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Last updated:29 dec 2010/csb

1890's Costume Hints

by Patri and Barbara Pugliese and Katy Bishop

Evening dress for ladies of the early 1890's consisted of a snugly fitting bodice and a gored or bell shaped skirt, narrow at the waist, but very full near the floor. The neckline was low in front, variously cut in a square, vee, rounded-vee, or round shape. Over the course of the early 1890's, sleeve styles varied from small bands of beading or lace to puffs of fabric as small as an orange or as extravagantly large as a melon. Evening dresses could have a train, but dedicated ball dresses did not. Shoes most commonly had heels of modest (about 1") height, the concave or "Louis" heel being particularly popular. White or cream colored gloves of kid or cotton extending to just below or above the elbow were worn at all times in the ballroom, except when taking refreshments.

Paris Opera Toilette, Harper's Bazar, 3 March 1894 An Evening Toilette, Harper's Bazar, 2 December 1893 Evening Toilettes, Harper's Bazar, 8 February 1896

Typical ballroom hairstyles featured hair pinned up in a bun high on the back of the head, with waves on the side and curled bangs or waves in front. Overall, this style was trimmer than the "Gibson Girl" style which succeeded it. The hair was customarily adorned with feathers, flowers or jeweled ornaments. Chokers or very short necklaces of pearls or sparkling stones were particularly popular, as were small drop earrings. A large fan made an attractive and useful accessory.

Paris Opera Toilette, Harper's Bazar, 24 November 1894 Reception Gown, Harper's Bazar, 8 September 1894 Evening Slippers, Harper's Bazar, 18 January 1896

While most of us do not have 1890's style ballgowns hanging in our closets, one might well have or be able to find an old party or prom dress which has similar lines. A plain neckline can be enlivened with a drape of lace pinned in place with a few sparkling brooches. A less than floor length skirt can be extended by adding a broad band of fabric, or by wearing the dress over a floor length skirt and perhaps pinning the shorter dress skirt into attractive puffs, scallops or swags. Unless the skirt is too narrow to allow it, a net petticoat or crinoline will contribute to the bell-like silhouette and give the skirt more flare.

Tuxedo, 1892
Tailcoat, 1899

The ideal evening dress for gentlemen for a ball or other formal evening activity consisted of a black tailcoat and trousers, black or white vest, white shirt with stand-up collar, white bow tie and black light-weight shoes or dress pumps. While the details of cut of a modern tailcoat differ from that of the 1890's, the differences are quite subtle, so that gentlemen will find that a modern black tailcoat, whether rented for the evening or purchased at a thrift shop or used clothing store, will do very well. Modern custom dictates a white vest with this coat; but in the nineteenth century a black vest was an equally popular alternative. The cummerbund was not, however, invented until several decades later. A modern wing-tip collar, a style which achieved popularity early in the twentieth century, is an anachronism, but a trivial one.


It was during the 1890's that the Tuxedo jacket first became popular for evening wear. Though considered less formal and therefore less appropriate for the ballroom than a tailcoat, this remains a legitimate period style that will fit in well with the spirit of the evening. As with the tailcoat, Tuxedo jackets were worn with vests rather than cummerbunds, in this case black was usually favored over white. In addition, black rather than white bow ties were favored with this style jacket.

As in the nineteenth century, the function of men's dress is to provide a setting that will allow the ladies to show off their own gowns all the more brilliantly. A gentleman wearing a plain dark suit can be confident that the details of his dress will pretty much escape notice and that he therefore need not be overly concerned with the matter.

For more pictures of 1890's evening dress including colored fashion plates, and information on hairstyles, accessories and period gown descriptions please visit Vintage Victorian's 1890 costume page

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