1880s women’s fashion was defined by the rigidly structured bustle and an abundance of decoration. Dress reformers, influenced by artistic movements, protested these heavy, ultra restrictive trends.
Fashion in the 1880s was increasingly slender and angular, marked by heavy decoration. Throughout the decade, the focus of clothing design was concentrated at the back, a continuation of trends that began in the 1870s (Tortora 390). The extreme restriction placed on women’s bodies through the princess-line corsetry, large bustles, and profuse trim prompted criticism from both artistic and health reformers (Shrimpton 22).
The 1880s featured two distinct silhouettes in women’s fashions. The first was marked by the “princess line” and had begun earlier, around 1877. It was a dress without a horizontal waist seam, instead molded snuggly to the body by vertical seams and tucks, creating a body-hugging silhouette (Fukai 214) (Fig. 1). Similarly, this long, slim line could be created with a cuirass bodice, which emerged as early as 1875; it consisted of a long, tightly-fitted bodice that extended over the hips (Cumming 61). The princess line was marked by the continual diminishment of the soft sloping bustle of the early 1870s, until it nearly disappeared for a short time (Tortora 390). Instead, minimal fullness emerged from below the hips, with decoration concentrated low on the back (Fukai 214; Tortora 390).
The second silhouette of the 1880s began developing around 1883 (Tortora 386) and disappeared in the 1890s. By 1884, the bustle had returned, this time a hard, shelf-like protrusion that projected from the small of the back (Fig. 2). This bustle was rigidly structured, as opposed to the soft, draped bustle of the 1870s (Tortora 390). The undergarments contrived to support this look became increasingly complex. The “Lillie Langtry” bustle was a series of metal bands that could be folded up to allow the wearer to sit (Laver 198). Figure 3 depicts the common “lobster tail” bustle. The bustle reached its largest size by 1886, “whereon a good-sized tea tray might be carried,” as one writer commented at the time (Shrimpton 24-25). After about 1888, the bustle began to slowly shrink in size until 1891, when it gave way to the bell-shaped skirts of the 1890s (Fukai 239).
Throughout the 1880s, day bodices and dresses featured high, narrow shoulders descending into impossibly tight sleeves, a departure from the low, sloping shoulders of the past few decades. Collars were tall and fitted, sometimes boned for shaping (Fig. 4). During the day, hemlines were usually just above the floor (Tortora 391). Bodices could feature long basques or designs that appeared to be a jacket and vest, in imitation of menswear fashions. A significant trend was the polonaise style (Fig. 5), featuring a long bodice and an overskirt tucked up to reveal the underskirt, which was frequently ruffled or pleated (Tortora 391). This style was sometimes referred to as the “Dolly Varden” look, named after the character of the same name in Dickens’ popular novel Barnaby Rudge, set in the eighteenth century, underscoring the look’s revivalism influences (Fukai 218; Laver 193). Late afternoon and evening dresses (Fig. 6) featured shorter sleeves, ranging from elbow length to mere shoulder straps, lower necklines, and frequently long, sumptuous trains (Fukai 225-235).
The types and extravagance of outerwear expanded in the 1880s, a development that began in the 1870s. The bustle silhouette was better accommodated by jackets and coat-like garments, as opposed to cloaks and capes that were dominant earlier in the century. Jackets were increasingly worn and cut to fit over the bustle style of any particular year (Tortora 392). Outerwear of the 1880s was particularly marked by the mantle or dolman, a garment featuring a wide sleeve cut with the body in one piece, and short basques in the back that exposed the bustle (Fig. 7). Often, a dolman had long mantlet ends hanging in the front (Cumming 67). Emilie Pingat, one of the most significant couturiers of the era, was known for his luxurious dolmans (Coleman 183).
Perhaps womenswear in the 1880s was most marked by the weightiness of decoration (Fig. 8). Womenswear featured an extensive use of trims, including ribbons, ruffles, flounces, shirring, bows, and lace; this over-decoration was not only seen in the evening, but throughout the day (Fukai 216). Dress historian Jayne Shrimpton wrote, “The resemblance between dress drapery and furnishing fabrics was often noted at around this time, particularly the vogue for rich, dark colors and sumptuous three-dimensional effects using velvet, plush (cotton velvet), satin brocade and embossed fabrics” (Shrimpton 25).
Women began to wear their hair more neatly in the 1880s. The long, cascading curls of the previous decade were now tucked up into tight chignons, particularly as the high collars of the mid-1880s came into vogue (Tortora 393). As the female form became angular and protruded from the back, hats rose in height to balance the silhouette. Tall, narrow hats were worn directly on top of the head; they rose to such heights they were mocked as “Four Stories and a Basement” (Ginsburg 92). This new millinery provided a great deal of space for decoration, and thus hats of the 1880s were elaborately trimmed with ribbons, flowers, lace, and most importantly a gruesome amount of feathers and entire stuffed birds (Fig. 9). It was during the 1880s that bird populations began to be slaughtered in such numbers, that many species became endangered (Shrimpton 26). It is not a coincidence that the American Audubon Society was founded in 1886, and the English Royal Society for the Preservation of Birds formed in 1889 (Ginsburg 92).
No discussion of 1880s fashion is complete without mention of the Aesthetic Movement and the calls for dress reform. Throughout the second half of the nineteenth century, several artistic groups were reacting against the new, industrial era, and looking to the past for true beauty (Ellis 36). These movements, arguably, all coalesced in their influence on fashion in the 1880s. The Aesthetic Movement, with origins in the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood of artists which were inspired by medieval and Renaissance themes (Ellis 35-36), came into its own in the 1880s. Aesthetes argued for “art’s for art’s sake,” and adopted reform clothing based on the art of the Pre-Raphaelites (Lambourne 6). For women, Aesthetic dress consisted of a dress with a loosely-fit waist, puffed sleeves, and, most importantly, was often worn without a corset or heavy petticoats and bustles (Tortora 384). Aesthetic dress was also notable for its earth-toned colors, such as mossy green and ochre yellow (Shrimpton 22). Figure 10 depicts Aesthetic women on either side of the painting, which contrasts with women wearing mainstream fashions in the center. The dress of Aesthetes influenced the Rational Dress Society, founded in 1881 (Laver 200), which argued against the constrictive and cumbersome mainstream fashion for women. However, the followers of the Rational Dress movement were more concerned with the unhealthiness of current fashions, than artistic pursuits. They protested corsetry in particular, and argued that women’s dress prevented them from being full, productive members of society (Mitchell 77-83).
Neither reform, Aesthetic dress nor Rational Dress, were accepted into the mainstream, and were both mercilessly mocked in the press (Laver 200). Nevertheless, some influence can be seen. For example, the famous London store, Liberty, opened its dress department in 1884 and carried looser styles inspired by the Aesthetes and dress reformers (V&A). The tea gown, show in Figure 11, shows influence from both reforms, especially in its “medieval” bands of embroidery. Tea gowns were soft dresses, often worn with a loosened corset or without a corset at all, meant to be worn at home, perhaps while visiting with female friends. First introduced in the 1870s, tea gowns became increasingly popular through the 1880s (Tortora 387). A more relaxed garment, the influence of Aesthetic and Rational Dress ideas on tea gowns is clear.
Fashion icon: oscar wilde
In 1885, the famous Irish poet and playwright Oscar Wilde wrote in his essay, “The Philosophy of Dress”:
“Fashion rests upon folly. Art rests upon law. Fashion is ephemeral. Art is eternal.” (Mitchell 87)
Perhaps, then, it would be more accurate to refer to Wilde as an anti-fashion icon. However, the significance of Oscar Wilde as a voice on 1880s fashion and dress cannot be overstated. As one of the leading adherents of the Aesthetic Movement, Wilde made its tenets famous across the Western world. In 1882, he embarked on a lecture tour of the United States, promoting Aestheticism and becoming a nationwide sensation (Lambourne 137). He was so inextricably tied to the movement, that when Gilbert and Sullivan sought to parody Aestheticism in their 1881 operetta, Patience, the leading character was based on Wilde (Tortora 384).
Wilde was keenly aware of the importance of dress in conveying an idea, and he developed his own version of Aesthetic dress (Fig. 1): a velvet suit of knee-breeches and soft jacket, flowing tie, and sometimes a Cavalier inspired cloak and hat (Tortora 384). The look was completed with his long, smoothly curled hairstyle (Lambourne 134-135). He advocated that artistic dress should be taken up by all, and was particularly distressed by the restrictive excesses of women’s fashions. In “Philosophy of Dress,” he argued against the very concept of fashion, writing:
“A fashion is merely a form of ugliness so absolutely unbearable that we have to alter it every six months!” (Mitchell 87)
As with the larger Aesthetic and Rational Dress movements, Wilde’s ideas were not widely accepted. In fact, he was a constant target of ridicule throughout the decade. His strange costumes were cartoonishly replicated across the press (Lambourne 141-142). Nonetheless, his ideas about fashion and dress had an outsized presence in any discussion of dress during the 1880s.
Men’s clothing in the 1880s was marked by a long, slender frame. Suits were cut closer to the body, creating a tall, slim line (Shrimpton 38). The frock coat, featuring a waist seam with a full skirt (Cumming 87), remained the most formal daywear in town (Laver 202). The morning coat, a cutaway jacket with a waist seam, was a slightly less formal choice for daywear. A morning coat was more versatile than the frock coat; it could be quite formal in black and paired with striped trousers, or less formal in a tweed and cut shorter in length (Shrimpton 39). The sack or lounge suit, marked by its relaxed jacket, single or double-breasted, without a waist seam, remained the most informal choice for day (Tortora 401). Figure 1 depicts all three styles.
For evening occasions, a formal tailcoat, with a matching double-breasted evening waistcoat and a white bow tie, was required (Fig. 2). In the 1880s, the notched collar of previous years’ tailcoats were often replaced with a continuous rolled collar faced in satin (Fig. 3). A new evening option was introduced in the 1880s; a dress version of the sack suit jacket became a less formal evening ensemble worn with black tie. This ensemble became known as a tuxedo in the United States and a dinner jacket in the United Kingdom (Tortora 401-402).
Sportswear played a special role in menswear during the 1880s. The blazer, in particular, became quite fashionable for wear at the seaside or for sports such as rowing, tennis, and cricket. The blazer, a single-breasted sack jacket, often made in brightly colored stripes (Fig. 4), was usually paired with light colored flannel trousers for such occasions (Shrimpton 40). Casual doubled-breasted jackets, known as reefers, were also a suitable choice for summer sports and picnics (Laver 202). For shooting and country activities, a Norfolk jacket, marked by its pleated back and belted waist, was the most common ensemble (Tortora 401). It was usually paired with loose knee-breeches and gaiters (Laver 204).
Most jackets buttoned quite high in the 1880s, and thus waistcoats took on less importance. They were frequently made in the same fabric as the jacket and trousers (Tortora 401). The tall silhouette of menswear was accentuated by high, stiffened collars that came into vogue (Shrimpton 38). These collars were often removable, along with the cuffs, and could be a stand or fold-over collar. Both bow ties and knotted neckties were fashionable; neckties were often accessorized with a tie pin or stick pin (Tortora 401; Shrimpton 37-38). The two dominant hats for men were the formal black silk top hat or the less formal bowler hat. Exaggeratedly tall bowler hats were particularly fashionable, further underscoring the tall, slim look of the decade (Fig. 5) (Shrimpton 38).
Throughout the nineteenth century, babies and toddlers of both sexes wore long white dresses (Fig. 1), usually with long sleeves (Paoletti 85; Shrimpton 43). In toddlerhood, color could be introduced and dresses shortened to allow movement (Tortora 405). These dresses were loose and often featured rows of tucks or smocking (Shrimpton 45). Young boys were given their first pair of pants (known as breeching) around the age of five. After this, boys wore suits consisting of short trousers, often buckled at the knee, and a jacket (Fig. 2); blazers, reefers, and Norfolk jackets were all possibilities (Tortora 404).
Like the general trend in menswear, boys clothing grew quite narrow in the 1880s (Shrimpton 47). The sailor suit, first introduced in the 1840s, became a favorite for boys from about the age of four through early adolescence (Olian vi; Shrimpton 49). The 1880s saw a fad for “Highland dress,” an imitation of the Scottish kilt, among the higher classes (Shrimpton 48). The Aesthetic Movement also exercised influence in boys fashions. The “Little Lord Fauntleroy” suit began to gain favor in 1886; it consisted of a velvet tunic and knickerbockers, flounced shirt, and a wide lace collar (Fig. 3). Named for the eponymous hero of a children’s book, the author claimed his character’s costume was influenced by the Aesthetic dress of Oscar Wilde (Tortora 405).
However, some became concerned that these cumbersome fashions were not healthy for young girls. In November 1888, a writer at La Mode Illustreé wrote that a simple tunic-dress, gathered at the neck and tied loosely at the waist, was best for girls aged seven to twelve (Olian iv). The Aesthetic Movement underscored this concern, chiefly through the introduction of “Kate Greenaway” dresses. Greenaway was an Aesthetic Movement illustrator who created many children’s book illustrations featuring young girls in loose, Empire-waist dresses and protective straw bonnets (Fig. 5) (Tortora 404). These dresses, praised by many for their supposed health benefits, saw some favor in the 1880s, a trend that would continue into the 1890s (Mitchell 173).
- Coleman, Elizabeth Ann. The Opulent Era: Fashions of Worth, Doucet, and Pingat. London: Thames and Hudson, Ltd., The Brooklyn Museum, 1989. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/469409564
- Cumming, Valerie ed., The Dictionary of Fashion History. New York: Berg, 2010. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/1003643284
- Ellis, Martin, Victoria Osborne, and Tim Barringer. Victorian Radicals: From the Pre-Raphaelites to the Arts & Crafts Movement. New York: American Federation of Arts, 2018. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/1099429593
- Fukai, Akiko, ed. The Collection of the Kyoto Costume Institute: Fashion, A History from the 18th Century to the 20th Century. Kyoto: Taschen, 2013. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/81452017
- Ginsburg, Madeliene. The Hat: Trends and Traditions. London: Studio Editions, 1990. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/22914760
- “How Arts and Crafts Influenced Fashion.” Victoria & Albert Museum. https://www.vam.ac.uk/articles/how-arts-and-crafts-influenced-fashion
- Lambourne, Lionel. The Aesthetic Movement. London: Phaidon Press Ltd., 1996. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/1120913632
- Laver, James. Costume and Fashion: A Concise History, 5th ed. London: Thames & Hudson, Ltd, 2012. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/966352776
- Mitchell, Rebecca N., ed. Fashioning the Victorians: A Critical Sourcebook. London: Bloomsbury, 2018. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/1085349620
- Olian, JoAnne, ed. Children’s Fashions 1860-1912. New York: Dover Publications, 1994. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/28963700
- Paoletti, Jo B. Pink and Blue: Telling the Boys from the Girls in America. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2012. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/809762103
- Rose, Clare. Children’s Clothes: 1750-1985. London: BT Batsford, 1989. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/317672212
- Shrimpton, Jayne. Victorian Fashion. Oxford: Shire Publications, 2016. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/896980798
- Tortora, Phyllis G. and Keith Eubank. Survey of Historic Costume, 5th ed. New York: Fairchild Books, 2010. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/865480300
- England: Queen Victoria (1837-1901)
- 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
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