Walking Dress, 1876-1877


History of Costume I 1800-1899

In stock

  • Disc Satisfaction Guaranteed
  • Disc No Hassle Refunds (see Shipping and returns)
  • Disc Secure Payments
  • Stripe
  • Visa Card
  • MasterCard
  • American Express
  • Discover Card
  • PayPal
  • Apple Pay


It has been shown how costume evolves from one shape to another, however different the fashion in the interval of one or two years may look to us who did not experience the change. It is never the sudden whim of a designer (except in recent years in the matter of long or short skirts) that rules that full dresses shall be worn one day and tight hips the next. There is always something ·in the previous fashion that acts as a suggestion for the possibilities of a change of line which, after a few years, becomes completely different from an outstanding fashion of so short a time before. We have seen how the long full skirts left by the departing crinoline frame were bunched up, first at the sides and back, to become the bustle of the early ‘seventies, and how this inspired the narrower skirts and fullness only at the back -it was not a full round silhouette one day and a long slim one the next. Added to simple evolution we also have social influences that happen to coincide with a fashion and strengthen or alter it. The mid-‘seventies saw a very conspicuous transformation of woman’s dress – so complete a change of emphasis on another part of the figure that it is interesting to speculate how this may have come about. In the first place, the English had a very beautiful Princess of Wales, very fashion-conscious and, with her husband, the centre of a smart cosmopolitan set. She had looked lovely in a crinoline, glorious in a bustle and, when the skirts became tighter, was dis­ covered to have the sort of slim, upright figure that would put even a M. Worth on his mettle. There was also in the early ‘seventies a strange artistic movement stirring, foster-child of the revolt against materialistic bad taste by the Pre-Raphaelites of the 1850’s. As with all ideals it had gone rather astray when taken up and amplified by earnest but rather muddle-headed disciples. William Morris carried the idea of ‘truth to nature’ into reforming by good craftsmanship everyday objects in the hope of improving taste, and Burne-Jones thought he was painting with the uplifted spirit and the ungarish colour of the Primitives. The idea was carried still further by the intelligentsia of writers and poets who declared that art was of paramount importance to life but that it should be enjoyed for itself alone – a thing of Beauty which could be found in everything experienced – but only by those with a delicate sensitivity of appreciation. So exclusive did the Aesthete feel himself from the Philistine and so concerned with the perfection of Beauty that the only way of expressing his contempt and ‘soul’ was by an attitude of lofty languor. Women, ever ready to adapt themselves physically to any idea that arouses their enthusiasm, became ‘intense’, left off corsets and adopted a flowing rational costume very much on the lines of Burne-Jones’ no-period models. Though it cannot be said that the shape of Aesthetic dress was ever accepted as a fashion, in a certain softening of the prevailing style and in the languorous physical bearing, the attitude of the movement did appear in the way clothes were worn and in the manners of society. There was also, in strong competition, the work of the fashionable painters of the time; Lord Leighton and Alma-Tadema did their best to reintroduce the classic style, with the statuesque draped figures against rich marble. It is hard to say which influence was the strongest – the suddenly revealed grace of the great Lady, the precious, rational dress, or the dignity of neo-classicism, but one may hazard a guess that the shape of the Princess of Wales did much to transform women from ostriches into mermaids. In 1875 the skirt still hung away from the legs in front, but by draping and pulling it tightly to the back a smooth line was revealed over the hips. The bustle, then, had two functions: to push out the back fullness and to act as an anchor on which to secure the superfluous material pulled up from the front. The pinched-in waist of short corsets spoilt the smooth set of a narrow skirt, and when it was discovered that a fitting smooth line – over the bust, close to the waist, and over the hips – was attractive and seductive, corsets were constructed to cover the stomach and hips in a hard casing, with a name that speaks for itself, ‘the cuirasse’. Contemporary reference in 1876 remarks that ‘waists are getting longer and longer every day and now corsets, that had ended at the waist, cover the whole figure’! A strong ‘spoon’ busk held the front straight and weights were inserted in the hems, back and front, to prevent wrinkling, and it was at this time that both corset and long bodice began to be worn over the skirt. The smooth hip effect could not be maintained with a turnure sticking out from the middle of the back, so the padding was dropped to the level of the base of the spine and the horizontally lowered drapery of the front skirt was pulled back tightly, below the hips, to fall closely over it in festoons and great fantails of frills and lace on the floor. The hips and the dip in the middle of the back were then exposed in a pure silhouette – that, of course, was the theory. Only the very slender could wear the style without much suffering from the ‘aids’ to the perfect fashion figure. So slender was the ideal that only one very hip-fitted petticoat was worn, buttoned low on to the ends of the corset, with detachable flounces to hold out the fish-tail at the back, and, we regret to say, false lace frills were sewn under the hems of dresses to simulate rich underwear that would have been too bulky in layers over the hips. The intense Aesthetic lady may not have ousted the hated bustle against which she railed, but her faintly medieval robe did find an echo in the torso-clinging, low hip fullness and swinging cords and sashes of the Plantagenet Princess style that developed from the strutting bustles of two years earlier. And again, the natural torso rising from draperies like Venus from the foam is very akin to that of the pensive classic heroines of the popular painters who were exhibiting so successfully at the Royal Academy. The long train of the earlier years of the decade was retained, as it was seen what grace and height it lent to the slim-topped narrow figure. The skirt then became the most important part of the costume. There were generally two: one very tight and hip-fitting, th other draped equally tightly over it and fastened, with a wealth of fancy, in various festoons to fall in a train on top of the frills of the underskirt. Merely pulling the drapery back and sewing it would not, of course, retain the clinging silhouette as the fullness of the train would swing forward in movement. The same method was then applied to the skirt as was done to the demi-crinoline -the foundation of underskirt, on to which the drapery was fixed, was tied in underneath from both sides behind the legs, leaving only a shaped back width to trail out behind. The title of our Plate XV would seem something of an irony! The usual outcry greeted this new mode but, as a French costume historian has pointed out, fashion never argues – a whim is either taken up and worked to death despite unsuitability, un­ becomingness or heated criticism, or it gently fades away, to be overlooked in the records we have kept of changing styles. For all its lack of hygiene (with trailing frills sweeping the pavements) and the inconveniences of movement, the figure outlining, forward-leaning fashion of the late ‘seventies did lend a little of the graciousness of the Princess who inspired it to a wearer lucky enough to have a suitable figure. That, in the end, accounts for its short life; it was too difficult for the average woman to wear, and contemporary references reveal the anxiety woman expressed for a speedy return to the hip- and stomach-concealing fullness of frame-supported skirts. Small girls were at last released from the padding and stiffness of their mothers’ clothes. The straight Princess line adapted very well to a small undeveloped figure but was shaped in so many pieces with so many pleated frills and trimmings that it took two pages in each of three issues of a woman’s magazine to demonstrate (with exquisitely drawn diagrams) how to construct a dress for a child of five!

Additional information

Dimensions 38.1 × 25.5 cm