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ashions of the Ages
Brief Costume History
1850-1919

1850-1870 The Era of the Hoop

Illustration from Punch, 1857, showing the complete understructure of a fashionable woman's wardrobe. Illustration from Punch, 1857, showing the complete understructure of a fashionable woman's wardrobe.

An American suffragist and reformer, Amelia Bloomer  led the forefront of dress reform in the 1850's propagating what became known as The Bloomer Costume (originally designed by Elizabeth Smith Miller), a very modest ensemble consisting of a knee length gown worn over demure Turkish trousers.  It is a measure of how severely cumbersome and repressed mid-19th Century Western women's clothes were that a garment worn by conservative Moslem women was so comparatively freeing in style that it actively shocked most contemporary observers.

1851, Mrs. Bloomer in the costume she wore as a response to the restrictive petticoats of the 1840's-50's. 1851, Mrs. Bloomer in the costume she wore as a response to the restrictive petticoats of the 1840's-50's.  

Only a small percentage of the female population ever wore The Bloomer Costume, but periodic attempts at dress reform continued throughout the rest of the 19th Century, exerting a growing influence on fashionable dress. 

The Crinoline (hoop petticoat), c.1860 from Karl Kohler's Kostumewerk The Crinoline (hoop petticoat), c.1860 from Karl Kohler's Kostumewerk

Fashionable women enjoyed a slight dress "reform" of their own in the 1850's by the adoption of the Hoop Skirt.  The hoop (or Crinoline as it was named after the former petticoats of horsehair), liberated women of the weighty, hot unsanitary bulk of petticoats, and gave free movement to the legs.

The tendency of the hoop to flip up showing the legs, also required women adopt a version of the bloomer trousers as underwear.  The earliest hoops were rigid iron that had a tendency to thwack the unhooped sex in the shins.  As a consequence, when added to the horror of seeing one's female dependents wearing (oh!) bifurcated garments beneath the hoop, men were appalled, and tried to put a stop to the fashion by decrying them from newspapers and the pulpit, ridiculing them in song and poetic lampoon, and mercilessly caricaturing them in cartoons.

Second Empire Fashion plates from Petit Courier des Dames 1852-5 provided by Acarter of eBay Second Empire Fashion plates from Petit Courier des Dames 1852-5 provided by Acarter of eBay

The benefits of the hoop for the wearers, however, insured that women defied disapproving fathers and husbands in droves, and iron quickly gave way to more forgiving spring steel wire, which made larger and larger skirt foundations light enough to be possible.

Women's dress in the era 1850-65 gets progressively larger and more horizontal in outline.  Gone are all the lines pointing down, and women in fashion illustrations get a slightly more assertive look in their expressions, more often looking out at the viewer at eye level.

1865. Images courtesy of Aquarian Gallery Antique Prints and Maps 1865. Images courtesy of Aquarian Gallery Antique Prints and Maps

By 1860, the hoop itself was so large and awkward it was in itself oppressive. The shape of the hoop began to become ovoid, with the bulk of the skirt trailing behind the wearer. In 1866 the size of the hoop began to diminish somewhat, and the ovoid trend continued, slowly turning, by 1870, into what they called the Tornure or Bustle.  The result was to give the female figure a forward leaning stance, rather like the prow of a ship. 

Men's dress in this era continued the trend towards decreased individuality of style, crossed with increased technical perfection of manufacture. 

Man in frock coat with plaid vest, 1855. from Karl Kohler's Kostumewerk Man in frock coat with plaid vest, 1855. from Karl Kohler's Kostumewerk

Facial hair gained in popularity in the 1850's, 60's and 70's, not really going out of fashion until after 1900, and then only gradually.

Pianist A. Thalberg in an overcoat and vest, 1860's from Karl Kohler's Kostumewerk Pianist A. Thalberg in an overcoat and vest, 1860's from Karl Kohler's Kostumewerk

Men's dress found the form that it has held in modified form to this day in this era, formalizing the suit into a uniform worn by men in all strata of income in varying degrees of quality.

Dress in The First and Second Bustle Periods

Fashionable women's dress in the era of the 1870's and 1880's, while looking quite modest to modern eyes, was viewed as unashamedly erotic in it's own day. The bustle, the cornerstone on which women's dress depended, focused the majority of the decoration and clothing focus on a woman's backside, and emphasized the movement of that body part to heroic proportions.

Fashion Plate 1872 1872  Fashion Plate 1873 1873

The dress of the first bustle period (1870's) is noted for the lightness of it's material and decoration, swathing the lower reaches of a woman's body in numerous ruffles and pleats, often in light colors using the new and vibrant aniline dyes.

Fashion Plate 1874 1874 Fashion Plate 1877 1877. Image courtesy of Aquarian Gallery Antique Prints and Maps

Fashion Plate 1879 1879

Late in this decade (1878-79) was the "Fishtail" style, where the lower part of the skirt was tight, and ended in a train.

Photo 1880 Fashion Plate 1880 1880

The second bustle period (the 1880's) is heavier, with decoration more resembling upholstery style.  Colors get more Jewel-toned and velvets, heavy satins and brocades replace the taffetas and cottons of the 1870's. Surface decoration is often of passementarie or jet beads, giving the whole ensemble a more mature flavor.

Fashion Plate 1885 c. 1885   Fashion Plate 1886 1886

Men's dress in this era continues in it's general dullness but begins to be enlivened with sportswear, an area that continues to provide the most intriguing variants of men's dress.

Dress during the 1870's and 1880's came more and more under the influence of  the Rational Dress Movement and the Aesthetic Movement.  Dress reform from artists, feminists and socialists provided a continuous counterpoint to the more frivolous dress of fashionable women, and the more tedious dress of fashionable men.

Anti-corset caricature Anti-corset caricature

Dress reformers of the Aesthetic movement such as Oscar Wilde promoted jewel-toned velvet suits with breeches for men, but only found a lasting audience among mothers who dressed small boys in "Little Lord Fauntleroy" suits in this style. Caricaturists such as George du Maurier simultaneously lampooned the Aesthetic dress even as they spread it's influence.  The Gilbert and Sullivan opera Patience spread the Aesthetic style to America, with costumes from Liberty Co. where it was transformed in the following decades into the Arts and Crafts Movement.  Women's aesthetic dress, with it's semi medieval lines and uncorseted waists were transformed by popular taste into the Teagown, a fashionable lady's at home garment.

Rational dress advocates like George Bernard Shaw tried to popularize Jaeger combination suits (which resembled woolen long johns), but were laughed off the streets.  Dr Jaeger's more conservative ensembles of wool knickers and a Norfolk jacket however were accepted as men's sportswear even among the fashionable.

Hunting suits of the 1870's Hunting suits of the 1870's

Dress at The Turn of the 20th Century
La Belle Époque 1890-1914

Women's dress in the 1890's continued to be built in a sturdy, heavy, upholstered style, but the silhouette changed to that of an hour glass.  Female bodies were corseted to a small waist, and then padded in the buttocks, hips, bosom and sleeves to exaggerate the apparent wasp-waisted effect.

Fashion Plate 1895 1895

Hats began to grow larger in the 1890's, a trend that continued steadily until 1911.

Fashion Plate 1891 1891 Fashion Plate 1896 1896

Fashion Plate 1902 1902 Fashion Plate 1909 1909 Fashion Plate 1911 1911

Men's Dress in the 1890's took a turn towards greater formality and dandyism in Europe, and went in the opposite direction in the U.S. where the popular mode was brightly colored sportswear. 

Highly fashionable Russian gentlemen from cigarette advertising of the 1890-1910 period. Highly fashionable Russian gentlemen from cigarette advertising of the 1890-1910 period. Highly fashionable Russian gentlemen from cigarette advertising of the 1890-1910 period.
Highly fashionable Russian gentlemen from cigarette advertising of the 1890-1910 period.

Arrow Shirt Ad. by J.C.Leyendecker Arrow Shirt Ad. by J.C.Leyendecker

American men of around 1900 tried to emulate the image of the "Arrow Shirt Man" drawn by J.C.Leyendecker, with brightly colored shirts and hard white tubular collars worn under the sporty Sack Suit jackets, that had recently moved up from sport clothes to business wear. During this period in the US, the European fashion for Frock coats like the Prince Albert Coat and the Cutaway is gradually displaced by the sack, so much so that even rich American men sport an evening version of the sack, the Tuxedo, to male only parties and semi formal events.

The Hourglass shape of the woman of the 1890's transformed after 1897 into the "S" curve of 1897-1908. This change came from longer lined "health" corsets that supported the spine and abdomen, especially when they were over-laced by the fashionable. Fashionable women in this period seem to be leaning into a wind. The curvaceous clothing line of this period meshes perfectly with the curving lines of the dominant decorative style of the day, known as "Art Nouveau".

1903 an over-laced corset 1903 an over-laced corset

Most women's dress in this era was highly influenced by the advancing feminist cause, which after 1903 escalated to widespread civil disobedience by "Suffragettes" (radical suffragists).  Women modeled their behavior and appearance upon the Gibson Girl the popular image of the "New Woman".   Men's clothing styles such as the suit, shirt, hard collar and tie were worn by women forcing themselves into professions formerly occupied by men. Health fads of the 1890's and 1900's also encouraged women's sporting activities, particularly bicycling, which, in turn promoted sport clothing as a fashion.

Aesthetic dress worn for a recital "In a Berlin Singing Academy" in Max Von Boehn's Modes and Manners of the 19th Century Aesthetic dress worn for a recital "In a Berlin Singing Academy"  in Max Von Boehn's Modes and Manners of the 19th Century

Dress reform, continued to be a hot topic in this period, even gaining such notable adherents as Mark Twain.

Artists such as Mariano Fortuny in Italy and the Wiener Werkstaette group in Austria continued to design Aesthetic reform costumes such as Fortuny's Delphos Dress, and  dress became progressively more comfortable, practical and aesthetically pleasing in this whole era.   The beauty of the designs worn in this era are so apparent that the period 1890-1914 is commonly called la Belle Époque ("The Beautiful Epoch")

"The Reformed Dress", 1902 in Max Von Boehn's Modes and Manners of the 19th Century "The Reformed Dress", 1902 in Max Von Boehn's Modes and Manners of the 19th Century

Women's clothing after 1900 became lighter and lighter in construction and materials.   A popular style in this period was the "Lingerie Dress" a feather-light white cotton dress inset with strips of open work lace and net.

Foreground, cotton "Lingerie Dress" c. 1903, Background two dresses c. 1915-1920 Foreground, cotton "Lingerie Dress" c. 1903, Background two dresses c. 1915-1920

After 1908, women's dress became more vertical in line, and less "S" curved.   The vertical line became so pronounced after 1910 that highly fashionable dresses tended to hobble the wearer.  Corsets began to be replaced by brasseries and other light foundation garments.

Fashion Plate 1909 1909  Fashion Plate 1911 1911

The Ballets Russes production of Sheherazade, designed in 1910 by Leon Bakst,  pushed Paris fashion towards an Orientalist style in the early Teens, a fashion which was to give birth to the "Art Deco" style.  As a result of the Orientalist style, Parisian designer Paul Poiret again introduced "harem" pants for women, although they were, again, not widely adopted.

Poiret "harem pant" costume for the races, c.1912 Poiret "harem pant" costume for the races, c.1912

Costume after 1911 again goes into a sharp transition period, which continues until the early 1920's and ushers in the Modern period of dress. 

 

Dress from WWI to WWII

The First World War (1914-1918) had a pronounced effect on women's fashion in the Western world.  Several trends that had roots in the decades prior to the war, were rapidly accelerated by wartime conditions.  The most lasting change happened to women's hemlines.  Hems which had risen from floor length to ankle length prior to the war, rose to mid calf length by 1916, and have stayed that high, or higher, ever since.  Hobble skirts were instantly jettisoned in favor of slightly wider more practical skirts.  Several avant-garde fashions, like women's trousers, and short hair, decried before the war as sinful and ugly, were promoted as practical fashions for war work.  The Pope even issued a bull during the war declaring that short hair for women was not immoral, and was a necessity for many factory workers. Most women did not suddenly cut their hair, but once it became acceptable to do so, gradually more and more women did in the following decades.

Women's Suits, c.1915-16 Women's Suits, c.1915-16

The tendency for female office workers to wear feminized versions of men's suits and shirts (common since 1900) became virtually standard by this time. 

Soft V-necklines, considered racy in 1912-14, during a time of high boned necklines, became normal daywear after 1915.

Large numbers of women were recruited into military organizations on all sides, and put into a variety of uniforms, which also influenced the shape of fashionable dress. 

During the war, a dye shortage, and fabric shortages encouraged a certain utilitarian drabness in dress, but the most noticeable change engendered by the war was a relaxation of the formal rules of attire which had bound men and women's dress since early in the Victorian era.  Not only did women's hemlines rise to mid-calf length, but more exciting yet, ladies wore these shorter styles with sexy heeled shoes and flesh toned silk stockings, not high button boots.  Young men wore the more casual "Tuxedo" jacket to formal evening occasions, not just to men's only club functions.  Young and daring women dumped the corset in favor of brasseries.  Army officers wore Wristwatches instead of pocket watches, and soft "lingerie" shirts with soft collars attached to them.  Tail coats and frock coats began only to be worn on highly formal occasions, to be almost fully replaced by the modern sack suit.   This is why clothing after the 1914-1918 War period is instantly recognizable as "Modern" to our eyes.

Orientalist fashions continued to be popular, and were eventually stylized into a form which came to be know as Art Deco, the dominant style for fabric decoration and interior design until WWII. Notable European designers like Erte, Poiret, Chanel, Barbier, Vionnet, Zamora and Delaunay all worked in this style through the succeeding decades.

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