The 1880s ushered in an era of tailored, close-fitting gowns, some of which were almost masculine in appearance. These gowns exemplified women’s changing roles in society. No longer content to be flounced, ruffled, and beribboned drawing room ornaments, 1880s ladies were engaged in outdoor pursuits. Some had jobs, some participated in sports, and many were involved in the ongoing fight for women’s suffrage. This was the decade of Sherlock Holmes, Jack the Ripper, the Rational Dress Reform Movement, and the ready-made gown. This was also the decade when black evening dresses became fashionable—and not just for those in mourning.
*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 shape of ladies’ gowns was similar to that at the end of the 1870s. The natural form was emphasized and bustles had fallen by the wayside, giving way to simple “bum pads” and elaborately draped fabric. Gowns were increasingly devoid of feminine embellishment. Instead, a more masculine, tailored silhouette was often preferred. This is evidenced in the ivory wool and silk taffeta afternoon dress below.
Kilted underskirts were incredibly popular during the early 1880s and, for walking dresses, plaid fabric was very much in fashion. The 1880 issue of Godey’s Lady’s Book describes two styles that were the height of fashion in December of 1880.
Fig. 13.—Shawl costume for lady, made of two shades of heliotrope; the underskirt is kilted, the overdress has three points, one in front and one on each side, and draped in the back. Pointed bodice, with cuffs and collar of the border.
Fig. 14.—Suit for lady, made of plaid cloth, myrtle green and madras colors; the underskirt is cut bias and is a double kilt, the overdress is looped with satin ribbon bows. Deep jacket bodice with pipings of green satin and bows of satin ribbon. Dark green plush bonnet trimmed with ostrich feathers and a bird of gay colors.
In addition to plaids, Godey’s reports that, for the 1880 fashion season, dots were all the rage, writing:
“Large dots, little dots, polka dots, Japanese dots, French dots, printed dots, brocaded dots, light dots, dark dots; dotted dresses, dotted mantles, plain fabrics trimmed with dotted ditto, and dotted fabrics trimmed with plain ones; dots of every style and of every size; dots for ever—such is Fashion’s decree for this season.”
The two-piece dress of plaid fabric on the right is an excellent example of the style and color of plaid gown that was preferred for walking dresses in 1880. While the dress of white cotton with a kilted skirt, purple dots, and stripes on the left shows how dotted fabric could be used to magnificent effect.
Sleeves for day dresses were long and tight, sometimes decorated with a frilled cuff. For walking dresses, skirts were short and untrained. For indoor dresses, on the other hands, trains could still be quite long. The below dress of blue and white silk provides a lovely example of a train embellished with pleating and silk tasseled fringe. I have included front and back images, but (as with all images here) you can click through to the museum site for even more views.
The Rational Dress Society was formed in 1881. Additional dress reform organizations followed. They emphasized comfort and health in dress, as opposed to the unnatural and constrictive silhouettes of previous decades. Dresses in 1881 remained slim and close to the shape. Most were similar in style and yet, in detail, fashion historian C. Willett Cunnington reports that no two women dressed alike. As an example, consider the below gown from 1881. Made of wool, linen, and silk, it is fairly simple, and yet, with its decorative ribbon trim and mother-of-pearl buttons it is anything but plain.
In the colder months, gowns were often made of lush fabrics such as cashmere and brocaded velvet. The 1881 edition of Peterson’s Magazine describes two particularly sumptuous gowns for November of that year.
Fig. I. –VISITING-DRESS OF BLUE-GRAY CASHMERE. The skirt is edged with a plaiting of maroon-colored silk. Above this is a narrow ruffle, and a puff of the cashmere. The bodice is pointed and shirred, back and front, and there is a thick cord with tassels about the waist. Below the long point, and passing below the hips, is a broad band of cashmere, of the color of the dress brochéd in maroon, with bands of maroon plush above and below the figure. Large collar of maroon plush, which opens over a piece of the brochéd material. The cuffs correspond. Hat of blue-gray felt, trimmed with maroon plumes, and bound with maroon plush.
Fig. II. –VISITING OR RECEPTION-DRESS OF BLACK BROCADED VELVET, worn over a petticoat of yellow satin, which is gathered in the upper part, and trimmed below with alternate ruffles of yellow and black satin. The bottom of the skirt is edged with a ruffle of dark-red satin. The sleeves and bow at the waist are of the color of the lowest ruffle. Bonnet of black velvet, with dark-red strings and yellow and dark-red feathers.
According to Cunnington the “technical features” of gowns in 1881 included gauging (defined as smocking or gathering), flounces, bustles, crinolettes, metal beads, and lace. The below gown of gold silk is beautifully, yet subtly embellished with beads and pearls.
Proceeding into 1882, necklines of evening gowns were low and sleeves were often nothing more than a strap. Cunnington describes ball gowns embellished with “epaulettes of pearls” or loops of real flowers. These trends are evidenced in the 1882 House of Worth evening dress below.
Day dresses, as well as dinner dresses, were frequently high at the throat with long, tight sleeves. Gowns remained close to the shape, though additional fabric gathered at the back hinted at the reemergence of the bustle which would return bigger than ever in the years to come.
The below silk dress by French designer Mme. Martin Decalf is another example of a gown with a high-neck. This gown is particularly notable for its glass bead trim which hangs at the hem and also outlines many of the flowers on the fabric.
Despite the emphasis on the natural form, waists at the beginning of the 1880s were still corseted, giving a lady’s figure an hourglass shape which, in many cases, was not entirely their own. The below dinner dress gives some idea of the narrow waist which still prevailed in the 1880s.
Advancing into 1883, bustles were coming back into fashion. This is generally considered the first year of what is known as the second bustle period, which lasted until 1889-1890. The below 1883 red silk reception/dinner dress by House of Worth gives a slight hint at the impending increase in the size of bustles.
The increasing size of the bustle led to various changes in the structure of ladies gowns, primarily in the draping of the skirts. The most significant of these changes was the return of the polonaise. As Cunnington explains:
“With double skirts it became possible to elaborate the thinner material of the upper one by puffings, etc., while the same influence affected the bodice so as to produce a blouse-like appearance.”
Sleeves remained long and narrow, with elbow length or three quarter length sleeves particularly popular. Jacket bodices continued to be in fashion, as seen on the below 1883 day dress of pale green silk.
Jacket bodices were also used in evening dress. The below 1883 House of Worth evening dress is one example of a jacket bodice on a more formal gown. Made of silk brocade and silk crepe, it is trimmed in lace, faux pearls, and seed beads.
This is notable for being the year that it first became acceptable—and fashionable—to wear black evening dresses. According to the 1884 edition of Godey’s Lady’s Book:
“As the season advances black toilettes are more popular and are considered the most stylish, black is always fashionable, and in the handsome fabrics it is always appropriate and elegant for not only half, but for full dress occasions.”
Here are two views of a stunning black silk evening dress. It has net sleeves and is trimmed with lace and black beads.
Bustles continued to grow larger and, in some gowns, were almost shelf-like. At the same time, bodices were growing shorter. The 2015 book of Clothing and Fashion reports:
“The bodice decreased in length but remained longer than waist length and was separate from the skirt. The fitted bodice now had a short standing band collar and fitted long sleeves.”
For evening, bodices were often trimmed with tulle or lace. Dinner dresses typically had elbow length sleeves, while Cunnington states that short, puffed sleeves were the norm for full evening dress.
This was the height of the second bustle era, with bustles reaching such an enormous size that it was impossible for them to grow any larger. This is clearly visible in the image of a red silk evening dress below.
Bodices were tight and often came to a point at the waist. For dinner dresses and evening gowns they were sometimes made of velvet and, as Cunnington reports, “cut like stays.” This can be seen, to some degree, in the 1885 dinner dress below.
Black remained a fashionable color for evening dresses throughout the remainder of the decade. The 1885 black silk evening gown below by designer Hoschedé Rebours is a perfect example of not only how stunning these gowns were, but also how modern they managed to look. This dress in particular could easily be worn to a formal event today.
The 1885 issue of the London and Paris Ladies’ Magazine reports that, when it came to trimmings, silk fringe, cords, and tassels were all fashionable that year. Trimmings made of steel were also popular—especially when paired with black dresses. As the magazine states:
“…we have already had every variety of steel jewels, now we have steel passementerie, steel lace, and steel thread; this thread will be used for embroidery, and in a finer texture it is used in the weaving of materials to make jackets, and cuirasses, to be worn over plain material dresses.”
Belts were also a favorite accessory in 1885. They were often paired with a jacket bodice, as shown in the image at right of a promenade toilette of blue satinette trimmed with plaid. The jacket in this image is fastened by a belt which is the same color as the bodice. The skirt is composed of a pleated flounce, edged with plaid.
Belts were also considered fashionable when paired with a pleated blouse bodice. One example of this can be seen in the image of an 1885 silk dress below.
For the spring and summer, printed sateens and cottons were the favored fabrics. For colder weather, the London and Paris Ladies’ Magazine states that satin, watered silk, and moire were the favorites, along with “soft Indian fabrics, both of silk and wool.” The below House of Worth dress from 1885 is made of wine-colored silk and linen.
For 1886, Cunnington states that all but the very wealthy were beginning to practice economies in dress. As for the styles themselves, he emphasizes the importance of the waistcoat, writing:
“The tendency of ’86 was towards fuller and simpler skirts with fuller and more ornate bodices…The bodice front was fuller, and ‘the inevitable waistcoat’ was a feature of the year.”
The dress below has a jacket bodice which appears to open over a waistcoat of the same material. It is also blue, which the 1886 issue of Godey’s Lady’s Book declares is “the color of the season.”
For evening dresses, lace trim was very much in fashion. Skirts were also frequently embellished with ribbon bows and fresh flowers, as you can see in the print below.
Necklines of evening dresses were often low, with bodices coming to a deep point below the waist. Sleeves were very short and, as Cunnington describes, “fastened high up on the shoulders with a ribbon bow.” The below gown of pale cream figured silk and lace is a lovely example of the style of evening dress which was favored that year.
The first Sherlock Holmes novel, A Study in Scarlet, was published this year! As for fashion, day dresses were becoming simpler and far more serviceable. Much of this was due to women’s participation in outdoor activities and sports. As an example, the 1887 issue of Harper’s Bazaar includes the following image of yachting and tennis costumes for ladies.
Though skirts were fuller, bodices were generally very tight-fitting. For afternoon and dinner dresses they were sometimes embellished with lace or beading. The 1887 issue of Godey’s Lady’s Book reports:
“Plastrons are more fashionable than ever; the fronts of the bodices are either plain or plaited; they remain open shawl fashion to show the plastron, and are crossed over at the waist line. The plastron is either of silk or some fancy material that is also used in the trimming of the dress.”
A plastron was an ornamental front to a bodice, generally made of lace or some other variety of light fabric. The below silk dress from 1887 shows a bodice decorated with lace and beads. The overskirt is beaded as well and the underskirt is trimmed with silk fringe.
Many evening dresses of 1887 appropriated 18th century style, featuring such elements as square bodices and puffed sleeves. According to Cunnington:
“The Louis XV style is still adhered to by many, but the Louis XIII is distinctly the coming fashion for evening dress gowns.”
The below dress is designed in the Louis XVI revival style. It is made of silk jacquard, moiré taffeta, and patterned-silk net.
I cannot close 1887 without including images of this fabulous, chartreuse silk House of Worth evening gown. The Met Museum has it listed as an ensemble, complete with chartreuse shoes and stockings!
The Jack the Ripper murders took place this year. Upper-class fashion was, of course, wholly unaffected by the turmoil in Whitechapel. The general silhouette of ladies’ gowns did not change. However, the draped overskirt was gradually beginning to disappear. In its place was a simple undraped skirt. This style was by no means universal, but it had a significant effect on the future of fashionable dress. As Cunnington explains:
“It also encouraged the open bodice and the loose-fitting blouse, and it gave the bustle its death-blow. Moreover it shortened the day skirt almost to the ankle.”
Below is an 1888-1889 silk dress embellished with glass beads. The sleeves are trimmed in lace and the patterned front panel of the skirt gives the illusion of a more traditional overskirt.
Many gowns were equipped with an alternate bodice suitable to wear in the afternoon or evening. The below green velvet day dress from 1888 is one such gown. The beaded and embroidered bodice shown below can be changed to a more formal option (of which, regrettably, there is no image).
According to Cunnington, fashion critics of 1888 bemoaned the “excessive nakedness” of evening gowns. While the 1888 issue of Godey’s Lady’s Book warns that “no girl of ordinary discretion” would ever expose her bare arms and shoulders to view. If a lady’s gown is made sleeveless and low across the bosom, Godey’s advises:
“She may employ for the neck a delicate lace tissue or tulle, drawn into fullness at the throat, and a half sleeve of the same material may be arranged to meet the long glove at the elbow. If the arm is thin, let the sleeve come below the elbow, as the effect is better than to draw the gloves up. Of all things, do not expose the sharp angle of the bone at the elbow.”
The below 1888 silk ball gown from the House of Worth may not have met with Godey’s approval unless its wearer covered her bare chest and arms. It is decorated with a love knot motif, another fashionable nod to the 18th century.
Moving into 1889, sleeves grew fuller, harkening back to the romantic silhouettes of the 1830s. Bodices were full as well and were generally crossed in front on day dresses. On walking dresses, Cunnington reports that skirts were two inches off of the ground.
At the close of the decade, there was no single ideal of fashionable dress. Instead, as the 1889 edition of Woman’s World Magazine explains:
“There are two sides to current fashions, one characterised by great magnificence of material, the other as notable for extreme simplicity.”
The below dress by Emile Pingat from 1889-1890 is a perfect example of the great magnificence mentioned above. Made of black silk satin damask, it is trimmed with glass beads and lace.
I hope you have found the above overview to be helpful in navigating your way through the bustled—and unbustled—gowns of the 1880s. 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 1880s, I encourage you to consult a reliable reference book. The following links may provide a starting point:
For a refresher on the decades we have already covered, the previous articles in my series on 19th century gowns are available here:
Works Referenced or Cited in this Article
Godey’s Lady’s Book. Vol. 108 and 109. Philadelphia: Louis A. Godey, 1884.
Godey’s Lady’s Book. Vol. CXIV. Philadelphia: Louis A. Godey, 1887.
© 2015-2017 Mimi Matthews
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