Sunday, September 18, 2016

Stylin' in the 1890s – Sarah Comments on Fashion

Was Sarah Eva Howe a fashionista of the 1890s? I'm sure she dressed stylishly. After all, her father and uncles owned the premier clothing store in Carrollton, Kentucky. They traveled to New York and other markets to select styles for fashion-conscious citizens of their town. Surely Sarah and others in her family dressed well to set the example.

Sarah's scrapbooks about the 1890s and early 1900s include many newspaper and magazine clippings about women's fashions of the day. I wish she had given us more photos of herself and her family in their favorite styles, but I've had to make some assumptions based on the clippings and Sarah's handwritten commentaries.

Sarah did sketches of favorite styles. This sketch, which she marked "a la Gainsborough," features a lady's hat and "fur boa." I think the phrase in parentheses says "not painted." I know Sarah did some paintings from her sketches, so apparently she remarked that she did not paint this one.

This clipping shows fashionable styles for little girls circa 1895. The caption says "for August." I suppose these outfits were lighter and cooler than what girls wore in the winter, but imagine today's active children wearing them on hot, humid summer days!

This beautiful dress is made of "lawn," a lightweight fabric used for summer styles. The caption calls it a walking dress. "All walking skirts in the 1890s were designed to completely clear the ground," reports one of my favorite websites for estimating when certain styles were popular. This one appears to have a short train, so I'm confused between the image and the definition.

I think Sarah must have been a big fan of walking dresses, because her scrapbook has many clippings of them. The sketch on the right, I think, meets the definition of a walking dress. The walking stick in the woman's hand is a clue. Judging from the sleeves, I'd date this style at 1896. The text under the drawing is part of an advice column published in the Ladies' Home Journal circa 1896.

The image below illustrates what a woman wore to work in an office. (It occurs to me that women who worked in the 1890s were probably single and self-supporting. I think it was rare for married women to work outside the home.) Note the sleeves. They are similar to examples I've seen dated 1895-96 on the website mentioned above and on another great fashion styles research site, a blog by Sara Elise.

In Sarah's handwriting below the image are her comments about sleeve styles and the trouble they caused, especially in summer.
This picture not only shows a desk like Papa used – his desk, a beautiful red cedar one with a roll top, sat in our parlor for many years (and we kept everything in it! besides papers, I mean)  – but shows the working clothes of the period 1895-96. Sleeves got much larger than this though, and were extended with patent linings. For summer, they presented a difficult problem – straps were sewed from arm hole to elbow, inside, and the full sleeves puffed out between them.

Sarah wasn't above poking fun at the absurdly puffy, "leg-of-mutton" sleeves of her day. She saved this cartoon in one of her scrapbooks.

Maybe the cape in the sketch on the right was an answer to staying warm during the puffed-sleeves era. Again, the magazine offers advice, this time cautioning against wearing a watch to a social function and recommending the proper veil to accent a riding habit.
An article published in the Journal in 1893 recommends the classic black serge bathing suit. I looked through Sarah's scrapbooks for images of swimwear from the period. Alas, no luck. I did find a great illustration online, though.

The drawing at the end of that article shows a woman shopping. Note that the sleeves are full from shoulder to elbow, but they are gathered – not puffed – at the shoulder. From my research, this appears to be typical of women's clothing between 1892 and 1895 or so. (Seems a lot more practical to me!)

Sarah's scrapbook mentions unmentionables. Apparently, she saw this Ladies' Home Journal clipping in one of the magazine's "flashback" columns in the mid-1940s, and it reminded her of a corset worn by her mother during the 1890s.

 . . . the corset – Mama  wore one, but without straps. Mama had some lovely summer clothes, but almost all in black and white; she was "in mourning" for someone almost my entire childhood, as was the custom in well regulated families, for in-laws, too. First for her baby who died in 1889, then for Grandpa Howe (1890) then Uncle John Howe in 1891, then her grandmother Cost died.

I haven't yet come across any photos of family members in mourning clothes, but the fashion blog I mentioned includes a photo of a mourning dress of the 1894-1896 period in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It also includes images of the strapless corset circa 1898, some outrageous red shoes dated 1892, an elegant wedding dress, a gym suit, and other fashions of that day.

Previous posts show Sarah and other family members dressed in styles of the times. I'll post more as I find them.

The following quotes come from Ladies' Home Journal articles pasted into Sarah's scrapbooks. They revisit columns the magazine published between 1890 and 1902. Enjoy!

“Yellow and pink alone or together will be extremely chic this spring,” writes Isabel Mallon in Some Easter Hats and Bonnets, “while flowers of every variety, from orchids to huge chrysanthemums, tulips, lilies and green roses, top the new chapeaux.”

“Country cousin: The bicycle dress should be light and free and loosely fitted. A whalebone bodice and riding trousers are worn under a shirtwaist of flannel, with a plain round skirt sufficient weighted in the hem to keep it in place.”

“Do you wear your hat right? . . . It should be worn almost square on the head. Who has not seen a bonnet on the back of the head, giving to the wearer an air of absolute dissipation? And again, a bonnet perched well forward on the face gives a savage air, decidedly suggestive of an inclination to fight.”

Children’s furs: A neck scarf of chinchilla, beaver, mink or Russian ermine varies in price from $2.50 to $20.

“Black velvet and accordion pleats are in again. A touch of gold is absolutely indispensable, but one must be chary in its use or a tawdry effect is given.”   

[Merriam-Webster definition of chary: cautious about doing something.]

To Baby’s mother: You will find that physicians do not approve of short socks at any age.”


Jim Dorris said...

I really enjoy these postings. What a gift--interesting writings from an interesting and literate young woman from long ago, complemented by interpretations and comments about the times from an interesting and literate older woman relative from today.

Thanks again

ScotSue said...

I have long been interested in historic costume and it is fascinating to read Sarah's first hand accounts and see her sketches. I especially liked the story of leg o' mutton sleeves. You do well to decipher Sarah's writing, as I find it quite tricky to read - it is as if she is in a great rush of enthusiasm to get her thoughts down on paper. You have such a wonderful source of social and family history and I am enjoying sharing in her life.

Frances Nelson Salyers said...

Thanks, Sue. I had a good time looking at fashions and thinking of wearing that much fabric in the heat of summertime!

Michelle Ganus Taggart said...

What a fascinating blog ! You do a beautiful job of sharing the scrapbook and pulling things together in a way that helps us envision it all.

(And great interview last week on Geneabloggers!)