Fashioning the New Woman: 1890-1925

October 5, 2012 - August 31, 2013

During the years historians call the Progressive Era, American women took on many new roles and activities, and fashion had to follow. Active lives required practical clothes. This exhibit examines the changes in women’s lives and clothing during this critical period in women’s history.

Fashion Timeline

Within the drastic shift from the bustle of the late 1880s to the flapper of the 1920s, smaller style changes constantly occurred. Just like today, random taste shifts changed year to year. But the overall trend was away from bulky layers and fussy details, and towards manageable, practical, streamlined outfits for modern women to engage in the activities of their more active lives.

Evening Dress, 1888

Silk brocade, silk satin, silk chiffon, Brussels lace.

Worn by Adelaide Frisbie Farman.
This dress represents high fashion just before the emergence of the New Woman. The Victorian lady did not require comfort, but elegance. Her dresses were deliberately impractical, to show that she engaged in no useful or productive activity. Huge amounts of expensive fabrics signaled her status as a lady of leisure and taste.

Gift of A. Newbold Richardson
Dress Designed by Charles Frederick Worth, Paris
Afternoon Dress, about 1890

Ribbed silk faille, figured silk, ostrich feathers, jet bead trim.

The use of several heavy fabrics in different colors and textures and the large bustle, are typical of women’s fashions of the 1870s and 1880s, on the brink of the radical changes.

Layers of Underwear, 1880s: Achieving the Right Shape

Many layers were required to achieve the well-upholstered look of the Victorian lady. Washable cotton next to the skin protected finer outer fabrics.

Corsets, hoops, and bustles along with layers of petticoats created the fashionable shape.

Tweed Day Dress, 1894-5

Wool tweed, silk crepe, silk velvet.

The huge sleeves, ruffled bodice front, and wide skirt create an optical illusion, making the waist seem extra tiny. While this waist is quite small (21 1/2 inches) it is not out of proportion for the petite woman (about 5 feet) who wore it.

Day Dress, 1893-95

Purple chartreuse and black figured silk; machine-made cotton net lace.

The A-line skirt replaced cumbersome bustle skirts of previous decades, while sleeves went from tiny shoulder puffs in 1890 to huge “legs of mutton” in mid-decade.

Gift of Ms. Charlotte Carman and Ms. Ann G. Peavey
Day Dress, 1896

Roller printed cotton, silk twill; reproduction collar and belt.

After 1895, enormous sleeves gave way to slightly tamed puffs by 1896, and continued to diminish until sleeves were entirely snug in 1899.

Gift of Sue Butler
Evening Dress (Back View), 1896-7

Brocaded silk chiffon over black silk, beaded net trim, silk satin ribbons, lace, ostrich feathers.

Years after the bustle, dresses still had some fullness concentrated at the back. A slightly lowered neckline, sheer chiffon, and bows and feathers were appropriate for evening wear.

Day Dress, 1900

Cotton lawn, velvet collar and cuffs, cotton net and tape lace trim.

As the century turned, sleeves were completely fitted, and the new blousy draped bodice front would be popular for several years to come.

Corset, about 1900

Silk satin, net lace, silk grosgrain ribbon, metal boning and fastenings.

Thrusting the bust forward and the behind back, the turn of the century corset created the sinuous “S-curve” silhouette that was then the ideal. This posture was more uncomfortable than corsets of most other periods.

Courtesy of Mary Doering
Evening Dress, about 1900-05

Cream silk chiffon over silk satin; tape lace, metallic mesh, sequins and spangles; replacement underskirt.

Doucet was one of Paris’s leading couturiers. Sequins and metallic mesh (the skirt’s dark inserts were once shiny gold and silver) would have reflected candle, gas, or electric light of the evening setting.

Label: Doucet, 21 Rue de la Paix, Paris
Day Dress, 1903-04

Printed silk, silk chiffon, silk net, cotton lining; reproduction hat.

The draped bodice and slightly bustled back of the skirt combine to form the “S-curve” silhouette popular at the turn of the century. “Bishop” sleeves, with their fullness below the elbow and above deep cuffs, have replaced the sleeves of the previous decade.

Gift of Ms. Lise J. Williams
Evening Dress, about 1900

Green ribbed silk, embroidered silk crepe, silk grosgrain ribbon, cotton lace.

The low-cut neckline, heavy ribbed silk, metallic embroidery, and large panels of lace all proclaim this an evening dress. It has been remodeled around 1900 from an 1890s original design.

DAR Museum Piece
Tailored Suit, about 1905

Wool with soutache trim; cream silk faux vest with silk embroidery.

By 1905, tailored suits were a required item in every woman’s wardrobe, worn for almost any daytime event. Many, like this one, softened the “mannish” style with details such as this example’s soutache (flat braid) trim and embroidery.

Label: Jordan, New York; Friends of the Museum Purchase
Dress, 1904-6

Pink taffeta, cotton lace insertion and replacement taffeta lining.

Feminine, frothy dresses like this remained popular alongside newer tailored wardrobe options. The half-length, full sleeves and alternating vertical bands of lace and silk are typical details of the middle of this decade.

Private Lender