The 1870s ushered in an era of sleek, sensuous gowns that accented every curve. Gone were the enormous crinolines of the 1860s. In their place were figure-hugging frocks with low-set trains that fanned out like a peacock’s tail. This was the decade of tight lacing, tea gowns, and tassel-trimmed skirts in shimmering silk brocades. This was also the decade that ushered in La Belle Époque in Europe and the Gilded Age in the United States.
*Please note: These are primarily visual guides – fashion CliffsNotes, if you will. For more in depth information, please consult the recommended links.
Beginning the decade, the general size of ladies’ gowns was smaller and simpler than in the previous years. Trimmings, however, had grown more elaborate and, with the addition of tassels, fringe, buttons, bows, and lace, fashionable gowns were still quite expensive to have made. Below is a fairly understated brown silk dinner dress. Dresses made in two contrasting colors were incredibly popular.
An 1870 edition of the London and Paris Ladies’ Magazine of Fashion describes three styles of dress that were at the height of fashion in January of 1870.
Fig. 1. — Promenade costume. First skirt of green gros cashmere, ornamented with three volants, the top of which is retained with velvet of the same shade. Second skirt of grey cashmere, relieved very high in front, and falls on the sides in two large points, opening entirely behind, and forming drapery. Small paletot, cut straight. The skirt and paletot are ornamented with green velvet and fringes. Tyrolean hat in grey felt.
Fig. 2. — Robe of flame-coloured satin, very long skirt trimmed with a high volant in dents at the top, and surmounted by a large ruche to match, and a coquille of lace on each side; small tunic cut in a kind of volant, and very puffing behind; ruche and lace the same as on the corsage, which forms point in front and behind, and must be very high on the shoulders.
Fig. 3. — Under robe of white tulle, ornamented in front with a volant, with two rows of blue satin bias, and a trellis of satin in the top; large blue pattes, between which are bouillons of tulle, which seem to fasten the volant. Tunic of very short blue satin in front, and behind entirely covering the white skirt, and terminating in a long train; trimmings of cut reverses all round, and pattes of white tulle to the skirt, small puff behind. Décolleté bodice, square and trimmed with tulle. Head-dress of myosotis and white roses.
Meanwhile, fashions in evening gowns, at least insofar as the fabric used, were relatively lenient. In fact, according to the London and Paris Ladies’ Magazine of Fashion:
“One has a perfect right to wear anything at a ball, from velvet to tulle, and which two materials are often blended.”
The below gown from 1870 is made of silk faille, silk velvet, and lace.
Moving into 1871, contrasting colors fell out of fashion. Instead, two shades of the same color were used. You can see an example of this in the beautiful 1871 silk wedding gown below.
As the year progressed, there was a revival of the 18th century French polonaise. Fashion Historian C. Willett Cunnington describes the style as consisting of:
“…a bodice and tunic in one, the tunic being looped up at the sides, short in front and much looped up behind into a puff.”
When made with certain materials, this style was popularly known as the “Dolly Varden,” after a character in Charles Dickens’ novel Barnaby Rudge. However, Cunnington points out that this style was not worn by the “best people.”
For outdoor wear, jackets—or paletots—were all the rage. There were three styles of fashionable jacket in 1871. The London and Paris Ladies’ Magazine of Fashion describes them:
“…the first is the Cosaque, fitting tight to the figure, and having the front part of skirt plain and square in shape, while the back part is deeper, and is moderately bouffante in a great variety of forms. The second style is the short square cut Paletot or Jacket, with openings in the middle of back and at the sides, extending nearly to the waist level. The third style is of medium width, slightly defining the waist but without fitting at all tight: this style has the skirt a little longer, and is also left open at the bottom of back.”
Jackets could be made in black silk or “en suite” with the gown. If made in black silk, the most fashionable trimmings were black lace and fringe. You can see one example of this in the mauve and black promenade dress on the right. The gown itself is made of mauve silk and was designed by Messrs. Swan & Edgar of Regent Street. The London and Paris Ladies’ Magazine of Fashion describes the jacket as a:
“Tight-fitting Cosaque of black silk. It forms at the back a square shaped basque, at the sides two points, and in front two deep square-shaped tabs, the whole edged by a flounce of black lace, headed by a bead trimming of passementerie, above which is a black moire ribbon, which is continued up the sides of the front opening.”
Proceeding into 1872, many gowns were still made in two shades of the same color, while some fashionable ladies were once again venturing into contrasts. As far as the colors themselves, Cunnington states that the general preference was for “soft and autumn tints” such as bronze, olive brown, and “greenish-grey.” The below gown is one example of these colors used to beautiful effect. I’ve included front and back images to give you a complete picture.
Skirts were heavily flounced and, for evening wear, gowns were cut low off the shoulders. It was not uncommon for the bodice of an evening dress to be filled in with a lace fichu. The below ball gown is an 1872 creation of Charles Frederick Worth, the English fashion designer who is credited with inventing haute couture.
Advancing into 1873, gowns were cut closer to the figure and slimmer about the hips. You can see this new silhouette clearly in the 1873 silk dinner dress below.
Despite the gradually changing silhouette of ladies’ gowns, the polonaise was still quite fashionable. The silk gauze wedding gown below features an attached stylish polonaise overskirt trimmed with embroidered lace. I’ve included front and back views.
Trimmings in 1873 became even more excessive. Skirts were flounced, puffed, and pleated, with the flounces, puffs, and pleats often embellished with piping and trimmings of their own.
For evening wear, gowns were frequently trimmed with flowers. The center image in the 1873 fashion plate at right shows a ball gown with a lower skirt of white muslin and blue silk and an upper skirt of blue silk which is caught up and fasted with bouquets of roses. As the 1873 London and Paris Ladies’ Magazine of Fashion states:
“The caught-up portions of upper skirt are fastened at the juncture of these points, by bouquets of roses having trails, and united by a garland. The opening in front of the skirt is crossed by three garlands of leaves with buds. The corsage is trimmed a bretelles, by similar garlands terminated at the back and front of waist by single roses, and on each shoulder is a rose, the space between the garlands being filled in both at back and in front, by four quillings of white muslin.”
Meanwhile, high contrast colors were once again the height of fashion. The 1873 French silk afternoon dress below is a striking example of this recurring trend.
By 1874, the close-fitting silhouette of the previous year was now the norm. Gowns were made even tighter around the hips, the figure was well-defined, and, as Cunnington states:
“…in effect, the wearer no longer stands, as in the previous decade, in the centre of a circle but at the very front of an ellipse.”
Meanwhile, the 1874 issue of Godey’s Lady’s Book reports that, though Parisiennes preferred an overskirt, underskirt, and jacket, the Americans “still cling fondly to the polonaise.” Godey’s states that both styles were “equally fashionable.” The gown images below are front and side views of an 1874-75 American dress made of silk and cotton.
As another example, here is an 1874 gown by Charles Frederick Worth. It is made of purple silk faille and is trimmed with silk lace, silk fringe, and velvet bows.
As the decade progressed, lady’s gowns fit even more closely in the front. Skirts were tied back and, according to Cunnington, the shape of the train was popularly known as a “mermaid’s tail.” Many objected to what was considered an indecent, overly sensualized style of dress, some comparing it to a woman appearing in public in her undergarments. The below image of an 1875 afternoon dress is one example of the fashionable, feminine shape of the middle of the decade.
For day wear, the jacket bodice was still very much in style. Sleeves were close-fitting and often trimmed with frills of lace at the wrist. Skirts always had trains. Below is an 1875 day dress made of olive green silk with a trained underskirt of chartreuse satin. It is trimmed with maroon velvet.
At the close of 1875, Godey’s Lady’s Book reports that the “faded colors, so long preferred” had fallen out of fashion. In their place were bright blues, greens, and pinks. For evening wear, colors were especially vibrant. A perfect example of this is the 1875 ball gown below made of rich red silk.
Entering 1876, skirts and sleeves were narrow and bodices were tighter than ever.
By the middle of the decade, pockets had become a feature of many fashionable gowns. The 1876 issue of Godey’s Lady’s Book reports that some of these pockets were so large that they occupied the entire length of the skirt “from belt to hem.”
Gowns in solid or contrasting colors were still very popular. Checked patterns, tartans, and grey and blue plaid gingham were also quite fashionable. The Godey’s image at right shows two walking dresses that illustrate the bright shades and color combinations of the season. Godey’s describes the two gowns as follows:
“Fig. 1.— Walking dress of pale green silk. The upper part cut as a polonaise, the skirt kilted upon it under the sash: the sleeves and trimming are of black silk. Black chip bonnet, trimmed with green silk and black feather.
Fig. 2.— Walking dress of purple silk and plaid grenadine. The underskirt is of the purple silk, trimmed with a knife plaiting and puff. The over- skirt and basque are of the grenadine of a lighter shade, trimmed with a knife plaiting of silk; silk sleeves. Lilac chip bonnet, trimmed with silk and leathers.”
Bodices with lace-trimmed necklines were very much in favor, as were stand up collars. Skirts were ruffled, flounced, or pleated. The over skirt or sash was often draped tight across the hips and secured with buttons or bows. You can see an example of this style in the image of an 1876-1877 silk gown below.
Moving into 1877, women’s gowns were even more narrow than they had been the previous year. Bodices were long and tight, often extending down over the hips. The 1877-1878 silk and linen reception dress below gives a general idea of how form-fitting dresses were as the decade progressed. Note the shades of the fabric. According to Cunnington, bronze and blue were particularly fashionable colors that year.
Most of the fullness in dresses was reserved for the train and, as the 1877 edition of the London and Paris Ladies’ Magazine of Fashion reports:
“…the fullness does not now start from the waist, but commences just below the level of the basque of corsage, and then spreads gradually out, taking in many cases a form which somewhat resembles a fan or a peacock’s tail.”
The 1877 House of Worth silk dinner dress below is a perfect example of a form-fitting gown with a low-set fan or peacock shaped train.
Skirts were often draped or folded into points or pleats. Upper-skirts were secured with buttons or bows. You can see examples of both in the below image of three travelling costumes which the London and Paris Ladies’ Magazine of Fashion describes as being very fashionable at the close of the season. The description for the travelling dress on the far right reads as follows:
“Fig. 3. — Dress a deux jupes of silk and serge, of the color called Lie de vin. The under-skirt is of the silk, which is of a darker shade than the serge, it is trimmed at the bottom by a fluted flounce, headed by a draped band of the serge. The upper-skirt and corsage are cut in in one a la Princesse, the front closes obliquely from left to right, and forms a long Polonaise edged by fringe; the sides being caught up and fastened by bows of silk to those of the back portion, which is cut short and forms a deep square basque also edged by fringe, with a band of silk: the back of under-skirt is partially covered by draped pieces of serge, the back edges of which are finished by fringe and by buttons; the extremities of these pieces are drawn together in folds, causing them to form points, fastened by groups of silk bows, from which points they gradually widen out and disappear under the upper skirt. The top of corsage is trimmed by a silk collar, square at back and in front, where the neck is slightly open : the sleeves have cuffs of the silk. Black straw Hat, with scarlet and black trimmings.”
By 1878, Godey’s Lady’s Book was reporting that on some gowns the overskirt or polonaise was so long that “sham” underskirts were being used. Godey’s states:
“These sham skirts were formerly objected to, as they were apt to be displayed when the overskirt was lifted or blown about. Now the polonaise or over-dress is made to cling so closely that it is never lifted, and the expense and weight of heavy woollen stuffs beneath it are dispensed with.”
The below plaid silk dress from 1878 is one example of the fashionable silhouette that year. Note the hint of fringed underskirt beneath.
Godey’s goes on to report on the popularity of “short round skirts,” stating:
“They are cut quite narrow, and are short enough to escape the ground behind, thus relieving the wearer of the burden of lifting a long walking skirt out of the mud or dust.”
At right is a fashion plate depicting a cashmere walking dress and a silk visiting dress. Godey’s describes them as follows:
“Fig. 4. — Walking dress of slate colored cashmere, the skirt is kilt plaited in the back, cross-wise plants in the front. Plaited waist, small cape, list of felt, trimmed with velvet and feather.
“Fig. 5. — Visiting dress of blue bourrotte and silk. The dress is of the bourrette, with silk train, loops, cuffs on sleeves, and trimming on front of waist. Blue velvet bonnet, trimmed with satin and leathers.”
At the close of 1878, Godey’s Lady’s Book reports that “satin and brocade” were the materials most used for making “handsome dresses that will be worn in the winter.” The below 1878 day dress by Charles Frederick Worth is made of black silk faille and brocaded floral silk.
At the close of the decade, gowns remained tight and narrow. Trimmings were elaborate and, according to Cunnington, consisted of:
“…every textile hitherto in vogue for furniture coverings or curtains…”
The gown below is a perfect example of this trend. Made of silk, it is heavily trimmed with tassels and fringe.
Tea gowns were very popular at the end of the decade. First appearing on the fashion scene in 1877, they were initially criticized for being too much like ladies’ dressing gowns. By 1879, however, tea gowns were much more acceptable, especially when they were made to resemble the tight-fitting dresses that were so much in fashion.
The center figure in the fashion plate at right shows a lady wearing the “Lewisham tea gown.” The 1879 edition of the London and Paris Ladies’ Magazine of Fashion describes it as one of the most stylish tea gowns that season. The description reads:
Fig. 2.— The Lewisham Tea Gown of sky blue silk, trimmed with insertion and lace, and having a plastron of cream Pompadour satin. The dress is Princesse shape in front, cut square, and trimmed by a crepe lisse frill, with roses on the left side; the back is made very wide, and gathered up in the back, the rest forms a pouff and a train. Will take 14 yds. silk; 1 ½ yds. satin; 4 yds. insertion; 8 yds. lace; 24 buttons.”
Though gowns remained slim-fitting, fashionable dresses were beginning to emphasize the curve of a woman’s hips. To that end, on some gowns, panniers were employed. Sleeves remained tight-fitting, as did bodices. You can get an idea of the emerging silhouette from the 1879 gown below.
I hope you have found the above overview to be helpful in navigating your way through the form-fitting gowns of the 1870s. Again, I remind you that this is just a brief, primarily visual, guide. If you would like to know more about the changes in fashion during the 1870s, I encourage you to consult a reliable reference book. The following links may provide a starting point:
Additional articles in my Visual Guide to 19th Century Fashion series are available at the links below:
© 2015-2017 Mimi Matthews
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