Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Fashion Victims, 1890's Style

    With this terrible heat wave afflicting most of the nation, my thoughts have turned to what it was like for people to survive hot summer days in the 1890s.  There were no electric fans, no air-conditioning, no refrigeration.  On top of that, both men and women wore clothing that completely covered the body.  If someone were to walk down the streets of an American town in the 1890s wearing a modern tank top and shorts, s/he would promptly be arrested for indecent exposure.  Even women's bathing suits were actually dresses, often made of wool, with sleeves to the elbow and hemlines below the knee.  When wet, these suits weighed nearly 10 pounds.  The pull of gravity on the heavy garment could produce embarrassing exposure for Victorian swimmers.
This studio photo from the 1890s shows a couple in beachwear.  Note that the woman is wearing stockings.
        In researching period clothing for Darkness Visible, I turned to Ed Gleeman, costume designer extraordinaire for Bloomington Civic Theater.  He loaned me some books showing what men and women of various occupations and social levels wore in the 1890s.  I used the pictures in these books, plus images of  Victorian dresses from the Internet to describe the clothing of Sarah and Carrie and other characters.
      Ironically, the clothing of poor and working-class women was probably more comfortable in the heat than that of middle- and upper-class women.  The latter were required, for appearance's sake, to don various foundation garments, then finish them off with frocks fitted out with stays, buttons and hooks.  The fancier the occasion, the more elaborate--and probably more uncomfortable--the dress.
     Underneath their frocks, fashionable women of the time wore a number of foundation garments.  They did not use modern bras and underpants, but rather chemises and bloomers topped with corsets or cinch belts. Over these went petticoats, garter belts, and stockings.
An illustration of a corset from an 1890 catalog.
Needless to say, just getting dressed was an ordeal for these women, requiring the assistance of servants or family members.  As anyone who has read the description of Scarlett O'Hara's sartorial trials in Gone with the Wind knows, Victorians admired hourglass figures with diminutive "wasp waists".
     Cinching up the fashion victim to produce such an effect was often quite a chore, involving much pulling and straining on the corset strings. Once the lady had the corset on, she had to be careful not to eat or exert herself too much for fear of fainting. This crazy practice of midriff-squeezing frequently caused not only discomfort, but serious internal injury.
     Much has been made of the difficulties in undressing Victorian women for sexual liaisons.  Bodice-ripping, however, would have been for naught, as the man would have discovered much more fabric and hardware underneath.    
     In the 1880s bustles were all the rage, with short trains.  Around 1890 the bustle started to shrink, eventually disappearing by the turn of the century. The bustle was replaced by burgeoning sleeve sizes. By 1895 the huge leg-o-mutton sleeve had become standard on bodices, even for daily wear.  These puffy, gigantic upper sleeves stayed in vogue into the 20th century.
Images of 1890 evening attire: A black silk and pink velvet jet-beaded bodice and skirt sold on Ebay in May for $150. The back of the dress isn't shown, but it is likely that there is no bustle. 
     If you were a woman in the highest circles of society, you could wear ball gowns that exposed much of your arms.  But then, you would have to cover up much of them with dress gloves.  The middle-class characters in Darkness Visible would have worn more discreet dresses to dinner parties, ones with long sleeves.
Photo of an evening dress by Herbert Luey, c. 1890. Note the high neck and long sleeves--and the sumptuous fabric and elegant detailing.  This designer dress would have been owned by a wealthy society lady.
     A quick glance at the photos of actual dresses from this period is ample proof that women then did not dress for comfort.  During warm weather, the misery involved in wearing all these layers of clothing--very tight clothing--undoubtedly increased.  No wonder ladies carried around hand-fans in the summertime.
     It wasn't until the Roaring 'Twenties that women were liberated from constrictive garments.  We can thank the Flapper, with her short bob, raised hemline, and natural waistline, for setting the fashion trends of the 20th century.  It should come as no surprise that the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution, the amendment that gave women the vote, was ratified in 1920.* 
     Women today have a choice over whether they become fashion victims or not.  One hundred years ago, they did not.
1920's Flappers living dangerously on the roof of a New York skyscraper.
*The State of Mississippi did not ratify the 19th Amendment until 1984, sixty-four years after the law was enacted nationally.


  1. A google search brought me here while researching what a young lady would have worn in lieu of a bra during 1889. Love your photos and your book sounds very interesting; I'm going to look for it. :)
    Melyssa (

  2. Your portrayal of corsets isn't accurate.
    Tight lacing, which is what you are describing, was rare and short lived. The hour glass shape and small waist was made by padding out the bust and hips and bum with padding.
    The corset was a support for posture, it smoothed out curves and all the pudge that we ourselves don't like, but also it was the support for all the heavy skirts and petticoats that would be digging painfully into the waist and hips otherwise.
    There are a lot of women on You Tube who have shown themselves wearing these corsets doing everyday things like housework, running, playing, etc. Corsets were no worse on the body then modern bras. Just different.
    Men didn't like that women artificially changed their shape so much so they started the false campaign about fainting and broken ribs. Fainting was rare, and usually not because of tight lacing as that was equally rare (think about how rare severe eating disorders are now, and it was just as warned against and frowned upon by broader society). Broken ribs was a reference to the wear and year that would cause the boning to break on corsets that weren't boned with steele.
    Corsets are comfortable (if fitted correctly, with a shift under it) and not at all dangerous if worn properly.

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