The Victoria & Albert Museum writes of 1880s women’s dress:

“1880s women’s dress featured tightly fitting bodices with very narrow sleeves and high necklines, often trimmed at the wrists with white frills or lace. At the beginning of the decade the emphasis was at the back of the skirt, featuring ruching, flouncing, and embellishments such as bows and thick, rich fabrics and trims. The middle of the decade saw a brief revival of the bustle, which was so exaggerated that the derriere protruded horizontally from the small of the back. By the end of the decade the bustle disappeared. Hair was worn in tight, close curls on the top of the head. Hats and caps were correspondingly small and neat, to fit on top of the hairstyle.”

Wikipedia writes of 1880s womenswear:

“As in the previous decade, emphasis remained on the back of the skirt, with fullness gradually rising from behind the knees to just below the waist. The fullness over the bottom was balanced by a fuller, lower chest, achieved by rigid corseting, creating an S-shaped silhouette. These gowns typically did not have a long train in the back, which was different from the gowns worn in the 1870s, and were extremely tight. They were known as the “hobble-skirt” due to the tightness of them. Winter gowns were made in darker hues whereas summer ones were made in lighter colors. Velvet was also a very popular fabric used during this period.

Skirts were looped, draped, or tied up in various ways, and worn over matching or contrasting colored underskirts. The polonaise was a revival style based on a fashion of the 1780s, with a fitted, cutaway overdress caught up and draped over an underskirt. Long, jacket-like fitted bodices called basques were also popular for clothing during the day.

Evening gowns were sleeveless and low-necked (except for matrons), and were worn with long over the elbow or shoulder length gloves of fine kidskin or suede.

Choker necklaces and jewelled collars were fashionable under the influence of Alexandra, Princess of Wales, who wore this fashion to disguise a scar on her neck.

Bodices were very tight fitted as a result of darts and princess seams. In the early 19th century dropped waists were common, creating a very long torso. Most ended in a point just below the waist. Collars that were very high and banded were very popular. These types of collars were called “officers collars”.”

Women on a Balcony

Fig. 1 - Charles Joseph Frédéric Soulacroix (French, 1825-1899). Women on a Balcony, 1879. Source: Pinterest

Portrait of a Woman

Fig. 2 - Henri Fantin-Latour (French). Portrait of a Woman, 1885. Oil on canvas; 100.3 x 81.3 cm (39 1/2 x 32 in). New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 10.41. Catharine Lorillard Wolfe Collection, Wolfe Fund, 1910. Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Lady in Gray

Fig. 3 - James McNeill Whistler (American). Lady in Gray, 1883. Watercolor and gouache on dark brown wove paper; 28.6 x 12.7 cm (11 1/4 x 5 in). New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 06.312. Rogers Fund, 1906. Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art


Of 1880s men, the V&A writes:

“For men, lounge suits were becoming increasingly popular. They were often quite slim, and jackets were worn open or partially undone to reveal the high buttoning waistcoat and watch-chain. Collars were stiff and high, with their tips turned over into wings. Neckties were either the knotted ‘four in hand’, or versions of the bow-tie tied around the collar.”

On men’s coats, jackets and trousers during the 1880s, Wikipedia writes:

“Three piece suits, “ditto suits”, consisting of a sack coat with matching waistcoat (U.S. vest) and trousers (called in the UK a “lounge suit”) continued as an informal alternative to the contrasting frock coat, waistcoat and trousers. The cutaway morning coat was still worn for formal day occasions in Europe and major cities elsewhere, with a dress shirt and an ascot tie. The most formal evening dress remained a dark tail coat and trousers with a dark waistcoat. Evening wear was worn with a white bow tie and a shirt with a winged collar.

In mid-decade, a more relaxed formal coat appeared: the dinner jacket or tuxedo, which featured a shawl collar with silk or satin facings, and one or two buttons. Dinner jackets were appropriate when “dressing for dinner” at home or at a men’s club. The Norfolk jacket was popular for shooting and rugged outdoor pursuits. It was made of sturdy tweed or similar fabric and featured paired box pleats over the chest and back, with a fabric belt. Full-length trousers were worn for most occasions; tweed or woollen breeches were worn for hunting and other outdoor pursuits. Knee-length topcoats, often with contrasting velvet or fur collars, and calf-length overcoats were worn in winter. By the 1880s the majority of the working class, even shepherds adopted jackets and waistcoats in fustian and corduroy with corduroy trousers, giving up their smock frocks.”

Arrangement in Flesh Colour and Black: Portrait of Theodore Duret

Fig. 1 - James McNeill Whistler (American, 1834–1903). Arrangement in Flesh Colour and Black: Portrait of Theodore Duret, 1883. Oil on canvas; 193.4 x 90.8 cm (76 1/8 x 35 3/4 in). New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 13.20. Catharine Lorillard Wolfe Collection, Wolfe Fund, 1913. Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

James Abbott McNeill Whistler

Fig. 2 - William Merritt Chase (American). James Abbott McNeill Whistler, 1885. Oil on canvas; 188.3 x 92.1 cm (74 1/8 x 36 1/4 in). New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 18.22.2. Bequest of William H. Walker, 1918. Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art


Fig. 3 - James Wells Champney (American, 1843-1903). Self-Portrait, 1880–1885. Transparent and opaque watercolor on paper; 34.3 x 23.5 cm (13 1/2 x 9 1/4 in). Boston: Museum of Fine Arts Boston, 58.1081. Gift of Maxim Karolik for the M. and M. Karolik Collection of American Watercolors and Drawings, 1800–1875. Source: Museum of Fine Arts Boston


Portrait of Stephen Manuel

Fig. 1 - Walter Richard Sickert (British). Portrait of Stephen Manuel, 1885. Etching and drypoint; second state; 6.5 x 6.3 cm (2 9/16 x 2 1/2 in). New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2007.49.445. Bequest of William S. Lieberman, 2005. Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Head of a Young Girl

Fig. 2 - Mary Stevenson Cassatt (American, 1844–1926). Head of a Young Girl, about 1874. Oil on panel; 32.38 x 23.49 cm (12 3/4 x 9 1/4 in). Boston: Museum of Fine Arts Boston, 27.497. Gift of Walter Gay. Source: Museum of Fine Arts Boston

In Full Sunlight (En plein soleil)

Fig. 3 - James Tissot (French, 1836-1902). In Full Sunlight (En plein soleil), 1881. Oil on wood; 24.8 x 35.2 cm (9 3/4 x 13 7/8 in). New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2006.278. Gift of Mrs. Charles Wrightsman, 2006. Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art


Historical Context

Wikipedia: 1880-1889

Europe 1884. Source: Omniatlas

  • 1881 – Population of Paris reaches 2,200,000
  • 1882 – Oscar Wilde embarks on a tour of America. His “too too and utterly utter” aesthetic fashion style is regularly remarked upon in the media.
  • 1883 – Brooklyn Bridge, the first wire suspension bridge, is built
  • 1885 – First motorcar built; first Chicago skyscraper; Thomas Edison invents the first movie in New Jersey
  • 1886 – Last Impressionist group exhibition
  • 1887- Fancy Dresses Described by Ardern Holt is published.
  • 1888 – George Eastman’s first amateur cameras
  • 1888 – Portable Kodak camera perfected
  • 1889 – Eiffel Tower built
  • 1889 – Safety bicycle introduced

Primary/Period Sources

Resources for Fashion History Research

To discover primary/period sources, explore the categories below.
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Fashion Plate Collections (digitized)
NYC-Area Special Collections of Fashion Periodicals/Plates
Womenswear Periodicals (Digitized)
Etiquette Books (Digitized)
Menswear Periodicals / Etiquette Books (Digitized)

Secondary Sources

Also see the 19th-century overview page for more research sources... or browse our Zotero library.