating a straight line from the bosom down the front. [7] It was supposed to be a healthier alternative to the previous corset styles.

Corset covers had been worn to soften the harsh line of the corset from showing through the outer layers. With the rise of the “pigeon-breasted” silhouette, a series of ruffles was added to pad out the chest.

The bustle died out by 1892 and was replaced with a small bum pad that was tied around the waist. This provided a bit of fullness through the rear.

An 1890s corset advertisement. Photo source.

Day Dress

Women’s styles were increasingly influenced by men’s fashions during this decade. [8] This was especially apparent in women’s work and sporting attire.

Daytime styles were commonly high necked and long-sleeved. A shirtwaist, a type of blouse styled after men’s shirts, became popular. It was paired with an ankle-length skirt, a belt, a jacket, and a hat. Shirtwaists could be simple white buttoned-up shirts or feature trim, tucks, frills, or patterned fabric. [9] Neckties and bow ties were often worn with shirtwaists. They were commonly paired with a suit called a tailor-made. [10] Bodices like those from the previous decade were also worn.

For playing sports, skirts were given a deep pleat in the back or shortened for freedom of movement. The most daring women wore the “bicycle suit” which was developed to make cycling easier. It consisted of a jacket and bloomers or voluminous breeches. Bathing outfits also featured bloomers worn with a sleeved top.

Mrs I.N. Phelps Stokes wearing a shirtwaist, skirt, belt, jacket, bowtie, and straw boater. Photo source.
An 1895 bicycle suit. Photo source.

Eveningwear

The same silhouettes that reigned during the day were also seen at night. The only difference was the neckline, which became low and open. Also, the sleeves were short, although they were still fashionably puffy.

An evening dress designed by Jacques Doucet, a French couturier during the Belle Époque. Photo source.

Outer Garments

With the reintroduction of the gigot sleeve, capes became popular since they spread gracefully over the top. They commonly had high collars and were elaborately trimmed. Jackets and coats were commonly worn over shirtwaists and featured gigot sleeves. The prized cashmere shawls of the previous decades were removed completely from women’s’ wardrobes and were now seen draped over pianos and furniture. [11] The dolman also disappeared.

An 1896 fur cape. Photo source.

Hairstyles & Headwear

The “Gibson Girl” hairstyle was all the rage, featuring a high bun and curls around the face.

Hats had become shorter and wider than those from the previous decade. However, there was still a propensity toward lots of decoration, including whole stuffed birds. While the hats were low, the trim often stuck straight up and included flowers, ribbons, and feathers. [12] Straw boaters were also a popular style, especially for the seaside or sporting.

A hat from 1895. Photo source.

Accessories

Most of the accessories from the previous decade were still popular. They included the pocket watch, reticule, fan, muff, and parasol. Gloves were becoming less common.


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Copyright © 2021 Rebecca Shedd. All rights reserved.

[1] Severa, Joan L. Dressed for the Photographer: Ordinary Americans and Fashion 1840-1900. Kent, OH: Kent State UP, 1995 p. 458; 476-481.
[1] Severa, Joan L. Dressed for the Photographer: Ordinary Americans and Fashion 1840-1900. Kent, OH: Kent State UP, 1995 p. 458; 476-481.
[2] Tortora, Phyllis G. and Keith Eubank. Survey of Historic Costume, 5th ed. New York: Fairchild Books, 2010 p. 397.
Shrimpton, Jayne. Victorian Fashion. Oxford: Shire Publications, 2016 p. 26-27.
[3] https://genealogylady.net/2015/08/16/fashion-moments-pigeon-breast/
[4] Tortora, Phyllis G. and Keith Eubank. Survey of Historic Costume, 5th ed. New York: Fairchild Books, 2010 p. 380-382.
[5] Shrimpton, Jayne. Victorian Fashion. Oxford: Shire Publications, 2016 p. 27.
Warner, Patricia Campbell. When the Girls Came Out to Play: The Birth of American Sportswear. Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2006 p. 117.
[6] Tortora, Phyllis G. and Keith Eubank. Survey of Historic Costume, 5th ed. New York: Fairchild Books, 2010 p. 399.
[7] Laver, James. Costume and Fashion: A Concise History, 5th ed. London: Thames & Hudson, Ltd, 2012 p. 213.
[8] 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. 127.
[9] Laver, James. Costume and Fashion: A Concise History, 5th ed. London: Thames & Hudson, Ltd, 2012 p. 208.
[10] Tortora, Phyllis G. and Keith Eubank. Survey of Historic Costume, 5th ed. New York: Fairchild Books, 2010 p. 399.
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. 127.
[11] Severa, Joan L. Dressed for the Photographer: Ordinary Americans and Fashion 1840-1900. Kent, OH: Kent State UP, 1995 p. 464-466.
Tortora, Phyllis G. and Keith Eubank. Survey of Historic Costume, 5th ed. New York: Fairchild Books, 2010 p. 400.
[12] Shrimpton, Jayne. Victorian Fashion. Oxford: Shire Publications, 2016 p. 28.

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