116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Women’s clothing went through an interesting transition in the 1890s. Big changes took place in how the clothes were made, bought and worn. Fashions also went from restricting to freeing the women who wore them — for the most part.
At the time, the Victorian era with its moralistic sensibilities and the Gilded Age with its gross materialism for the upper class were both winding down.
The Second Industrial Revolution and a new era of increased freedoms for women were gaining steam, allowing technology and new attitudes to standardize wardrobe choices across classes.
When the decade started, women were covered from neck to fingertip to toe. Dresses were just a few iterations from the birdcage crinoline frocks worn during the Civil War.
Do the bustle
Petticoat-supporting hoop frames gave way to the big bustle in the 1880s.
The big bustle was a metal support that poofed up the rear of a woman’s dress, giving her an ostrichlike silhouette. The bustle was still around by the early 1890s, but it would shrink considerably until eventually disappearing by the end of the decade.
A staple of Georgian women’s fashion from 60 years earlier reappeared — the gigot sleeve.
Gigot is French for “leg of meat,” so think of a dress sleeve that resembled a leg of mutton — spherical at the top while becoming more fitted down the arm to the wrist.
The 1890s gigot sleeve started as a slight vertical shoulder whiff but resembled a true, meaty leg of mutton by 1895.
Fashion historians say women’s clothing is always a reaction to the times, and therefore suggest the sudden prevalence of the electric light bulb as the impetus for the bulbous sleeve shape.
The power loom (for large-scale textile production) and the (foot-operated) sewing machine had been around for 100 and 60 years, respectively, when electricity supercharged production possibilities in the 1890s.
Electric light also extended the hours of evening activities, which helped the emerging fashion industry dictate a new set of dress rules.
Proper ensembles for each time a day became a thing — high necklines and long sleeves for morning wear, open neck and shortened sleeves for the afternoon and brazenly bare arms and plunging necklines for the evening.
Harper’s Bazaar, Ladies' Home Journal and Vogue were among several women’s magazines that were commonplace across the country by the 1890s.
Those magazines and local papers occasionally ran fashion drawings by Charles Dana Gibson, who offered aspirational images of ideal femininity.
These so-called Gibson girls wore the latest fashions while exploring a new version of womanhood — they were sporty, socialized often and appeared very confident while interacting with men.
Womenswear of the time was also influenced by menswear. The shirtwaist became very popular — a blouse tailored like a man’s shirt but embellished with lace and frills. This could be worn with a skirt and jacket. Shirtwaists also were part of a morning ensemble called a “tailor-made,” — the first women’s suit.
Hats were a big and a little thing in the decade, spurred by millinery shops specializing in custom-made and ready-to-wear hats for every occasion.
Gazette ads showed older, long-dressed women wearing wide and tall hats as well as well as younger women wearing small and whimsical hats bobby-pinned onto high hairdos at precarious angles.
High, curling ostrich feathers were popular on all sizes of hats, as well as ribbons and flowers. Men’s straw boaters were commonly worn by women around 1895.
Local women had access to particularly stylish hats during this decade. The Lyman Brothers millinery shop in Cedar Rapids started as a quaint shop but quickly became a massive, trendsetting millinery distribution company that supplied materials and adornments for milliners across the country.
Twice as many women were in the workforce by the end of the decade, prompting the ubiquity of shirtwaist ensembles and women’s suits that were less restricting.
Regardless, the ever-restricting corset remained. The S-bend corset that created a faux bustle became popular as the century closed.
Joe Coffey, a freelance writer and content marketer in Cedar Rapids, writes this monthly column for The History Center. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org