History of Fashion and Dress
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The Victorian Era- Turn of the Century: 1890-1900
Key terms:

Fin de Siecle
ready- made
mass production
E. Butterick and Co.
department store
Montgomery Ward
mail-order

hour-glass
bust bodice
bust improvers
leg-o-mutton sleeves
little dressmakers
breeching
reefer coat

Brownie suit
Turkish trousers


Biltmore mansion in Asheville, NC
The Vanderbilt mansion in Asheville, NC


W.E.B. Du Bois
W.E.B. Du Bois c. 1900
(image courtesy W.E.B. Du Bois Library)

Montgomery Ward catalog
1875 Cover of Montgomery Ward Catalog
(image courtesy Kingwood College)

Brief historical overview:

Queen Victoria ruled England and Ireland until her death in 1901- making the Victorian Era one of the longest in history. For the purpose of these pages, the Victorian Era will be broken into a series of periods- The Crinoline (1850-1869), First and Second Bustle (1870-1890), and Turn of the Century (1890-1900).

The end of the 19th century, or the “Fin de Siecle,” brought forth a time of great economic prosperity along with an overwhelming sense of social uneasiness in America. Although the American Civil War in the 1860s was successful in ending slavery and solidifying the idea of one indivisible union, it also initiated the idea that all social institutions should be carefully scrutinized and were thus open to reform.

During the 1870s and 1880s, exponential economic growth created American millionaires like the Vanderbilts, the Carnegies, and the Rockefellers. But by the mid 1890s, the economic boom of these decades quickly went bust and the nation fell into a recession. Many middle and working class men lost their jobs and their savings. By the beginning of the new century, the disparity between the wealthy and the poor had widened.

Since the 1870s, women had been entering the workforce as factory laborers, teachers, and domestic servants. By 1890, over 5 million women were employed outside the home. The number of children working in textile mills rose 160% during this period and made up over one-third of the mills' labor force.

child textile workers
Child textile mill workers in Macon, Georgia
c. early 1900s

The loss of employment, the exploitation of child labor, unfair wages, poor working conditions, and the increasing tension between freed blacks and new immigrants led to outspoken cries for reform. During the 1890s, the Women's Suffrage movement began. The League for the Protection of the Family called for compulsory education for children in an effort to end child labor. Social workers published reports about the income, living conditions, and health of the nation's poor. And writers like W.E.B. Du Bois promoted equality for American blacks.

The last decades of the 19th century also gave rise to the ready- made garment industry. This was a factory based industry that mass produced articles of clothing in a standardized form. However, standardization was relative only within a particular company or brand and variation among sizes was common. E. Butterick and Co. (now known as simply Butterick) was the first to offer commercially produced patterns for the home seamstress and by the turn of the century was the largest manufacturer of published material in the United States.

butterick pattern c.1902 
 Butterick home sewing pattern c. 1902
(image courtesy Unsung Sewing Patterns)

In 1862, the first department store opened in New York City offering ready- made clothing such as corsets, shoes, millinery, and outerwear. In addition, it offered a full range of home supplies, toys, and imported china. In 1872, Montgomery Ward sent its first catalog to farmers in rural parts of the nation- offering a variety of ready made items for purchase through mail-order. These mail order catalogs allowed customers in rural areas to "shop" the urban department stores via catalog. Customers filled out order forms, sent payments by money grams, and received their merchandise through the US Postal service (National Postal Museum). It was not long before the mail order industry flourished and in 1893 Sears, Roebuck, and Co. published their first catalog.
1890s shirt waist
Shirt waist c. 1890-1899
(FIDM Museum and Galleries)

1890s corset with bust bodice
1890s corset with bust bodice
(The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

1890s combinations
1890s combinations with lace detail
(The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

1890s gown
Gown for day wear c. 1890-1900 with train
(Augusta Auctions)
 
Women's Clothing:

As more women entered the workforce, their wardrobe had to be adapted to changing roles outside the home. Gone were the elaborate gowns with sweeping trains and gathered over-skirts. The bustle disappeared and the silhouette simplified. Interchangeable bodices and skirts became popular.

Drawers, chemises, combinations, and petticoats continued to be worn and were often trimmed with intricate tucking and lace details.

The overall silhouette of this period was "hour-glass"- wide at the shoulder, narrow at the waist, and wide again at the hips. This silhouette was achieved by wearing a tightly laced, heavily boned, mass produced corset that was preshaped into the hour glass form. (This tight lacing sparked a reform movement by medical professionals and others concerned with the health effects of tightly fitted corsets). Some corsets ended just below the bust and were worn with a bust bodice to support the bosom. False bosoms or bust improvers were also worn to help create a fuller torso.

corset reform movement
Period illustration used by those in opposition of the tightly laced corset
(left) the ribcage in its natural form and (right) the effects of the corset

Bodices were highly tailored and had fitted under-bodices. Early in the period, extremely wide, leg-o-mutton sleeves puffed out at the shoulder, narrowing only at the wrist. Later, the width of the sleeves narrowed at the armscye and the bodice gathered at the front. Yokes, ruffles, and a variety of trims accented the breadth of the shoulders. Bodices typically ended at the natural waistline or had small basque waists. Necklines varied from high to open and might include some type of lace or ruffle.

day gown c. 1892  1890s gown
(left) Afternoon dress c. 1892 (The V&A)
(right) 1890s era gown with leg o mutton sleeves (Augusta Auctions)

Skirts fit smoothly over the hips and flared out into a bell shape at the hem. The weight of the skirt was concentrated at the back and usually ended a few inches above the floor.

Gowns for evening followed the silhouette of day wear. Evening bodices had square, rounded, or v-shaped necklines and sleeves typically ended above the elbow and later in the decade, in small puffs just at the shoulder line. Skirts were floor length and often trained.

  1890s ball gown   Worth evening gown1890s
(left) Velvet evening gown with modified leg-o-mutton sleeves (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)
(right) C.F.Worth evening gown
(The V&A)

Hats were worn outdoors and were often elaborately decorated. Taxidermied birds, feathers, and silk flowers were popular millinery trims. Plain straw boaters and other hats with brims were popular. While bonnets were still worn during this period, the hat was all the rage.

For reproduction Turn of the Century women's clothing, please click here.
1890s reefer coat
Reefer Coat  c. 1900
(Wisconsin Historical Society)

boy's sweater circa 1900
Boy's pull- over sweater c. 1900
(
Wisconsin Historical Society)

1890s children

Portrait of children c. 1890-1900

Children's Clothing:

While there is documentation to suggest that premade children's attire existed as early as 17th century Europe, it was not until the manufacturing age (or the age of mass production) that ready made children's garments were available to all social classes. Before the 1860s, ready made children's clothing was only purchased by the upper class. Tailors and "little dressmakers" visited the home of the wealthy, taking measurements and fitting garments to each child. However, by the end of the 19th century, fashion called for loosely fitted dresses and less tailored suits- allowing for a one size fits all industry.

By 1890, the age of breeching for boys (the age when boy's moved from dresses to knickers) dropped from five years to three years. This period saw a great military influence on boy's clothing. Sailor suits, middies, and the reefer coat (a type of coat with a wide sailor collar and nautical braid) was popular for both boy's and girls alike. The brownie suit, now known as overalls, became popular for play and leisure activities. Knit-wear became popular for boy's outer garments and included sweaters with high necks (what we now call the turtle-neck), pull- over sweaters, and button up sweaters (now known as cardigans).

boy's sailor suit
Boy's middies c. 1900
(Wisconsin Historical Society)

Prior to the age of three, both boys and girls wore high waisted dresses- often trimmed with lace and ribbons. After the age of four, girl's dresses followed the silhouette of the period (with large leg-o-mutton sleeves early in the decade and slowly deflating by the end of the decade). Waistlines typically ended at the natural waistline or just below. Nautical themes were extremely popular for girl's dresses and included the sailor dress, dresses with sailor collars, and dresses trimmed with braid. For Sundays and other semi formal occasions, crisp white dresses were fashion dictatum.


Girls also wore Turkish trousers (known earlier in England as rationals) or wide legged trousers gathered into a cuff at the knee. These trousers were worn for activities like cycling, gymnastics, tennis, and leisure activities.

Woman cycling in turkish trousers
Turkish trousers c. 1890s

For reproduction Turn of the Century children's clothing, please click here.
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These pages are for educational purposes only.  All text copyright Susan Jarrett.  No unauthorized use without permission.
Copyrighted images must be given source credit as has been done on these page. Public domain images do not require source credit.

Page revised January 2013