Country and Town Walking Dress, 1889-1899

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History of Costume I 1800-1899

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As we enter the 1890’s we cannot but be struck by the solidity, stiffness and lack of glamour of the clothes and wonder if the climate had altered so much during a hundred years that it was necessary to wear at least three times as much bulk as in the free­ and-easy early years of the century. Remembering one’s childhood, there seem to have been many long summers in which one’s elders were equally well covered, so the conclusion must be drawn that there were stronger influences than mere comfort that made fashion so all-embracing in the ‘nineties. The strongest, undoubtedly, was the solid front of respectability, both moral and financial, but it is followed closely by the strengthening of woman’s position in society. The British, having reached their peak in power and prosperity, could dictate their preference in the matter of general appearance, which was readily exploited by designers in building up a suitable image, as it made the most rewarding market for the appurtenances of fashion. Certainly where male costume was concerned the Englishman of social positio12 and of affairs was a model for the rest of the world. The aspect of respectability had been building up over the century with the rigid moral views held by the Sovereign and the religious code of the all-powerful middle class: in the first place as a revolt against the licence of the early years, and later as a bulwark against assaults on a way of life that made power and prosperity possible. There can be no doubt that, at this time, an Englishman’s word was his bond and the background of serene family life did much to further the image of integrity in those countries where the same kind of ethics did not exist. Morals were strict and rigidly observed – on the surface, which, of course, is where we see the effect in prudish, flesh-hiding, stiffly encasing garments. Mass production of cheaper clothes and the anxiety of the less rich to ‘better themselves’ levelled the class-barriers of dress and went further to present a united facade of respectability. Another factor which made for solidity in appearance was the accent on maturity. In England, the Queen had been on the throne for many years and most of the Royal Family were middle-aged and of impeccable public behaviour. It is natural that their circle and leaders of society were of a like age-group making it necessary for designers to concentrate on a more mature, established taste. Elsewhere the same applied, as those with the means to pay for high fashion were no longer young; even famous actresses, who were beginning to have a place in society, appear to have been of a certain age. The absence of sensuous appeal in the late ‘eighties and early ‘nineties and the hardening into masculinity in women’s clothes can be attributed, on the one hand, to continued prudery that stems from observing the letter of a rigid moral code (with its strict canons of decency), and, on the other, the now recognized emergence of woman into control of her own destiny. The concept of the New Woman was a state of mind that had strong repercussions on her dress. As we have pointed out previously, the impulse for proving equality with the other sex was affected by levelling the differences in appearance and scorning the obvious and age-old means of combatting the dominance of man. The up-and-coming Englishwoman had, by 1891, mounted her bicycle and was energetically pedalling round the parks in a costume that she had devised for herself but was, of necessity, on masculine lines. The French, in the meantime, had become aware of the movement and, with literature and drama at last exploring the subject of woman’s temperament and peculiarities, were all prepared to cater for the new vogue. Some very odd confections were the result and in this early adaptation of male clothes, unlike those of the present day, women’s individualities were concealed instead of being exploited. It is curious to see how the conflicting ideas of freedom versus respectability are combined in the transitional costume of the woman of 1899; English tailoring was supreme and her masculine jacket fitted like armour, the sleeves now following the normal shoulder line without any accentuation, accompanied by the most suitable neck-wear, the stiff white collar. So far so good, but with the potentialities of the new silhouette not fully explored and with women unwilling to take the plunge, designers chose the easy way out by adding messy draperies to a still behind-emphasizing skirt, only allowing the feet to show as a sop to the new idea. In the next two or three years clothes became as sculptured by fit and reinforcement as they had ever been before and with such a disregard of comeliness that it is astounding to realise that this was the period of the great beauties, the grand hostesses and the independent woman. They were only beautiful despite fashion and lucky was she who possessed features measuring up to the classic ideal. As for the independent woman – Mary Kingsley (no mannish female) kept up the side while touring the swamps and rivers of West Africa in a tightly boned tailor-made, a little fur bonnet and an umbrella. By the mid-‘nineties the solid front began to waver with the disturbing influence of a new artistic movement from France. The English Aesthetic movement of the 1880’s had largely been ignored at the time but in the restless search for a new idea and as a revolt against the unromantic tendency of their own avant-garde artistic world, the French gathered up the frayed ends of Aestheticism and, with their usual vitality, imbued it with a new life, stressing the visual aspects which they defined by the horrible name of l’ art nouveau. In a complete reversal of all accepted principles (including those of William Morris, the virtual founder of the movement) nature was tortured to fit into the maxim of art for art’s sake and a nightmare of what was called ‘free design’. Where a straight line had been logical, curves and fluid lines were now the aim of the designer and craftsman, and the more unbending of plants, the lily and the tulip, were their badge. The new trend soon showed itself in the relaxing of stiffness in women’s clothes with a softening of angular lines and a renewed accentuation of detail. The silhouette now took on the form of two triangles, point to point at the waist, one small for the top while the flower shape was evident in the hip-fitting skirt flowing out in the curves of a down-turned lily. The nearest parallel to the fashion able line was that of the 1830’s as sleeves were used again to enhance the smallness of the waist, growing from mere fullness over the shoulder, at the beginning of the decade, to the size of a balloon by 1895, at the same time balancing the width of the out­ standing hem of the skirt. The top of the dress was now of greater importance to the design, and sleeves, huge frills and lapels were used on every type of costume for day or evening. The hair was loosened accordingly and waved over the ears to balance large, Gainsborough hats covered with ostrich feathers and other soft trimming. As if surer of her position in the world, woman relaxed her defensive attitude and allowed herself a little more femininity whilst retaining the flesh-concealing facade of respectability. Man was so successful in conveying a satisfactory image of himself through his clothes that we have no difficulty in picturing the typical figure of the ‘nineties, and none more easily than that of the wealthy landlord or distinguished professional man in the dependable Inverness-caped coat; even without the memory of Sherlock Holmes the garment appears in so many photos and illustrations of the period. Almost as vivid is the impression of the affluent man-about-town. His well-cut frock coat, shining top hat and careful accessories make a perfect complement to the fuller, flowing lines of his female counterpart with whom, if we are to believe fashionable journals and novels of the period, he had the time to fulfil an exhausting social round during the day as well as his duties in the City or the Government. The decadence of the end of the century – the naughty ‘nineties f which we hear so much – is difficult to trace in the general healthy appearance of society and when comparisons are made it is salutary to remember that the places of entertainment, of any sort, were fewer and the can-can girls, the epitome of naughtiness, only bowed their black-stockinged legs to the frills of their long white drawers. As we reach the final figure in this pageant of ten decades we must admit that, however pompous, inartistic or insensitive, in the matter of clothes the people of the 19th century showed a vast power of imagination and inventiveness.

Additional information

Dimensions 38.1 × 25.5 cm