These are very general terms to help us date some photos by the fashions ladies are wearing. Keep in mind that just like today, women held onto their favorite fashions, and in America we were generally a year or two behind European fashions. Older women tended to dress in the styles they felt comfortable in as young women, so don’t be surprised to have a firm date of a photo with older fashions displayed. Middle class and above had the more elaborate designs, but each station of life mocked its betters. Clothing was remade when possible to accommodate changing styles, or made into children’s clothing. Finally, the corset was worn through all eras as a foundation garment and clothing was structured to fit over a corseted body. Women in the lower classes had corsets too, but they were probably more like flexible stays. Think about what you do with your worn out undergarments and that will answer your question of “why aren’t there any surviving pieces to study?” The phrase “loose woman” comes from women who did not wear corsets and it is obvious in their appearance once you know what you are looking at. The corset did not truly fall out of fashion until the 1920s, so any historical novel claiming their heroine was progressive or disdained a corset is the result of a lazy author. I welcome all historical fashion comments – professional or amateur – to add to the resources!
NOW UPDATED TO INCLUDE PHOTOGRAPHS FROM MY COLLECTION!
All photos (c) 2012 Who Were They? and Martha Gibbons
1860-1865 – Civil War era. The dress generally provides a “round” look, with dropped shoulder seams, trimmings on the bodice but not generally on the skirts, round neckline with small Peter Pan collars, wide skirts with petticoats and hoop skirts underneath. Hair is parted in the center and pulled back over the ears, gathered into a chignon at the nape of the neck. Bonnets are narrow from side to side and high above the face.
1866-1869 – post Civil War era.There are many similarities to the Civil War era, but toward 1868 skirts begin trending toward an elliptical shape with more fabric in back. Shoulder seams are creeping higher.
1870-1876 – First Bustle era. The skirt has finally made its way to the back of the body with smooth fronts and padded and fluffed backs, giving women a very provocative form. Bodices feature shoulder seams that are more in line with the natural shoulder and remain there for the rest of the century. As the skirts get bigger the hats get smaller.
1877-1885 – Natural Form era. The body is accented in smooth lines that define the hourglass figure. The body is elongated in height, bodices trend toward longer and longer lengths as the later part of the period approaches. Skirts are straight and asymmetrical designs are popular. Hair is dressed high and hats are bigger.
1885-1890 – Second Bustle era. The bustle is back with a vengeance! Bodices are less trimmed and skirts are trimmed like there is no tomorrow. The bustle stands out as the focal point of the dress, with aprons and draperies accenting the smooth front of the skirt. Hair is dressed higher on the head, sausage curls and braids are popular. Hats are small brimmed and sit on top of the head.
1890-1900 – Belle Epoch or Gay 90s era. Bodices are trending toward a wide shoulder look again with pouffed sleeves, wide lapels, high necklines, lace trimmings, tiny waists. Skirts are smoothly draped and wide at the bottom, supported with several petticoats but no hoop. Hair is softly gathered on top of the head and hats are getting bigger again.