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Fashion in the 1890s in European and European-influenced countries is characterized by long elegant lines, tall collars, and the rise of sportswear. It was an era of great dress reforms led by the invention of the drop-frame safety bicycle, which allowed women the opportunity to ride bicycles more comfortably, and therefore, created the need for appropriate clothing.
Another great influence on women's fashions of this era, particularly among those considered part of the Aesthetic movement in America, was the political and cultural climate. Because women were taking a more active role in their communities, in the political world, and in society as a whole, their dress reflected this change. The more freedom to experience life outside the home that women of the Gilded Age acquired, the more freedom of movement was experienced in fashions as well. As the emphasis on athleticism influenced a change in garments which allowed for freedom of movement, the emphasis on less rigid gender roles influenced a change in dress which allowed for more self-expression, and a more natural silhouette of women’s bodies were revealed. Corsets were rejected in favor of more comfortable, free-flowing skirts and dresses which, before the Aesthetic movement prevailed, would not have been acceptable in public.
Fashionable women's clothing styles shed some of the extravagances of previous decades (so that skirts were neither crinolined as in the 1850s, nor protrudingly bustled in back as in the late 1860s and mid-1880s, nor tight as in the late 1870s), but corseting continued unmitigated, or even slightly increased in severity. Early 1890s dresses consisted of a tight bodice with the skirt gathered at the waist and falling more naturally over the hips and undergarments than in previous years. Puffy leg-of-mutton sleeves (also known as gigot sleeves) made a comeback, growing bigger each year until reaching their largest size around 1895.
During the mid-1890s, skirts took on an A-line silhouette that was almost bell-like. The late 1890s returned to tighter sleeves often with small puffs or ruffles capping the shoulder but fitted to the wrist. Skirts took on a trumpet shape, fitting more closely over the hip and flaring just above the knee. Corsets in the 1890s helped define the hourglass figure as immortalized by artist Charles Dana Gibson. In the very late 1890s, the corset elongated, giving the women a slight S-bend silhouette that would be popular well into the Edwardian era.
Changing attitudes about acceptable activities for women also made sportswear popular for women, with such notable examples as the bicycling dress and the tennis dress.
Unfussy, tailored clothes, adapted from the earlier theme of men's tailoring and simplicity of form, were worn for outdoor activities and traveling. The shirtwaist, a costume with a bodice or waist tailored like a man's shirt with a high collar, was adopted for informal daywear and became the uniform of working women. Walking suits featured ankle-length skirts with matching jackets. The notion of "rational dress" for women's health was a widely discussed topic in 1891, which led to the development of sports dress. This included ample skirts with a belted blouse for hockey. In addition, cycling became very popular and led to the development of "cycling costumes", which were shorter skirts or "bloomers" which were Turkish trouser style outfits. By the 1890s, women bicyclists increasingly wore bloomers in public and in the company of men as well as other women. Bloomers seem to have been more commonly worn in Paris than in England or the United States and became quite popular and fashionable. In the United States, bloomers were more intended for exercise than fashion. The rise of American women's college sports in the 1890s created a need for more unencumbered movement than exercise skirts would allow. By the end of the decade, most colleges that admitted women had women's basketball teams, all outfitted in bloomers. Across the nation's campuses, baggy bloomers were paired with blouses to create the first women's gym uniforms.
The rainy daisy was a style of walking or sports skirt introduced during this decade, allegedly named after Daisy Miller, but also named for its practicality in wet weather, as the shorter hemlines did not soak up puddles of water. They were particularly useful for cycling, walking or sporting pursuits as the shorter hems were less likely to catch in the bicycle mechanisms or underfoot, and enabled freer movement.
Swimwear was also developed, usually made of navy blue wool with a long tunic over full knickers.
Afternoon dresses typical of the time period had high necks, wasp waists, puffed sleeves and bell-shaped skirts. Evening gowns had a squared decolletage, a wasp-waist cut and skirts with long trains.
The 1890s in both Europe and North America saw growing acceptance of artistic or aesthetic dress as mainstream fashion influenced by the philosophies of John Ruskin and William Morris. This was especially seen in the adoption of the uncorseted tea gown for at-home wear. In the United States during this period, Dress, the Jenness Miller Magazine (1887–1898) , reported that tea gowns were being worn outside the home for the first time in fashionable summer resorts.
Before women acquired a more prominent role outside the home, before they were involved in more community, cultural and political pursuits, a more traditionally Victorian, restrained, and what was considered modest dress dominated. As Mary Blanchard writes in her article in The American History Review, “Boundaries and the Victorian Body: Aesthetic Fashion in Gilded Age America,” “Little noticed, but crucial, was a shift in attitudes toward women's fashion in the 1870s and 1880s, a countercultural shift taking place under the aegis of the Aesthetic Movement. At this time, some women used their bodies and their dress as public art forms not only to defy the moral implications of domesticity but to assume cultural agency in their society at large.” (Blanchard, page 22)
Hairstyles at the start of the decade were simply a carry-over from the 1880s styles that included curled or frizzled bangs over the forehead as well as hair swept to the top of the head, but after 1892, hairstyles became increasingly influenced by the Gibson Girl. By the mid-1890s, hair had become looser and wavier and bangs gradually faded from high fashion. By the end of the decade, hair was often worn in a large mass with a bun at the top of the head, a style that would be predominant during the first decade of the 20th century.
High tab front shoes with a large buckle had made a comeback in the 1870s and were again revived in the 1890s. This popular style of shoe had a few names such as “Cromwell," "Colonial," and "Molière". At this time materials such as suede, leather, lace and metal were used to fashion the shoe and decorate it. Suede was new to the market in 1890 and was available in a few pale shades.
The shift toward functional fashion also affected women's athletic wear. Women in Paris began wearing bloomers when bicycling as early as 1893, while in England lower bicycle frames accommodated the dresses that women continued to wear for bicycling. Long floor length dresses gradually gave way to shorter hemlines and a more casual style of athletic clothing. Similarly, bathing suits also became shorter and less covered — yet another example of the beginnings of a shift in dress toward greater freedom and functionality.
The overall silhouette of the 1890s was long, lean, and athletic. Hair was generally worn short, often with a pointed beard and generous moustache.
By the 1890s, the sack coat (UK lounge coat) was fast replacing the frock coat for most informal and semi-formal occasions. Three-piece suits ("ditto suits") consisting of a sack coat with matching waistcoat (U.S. vest) and trousers were worn, as were matching coat and waistcoat with contrasting trousers. Contrasting waistcoats were popular, and could be made with or without collars and lapels. The usual style was single-breasted.
The Norfolk jacket remained fashionable for shooting and rugged outdoor pursuits. It was made of sturdy tweed or similar fabric and featured paired box pleats over the chest and back, with a fabric belt. Worn with matching breeches (or U.S. knickerbockers), it became the Norfolk suit, suitable for bicycling or golf with knee-length stockings and low shoes, or for hunting with sturdy boots or shoes with leather gaiters.
The cutaway morning coat was still worn for formal day occasions in Europe and major cities elsewhere.
The most formal evening dress remained a dark tail coat and trousers with a dark or light waistcoat. Evening wear was worn with a white bow tie and a shirt with a winged collar.
The less formal dinner jacket or tuxedo, which featured a shawl collar with silk or satin facings, now generally had a single button. Dinner jackets were appropriate formal wear when "dressing for dinner" at home or at a men's club. The dinner jacket was worn with a white shirt and a dark tie.
Shirt collars were turned over or pressed into "wings", and became taller through the decade. Dress shirts had stiff fronts, sometimes decorated with shirt studs and buttoned up the back. Striped shirts were popular for informal occasions.
The usual necktie was a four-in-hand or an Ascot tie, made up as a neckband with wide wings attached and worn with a stickpin, but the 1890s also saw the return of the bow tie (in various proportions) for day dress.
As earlier in the century, top hats remained a requirement for upper class formal wear; bowlers and soft felt hats in a variety of shapes were worn for more casual occasions, and flat straw boaters were worn for yachting and at the seashore.