The 1890s ushered in an era of modest, dignified gowns, some of which were almost prudish in appearance. Necklines were high, skirts were straight, and enormous puffed sleeves—hearkening back to the gigot sleeves of the 1830s—contributed to an overall impression of women who were far more formidable than delicate. This was the decade of the New Woman, the Suffragette Movement, and the tailor-made dress. This was also the decade known as the Naughty Nineties in the United Kingdom and the Gay Nineties 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, fashion historian C. Willett Cunnington reports that the “tailor-made dress, or at least its style, reigned supreme.” These tailor-made jackets and skirts were fairly masculine in appearance and, in many respects, not too dissimilar from a Victorian lady’s riding habit. They were generally made in matched fabrics and could be worn with a vest or a lady’s high-necked blouse or shirtwaist. The below 1890 fashion print shows a striped tailor-made costume comprised of a jacket, vest, blouse, and skirt.
For evening, the flannels, wools, and tweeds of tailor-made day dresses gave way to softer, more delicate fabrics. Not only were silks and velvets quite fashionable, but the 1890 issue of Godey’s Lady’s Book reports that lace was coming into fashion again. For evening dress and ball gowns, there was even “gemmed lace”—a version of lace wherein the pattern was outlined with precious stones, pearls, and diamonds. Godey’s describes gemmed lace as being “too rich and rare for ordinary wear.”
The 1890 silk evening dress below is beautifully embellished with lace (sans gems).
Though the 1890s is remembered for its gigantic puffed sleeves, the decade began with sleeves that were much more moderately sized. You can see the first hint of the large sleeves to come in the 1891 walking dress shown below.
Bodices of 1891 were usually heavily embellished, while skirts remained comparatively plain and businesslike. As a result, Cunnington states that:
“…while the bodice caught the eye, and perhaps the man, it was the skirt in which the fin de siècle woman marched forward to emancipation…”
This fin-de-siècle (end of the century) styling referenced above incorporated several Elizabethan elements, including ruffs, padded sleeves, and conical skirts. These trends are quite evident in the silk dress shown below.
For both day and evening dresses, waists were often defined with corselets or Swiss belts. Unlike traditional corsets, corselets and Swiss belts were worn outside of the clothing to further emphasize the waist. You can see an example of a Swiss belt on the below figure at left.
Though day dresses generally covered women’s skin from neck to ankles, most evening dresses had short sleeves and low necklines. In 1891, sleeves were often adorned with ribbon bows. Waists could be defined with either a Swiss belt, corselet, or bands of ribbon.
Proceeding into 1892, several features of women’s dress combined to make waistlines appear even smaller. Large sleeves and pelerine lapels acted to broaden the shoulders. At the same time, skirts—though still fairly straight—were growing wider at the bottom. The 1892 House of Worth afternoon dress below gives you some idea of what this silhouette looked like.
For day dresses, the January 1892 issue of Godey’s Lady’s Book advises that “elaborate garniture should be avoided.” Nevertheless, luxurious fabrics and expensive trimmings combined to make otherwise plain dresses appear rich and sumptuous. As an example, the elegant wool afternoon dress below is trimmed with fur.
Though trains and demi-trains were still a feature of afternoon and evening dresses, the popularity of long trains was on the decline. Godey’s Lady’s Book reports that “the trained skirt is undoubtedly doomed,” stating:
“All the newest walking gowns are made short, and even for evening wear long trains are being discouraged.”
Advancing into 1893, the versatile, tailor-made dress still ruled the day. Made in wool, tweed, flannel, or other sturdy fabrics, the tailor-made was suitable for all manner of activity, including walking, travelling, or engaging in sports like golf or shooting. The below, two-piece wool walking dress is just one example of this fashionable style.
Some tailor-made dresses were beginning to be worn with an open coat over a plain skirt, shirt, Swiss belt, and necktie. This increasingly masculine style was combined with sleeves that were growing ever larger and waistlines that were tinier than ever. According to Cunnington, the average waist size in the early 1890s was 22 inches, but tight-lacing produced waists as small as 16 inches. The below dress illustrates the increasing size of sleeves and the decreasing size of women’s waistlines in 1893-1894.
For evening, dresses were made of rich velvets, silks, and satins. Some featured exquisite embroidery. Others, like those made by the famous House of Worth, featured lavish trimmings like jet beads, braid, lace, rhinestones, jewels, and even iridescent steel spangles. Below is a lovely 1893 silk evening dress trimmed in rhinestones.
By 1894, large gigot sleeves were hitting their stride. Skirts were now bell-shaped and were often combined with a ready-made blouse. While in dresses, the bodice continued to draw the eye, with contrasting fabrics, patterns, and profusions of lace at the throat as seen on the 1894 bodice shown below.
For evening, dresses with low necklines and short sleeves were still very popular. However, it was also quite common to see ladies wearing high-necked evening dresses with long-sleeves. Below is an 1894 evening dress with a moderately low neckline and large puffed sleeves. Note that the skirt and bodice are trimmed with glass beads and sequins, while the net is bead-embroidered with a design of butterflies and ribbons.
Entering 1895, sleeves had grown even larger and, in order to keep their shape, were often stuffed with eiderdown, stiffened muslin, or chamois. In some cases, internal sleeve support was provided by a wire hoop. Drawing even more attention to the top half of women’s dress was what Cunnington describes as “full bulging bodices which resemble pouter pigeons.”
Much like the gigot sleeves of the 1830s, the enormous sleeves of the mid-1890s fell in for their fair share of ridicule. By 1895, even Punch was joining in with the below cartoon featuring their suggestions for novelties in women’s sleeves.
Skirts were gored and clung closely to the hips. However, some skirts—especially those for evening—required a great deal of fabric. As the 1895 edition of Godey’s Lady’s Book reports:
“Some of the skirts are wide—very wide, according to our ideas. The most Parisian of cuts for an evening skirt at this moment demands fourteen breadths and fifteen seams; roughly speaking, the width around the hem measures about seven yards, but the cutting is so exquisite that it looks no whit wider when worn than an ordinary four-and-a-half-yard skirt.”
Brightly colored gowns were all the rage in the mid-1890s. There were brilliant reds, emerald greens, “bright bleu de roi,” magentas, violets, and yellows. These fashionable colors were worn in various combinations, leading Godey’s to state:
“There is a riot of color everywhere, and seemingly irreconcilable tints are harmonized in some mysterious manner, known only to the manufacturer.”
For evening, dresses were usually cut square at the neck. Sleeves could be short, comprised of nothing more than a satin shoulder strap or a flounce of lace. Puffed, elbow-length sleeves were also quite fashionable.
Advancing into 1896, sleeves had grown to their largest size of the decade. To the increasingly active woman, such bulk was insupportable. It is therefore unsurprising that the fashion in enormous sleeves lasted only until the spring season, at which time the 1896 issue of Godey’s Lady’s Book reports:
“The sleeve, to a close observer, seems to be gradually pushing its fullness to the shoulder, the rest of the arm being clearly defined.”
Skirts of 1896 began to shrink along with the sleeves. Not only did they decrease in volume, they also grew shorter, with some as much as four inches off of the ground.
Despite the rapidly reducing size of skirts and sleeves, the hourglass silhouette was still highly prized in women’s dress. To this end, Swiss belts (as seen below) and corselets continued to be a fashionable option for emphasizing the waist.
Entering 1897, dresses began to drift from the stiff, sturdy fashions of the previous years to a softer style, complete with delicate fabrics, colors, and trimmings.
Cunnington describes the new, softer fashions of 1897 as “fluffy and frilly,” stating:
“Fluffiness is, no doubt, expensive but irresistible to the old Adam grown a little weary of the new Eve.”
The fluffiness he writes about is best represented by evening dresses of 1897. They were made in soft pinks, ivories, and florals and trimmed in frothy lace and tulle.
These evening dresses continued to be cut square at the neckline. Skirts were full at the back, with fabric falling gracefully into double box pleats or accordion pleats. Sashes and bands of ribbon remained a popular choice for accentuating the waist.
Moving into 1898, the softer, feminine styles of the previous year remained in fashion. Meanwhile, skirts grew longer and sleeves continued to decrease in size.
For evening, skirts were trained. Sleeves, if short, were little more than a strap. Necklines continued to be square cut, unless the gown was long-sleeved, in which case the bodice was usually high at the neck.
Some of the most luxurious ball gowns of the late 1890s were embroidered or trimmed with rhinestones, sequins, beads, or precious stones. The below silk dress from House of Worth is one of the most beautiful I have ever seen. It is patterned with butterflies and trimmed in sequins and rhinestones. According to The Met, it was designed so that the butterflies fluttered upward from the hem.
At the close of the century, the focus of fashionable gowns had shifted from a lady’s bodice down to her hips. To that end, a tight, hip-hugging skirt with a slight flare at the bottom was introduced. This was known as the eel skirt.
In day dresses, collars were high at the neck and sleeves were narrow, often extending down over the hand. Waists remained small, though by 1899 the days of tight-lacing were numbered.
At the close of the century, the necklines of evening dresses were so low that Cunnington reports that the bodice hung on the shoulders “by a miracle.” Bodices were cut either square or round. Skirts hugged the hips. As in 1898, trimmings were opulent, with trimmings in relief—such as butterflies—being particular popular.
I hope you have found the above overview to be helpful in navigating your way through the giant-sleeved, eel skirted gowns of the 1890s. 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 1890s, I encourage you to consult a reliable reference book. For a refresher on the decades we have already covered, the previous articles in my series on 19th century gowns are available here:
Godey’s Lady’s Book. Vol. 125. Philadelphia: Louis A. Godey, 1892.
Godey’s Lady’s Book. Vol. 127. Philadelphia: Louis A. Godey, 1893.
Godey’s Lady’s Book. Vol. 131. Philadelphia: Louis A. Godey, 1895.
Godey’s Lady’s Book. Vol. 132. Philadelphia: Louis A. Godey, 1896.
© 2015-2017 Mimi Matthews
For exclusive information on upcoming book releases, giveaways, and other special treats, subscribe to Mimi’s quarterly newsletter THE PENNY NOT SO DREADFUL.