Evening Dress, 1880-1894

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History of Costume I 1800-1899

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Except in the matter of length, evening dress shows the fashionable silhouette more distinctly than a dress for any other time of day as it is an occasion when the wearer is on show, the dress being generally more expensive and carefully made, and a time when a woman will bear discomfort more willingly to appear in the latest fashion. Our four figures in Plate XIX show the considerable change of line that took place over the last twenty years of the 19th century. The ‘eighties had as many variations of style as any decade in the century, typifying the disturbing influences of those years. From 1876 clothes became more sculptured, not merely frothy layers of delicate material, and the importance of the foundation of the figure was paramount. The first bustle disappeared by 1876 giving way to the long bodied, hip-fitting style which continued till 1883. The bustle then made its re-appearance and grew to exaggerated proportions by 1886, when it again retracted into a small pad to lift the back fullness, and finally disappeared when, in the ‘nineties, the skirts clung to the hips and fell out into the shape of an inverted lily. It will be seen that each of these figures has a different stance, not merely a contrasting shape of skirt or bodice, and it does demonstrate the constant flow of inventive ideas and, in so short a period, how adaptable a woman will make her figure. It is interesting to investigate how, once a new line had been evolved, the designers set about making the necessary framework into which the ever-ready client most obligingly poured herself in the cause of high fashion. At the time of the figure-moulding dresses, a woman’s journal for 1880 reports that even when dress­ makers had doubts about the wisdom of the size of waist and hip line for a client they were told ‘you make the waist so many inches and I’ll engage to get into it’. Corsets until 1873 had converged sharply into the waist with a wide basque that jutted out to lift full skirts. As the waist was smoothed and lowered the heavy, wide-ended spoon busk was adopted, with a concave dip in the middle front, to prevent the bodice from wrinkling. The basque then disappeared and the whole corset was lengthened and cut in many shaped pieces, not only to hold the ribs and support the bust, but to cover the hips as well. If the figure did not possess the necessary flesh in the most accentuated parts of the body, cotton wool was interlaid to give the fashionable rounded appearance. A writer of the late ‘seventies, the artistic Mrs Haweis, in her Art of Beauty gives her approval to the curved body line but is most vehement on the subject of immoderate pinching into an angular waistline, as ‘having exposed the shape after years of concealment it is ridiculous to deform it’. She recommends the train, since it increases height, but deprecates the too closely girt (tied back) skirt as giving the wearer the semblance of a clogged cow. A very logical lady this, and one who, we hope, had a little influence on her contemporaries. The Princess line, with in-curved waist, rounded hips and long trailing train, gave the wearer a forward-leaning poise. The latter changed in 1880 to the straight-held figure, with the abandonment of the train, the straightening of the corset busk and the close tying-in of the back draperies of the skirt. By 1885 the bodice front was quite straight and very long-pointed, giving the figure a narrow-bodied line. The skirt stuck out from the waist at the back like a platform but the tightly tied-in skirts and the dent in the middle of the back still retained the upright poise. Still keeping her stiff-fronted bodice (and suffering agonies from bones poking into her chest and not being able to bend forward from the waist) the woman of the ‘nineties dropped the rear accentuating padding, allowed her hips and behind their nearly natural contours and made herself the axis of a symmetrical cone-shaped figure. Materials played a great part in building up a silhouette. The figure-outlining dresses of 1880 needed soft, rich fabrics to swathe tightly, without crispness. Satins and velvets were relieved with soft chiffon pleated insertions. In fact a great deal of material went into a model, to be restrained by drapery, pleating and tying-in to an overall slim silhouette. The mid-‘eighties bounced again and taffeta and gauze covered a main foundation of satin with flounces and pleated frills to accentuate the crisp effect. The ‘nineties needed heavier materials to preserve the sculptured, solid silhouette and to weight the hip-clinging skirts which were now generally cut on the bias so that they fell out in a wide arc round the feet. Quite apart from the basic line given by corsets, bodices under­ went the same radical change to complete the unity of the ensemble. The slim silhouette had introduced plain, fitting sleeves for the day, while for the evening small continuations of the bodice over the shoulders (or smoothly swathed net decorated with flowers) and a square décolletage kept the width of the shoulders narrow, in keeping with the basic design. As the silhouette perked up with lifted sharper lines so the sleeves started to have fullness on the shoulder in the day, and bows, or little frills and a V-shaped neckline, gave the required angular accent to an evening bodice. Sleeve fullness disappeared again with the solid sculptured line in 1890 and the bodice was moulded to the figure with the shoulders rising monumentally from a low decolletage to be covered very scantily by a wisp of feather or lace, or, as in our Plate, the very first daring shoulder strap. By the mid-‘nineties the silhouette had changed completely, with more emphasis on the top. The fashion being designed more with the mature wearer in mind, the bust was fuller, and horizontally widened shoulders were affected by enormous frills of embroidered material, lace, or stiff net over full, gathered, short sleeves. Hairdressing naturally followed the main lines of the fashion. The slightly drooping figure of 1880 gathered her coils of hair low on the back of the head and decorated it with soft flowers. The livelier belle of 1885 raised her fringe, pulled back her side hair smoothly over the ears and coiled the ends on top with a perky feather head-dress to add height to her already attenuated silhouette. Our grande dame of 1890 scorned the softening effect of women’s crowning glory and completed her dignified effect by pulling her hair even more tightly from the face into a simple coil or bun on top. With the widening of the shoulders the hair followed suit with back-combing under waves over the forehead and sides the ends being taken up into an assortment of coils, knots or knobs to foreshadow the full forward-leaning hairdressing of the 1900’s.

Dimensions 38.1 × 25.5 cm