Corsets and Bustles from 1880-90

The Move from Over-Structured Opulence to the ‘Healthy Corset’

Corset - Red-Gold 1883By the 1880s the corset had become a very elegant and desirable object in a woman’s wardrobe and much attention paid to its design and execution. The rapid growth of the corset manufacturing industries meant that there was greater variety in materials, colour, size and fit. The most expensive might be made of satin, brightly coloured corsets also became more acceptable.

Corset makers and manufacturers prided themselves on the excellent fit that could now be had with ready-to-wear corsets. As well as being made for different bust and hip measurements they were also designed to suit a variety of body types from ‘stout’, to ‘slim’ and ‘full’ to ‘graceful’. Manufacturers also tried to boost sales by giving corsets fancy names such ‘La Fiancée’, which not surprisingly promised physical beauty and success in marital competition, and ‘Swanbill’ with a logo of a swan gliding past waterplants, probably intended to conjure up an image of demure elegance and a gently curving figure.

In the mid 1880s, after a brief respite, bustles returned and in a more exaggerated form than before. They were usually very structured and sometimes jutted out at right angles from the centre back of the body. This gave rise to the popular belief that a tea tray could be balanced on them. Steel strips were also often attached to the insides of dresses to exaggerate the backward curve of the bustle.

Bustles came in all shapes and sizes. Some were constructed almost entirely of steel, others resembled colourful cushions. These were often stuffed with horsehair, down and even straw to achieve the desired fullness. Bustles were often ridiculed in journals and the popular press. But although they could be cumbersome and uncomfortable, as with the corset and crinoline one must be careful not to focus on extremes. Most bustles in museum collections are not as enormous as all the written criticisms would have us believe. They were usually adjustable in size and women could wear different styles according to their activities and the time of day. Small ‘tournures’ fastened to the corset were recommended for walking, small ‘puffs’ were for the early afternoon to remove the flat look of the dress and larger, longer bustles were suited to the ballroom.

‘The New Phantom’ bustle, dating from about 1884, had a special feature. The steel wires are attached to a pivot so that they folded in on themselves on sitting down and sprang back when the wearer rose. A novelty bustle made to commemorate Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee celebrations contained a less useful device. It was fitted with a musical box that played ‘God Save the Queen’ each time the wearer sat down.

source: Victoria and Albert Museum

History of Fashion 1890’s

Victorian Dress - 1890Women
In the early part of the decade, women wore tight bodices with high collars and narrow sleeves, much as they had done in the previous decade. From about 1893 however, sleeves started expanding into a leg-of-mutton shape, which was tight at the lower arm and puffed out at the upper arm. Wide shoulders were fashionable and horizontal decoration on the bodice further exaggerated the line. Skirts were worn in a full-length, simple A-line. Masculine styles and tailoring were increasingly popular, and women sometimes sported a shirt collar and tie, particularly when playing golf or out walking. Hair was worn high on top of the head, in tight curls. Hats were small or wide with lots of trimming, but generally worn squarely on top of the head.

Victorian men 1890Men
The three-piece lounge suit was very popular and regularly worn from the 1890s onwards, and it became increasingly common to have creases at the front of the trousers. Frock coats were still worn, but generally by older or more conservative men. Collars were starched and high, with the tips pressed down into wings, though by the end of the century collars were more frequently turned down and worn with the modern long, knotted tie style. Hair was cut short and usually parted at the side. Heavy moustaches were common, and older men still sported beards. Some men now went clean-shaven.

Source: Victoria and Albert Museum

Women’s 19-Century Fashion

Victorian Man's outfitfrom Victoria and Albert Museum.

Women’s Dress
As the 19th century progressed women’s dress gradually revealed the actual form of the body. In the 1820s and 1830s the waistline deepened, returning to its natural position. As the natural waist returned the bodice required a tighter fit and in contrast the skirt became fuller and bell-shaped. There were several different sleeve styles but short puffed sleeves were generally worn for evening and long sleeves for day. Corsets continued to be worn. These were lightly boned and quilted, with a deep busk. Several layers of petticoats with frilled hems, sometimes of horsehair, were worn to support the full skirts. Some petticoats of the 1840s were feather-quilted. Later examples of the 1850s and 1860s were made of ‘crin’ and steel hoops. The term ‘crinoline’ is derived from the French word crin which means horsehair.

Bonnets or hats were worn outdoors and linen caps indoors. During the 1820s hair styles became very elaborate with raised top knots and the crowns of bonnets or hats were designed to accommodate them. By the middle of the century, by contrast, hairstyles had become smooth with a central parting finished with ringlets on either side of the face and a small bun at the back or simply swept back from the face to a chignon (a mass of hair arranged on a pad at the back of the head and held in place with a net or snood). Bonnets and hats continued to be worn until the 1860s when small, elegant styles appeared which simply perched on top of the head. Even smaller hats appeared in the 1870s when hairstyles rose in the form of elaborate chignons. In the 1880s and 1890s hairstyles remained `up’ but did not retain the heights or bulk of the 1870s styles. Small hats decorated with birds and feathers and artificial flowers were fashionable.

In the 1860s the skirt was very full and worn over a cage crinoline, a petticoat supported by a frame of steel hoops that held it away from the legs. A boned corset was worn over a chemise. Large shawls were sometimes worn indoors or outdoors instead of a coat or cloak.

The 1870s to 1880s introduced styles that revealed the natural silhouette. A popular style was the `princess line’ dress, which was made without a waist seam to reveal the figure. Skirts fitted tightly and required streamlined all-in-one underwear combinations. Corsets became longer and were more rigidly boned. The busk, known as the spoon busk because of its shape, extended to the stomach. Sleeves were tight. In the 1880s a bustle pad, or a tier of stiffened horsehair or fabric frills, was introduced. After 1887-1888 the bustle went out of fashion. Hair was curled on top and taken into a bun at the back. Often a ringlet was brought forward over the shoulder as a finishing touch.

By the 1880s an elite group of women began to adopt simpler and easier styles that were known as `artistic’ dress. Artistic dress was cut much more loosely than conventional attire and did not require restrictive corsetry to be worn.

During the last years of the 19th century it was fashionable for women’s hair to be arranged on the top of the head in a bun and puffed out around the face. A large-brimmed hat would be fastened on with hat pins unless a simpler, smaller hat, such as the straw boater, was required for informal dress. The skirt was floor length with a slight train. The waist remained small and a corset which either laced up or fastened with clips was generally worn. A small pad was worn at the back of the waist to support the skirt. In the 1890s the top of the sleeves were sometimes puffed into an enormous leg of mutton’ shape which required lightweight stiffening or padding. The neckline for day wear was very high featuring a stand-up collar in a lightweight fabric which was boned or wired around the edge to hold it up under the chin. Women adopted a simple and rather masculine-looking shirt, jacket and skirt for day wear.

Towards the end of the 19th century the rate at which the fashionable silhouette changed quickened. The increasing popularity of paper patterns and the growth of women’s fashion periodicals encouraged home dress-making during the second half of the 19th century. The withdrawal of the paper tax in the middle of the 19th century had stimulated the growth of publications, especially magazines aimed at women. It was during this period that magazines introduced paper patterns.

By the 20th century the pace of change in the fashionable silhouette became ever more rapid as the expanding fashion industry, in conjunction with the media, became more effective at stimulating demand for a constant flow of new styles.

Men’s 19th-Century Fashion

Victorian Man's outfitfrom Victoria and Albert Museum.

Men’s Dress
By the early 19th century men’s fashions had also undergone a radical change. The coat still finished in long tails at the back but was cut higher in front. The waist-length square-cut waistcoat showed beneath it. The lining of the shoulders and upper chest of the coat was sometimes quilted to improve the fit. In the early 19th century some dandies wore boned corsets to give them a small waist.

Gradually men adopted long trousers rather than knee breeches. Trousers became increasingly fashionable in the first quarter of the 19th century. At first they were only worn for day and informal dress but by the 1820s they were acceptable for evening wear. Breeches continued to be worn at court.

The tall hat from the late 18th century was still worn and developed into the top hat which was worn for day and formal dress throughout the 19th century. Hair was carefully styled into a windswept look or worn short and curled.

During the second half of the 19th century men retained the white waistcoat and black tail-coat and trousers of the early 19th century for evening wear. For day wear they wore a frock coat with straight trousers, a short waistcoat and a shirt with a high stiff collar. The single- or double-breasted frock coat fitted quite closely to the torso and had a waist seam. The skirts were straight and finished at mid-thigh or below. The front of the coat was square cut. Hair was still styled but by the late 19th century it was short and cut close to the head. Many men had beards and moustaches.