Gay Nineties Spring Fashion trends bloomed with stylish new colors and comforts. While designs were growing more streamlined than those of earlier decades, embellishments remained the key to a contemporary appearance. Vibrant new fabrics ruled the day. Garments for both day and evening wear often sparkled with embroidery, lace, velvet and satin details.
The last decade of the 1800s was a time of change with a new century on the horizon. The 1890s were years of mind-bending changes for the New Woman as she gained additional freedoms at home and in the workplace. Many engaged in sports once considered the playground for men only. Proponents of the Victorian Dress Reform Movement pushed harder than ever for clothing that was more practical and allowed greater freedom of movement.
Spoiler Alert: The Gay Nineties were not gay for everyone. Yes, it was a decade marked by excitement for advances in technology from the Second Industrial Revolution. There was a sense of awe for what was to come in the new century, as seen at the Columbian Exposition 1893. But while life was improving on many fronts, it was a troubled decade, particularly for the working class. According to Library of Congress:
“The period from 1894 to 1915 was a period of change, unrest, and economic uncertainty for the workers of the United States. Industrialism was growing largely unchecked in the United States after the Civil War, creating new jobs and new problems simultaneously.…A depression had begun in 1893 (following two others in the previous twenty years), forcing some plants to close and many workers into the ranks of the unemployed. Disputes between labor and management were rife.”
In Europe, the Belle Époque (1871-1914) was in full swing. There too, the wealthy became increasingly so, while the working class struggled harder than ever. But the fashion of the time was sublime.
Following is just a quick overview of Gay Nineties Spring Fashion.
The Bustle Was Out: The S-Shape Was In
The fashionable bustled silhouette of the late 1880s crept into the early years of the 1890s, but was in its demise. According to fashion historian, Jayne Shrimpton in Victorian Fashion, the protruding bustle was virtually gone by 1892.
Bell-shaped skirts gored to skim smoothly over the hips, defined the new S-Shaped silhouette. The waist was nipped in the middle to balance the width at the top and bottom of the ensemble.
According to the Fashion Institute of Technology, New York:
“Around 1897, the silhouette began to slowly shift with the introduction of the straight-front corset. Supposedly designed as a healthier alternative, these new corsets forced a woman’s chest forward and hips backward into a curvilinear “S” shape that became the dominant silhouette by 1900.”
The emphasis was on a narrow waist to showcase a large mono-bosom.
A Decorated Easter Bonnet Was A Must
Hats remained must-have items in every wardrobe, regardless of budget. The array of styles was overwhelming. The shapes and decorations changed monthly, although the trend moved toward smaller hats sitting squarely on top of the head. Hats were often heavily decorated with flowers, feathers, veils, netting and ribbons.
Thankfully, the use of real feathers was becoming increasingly tone deaf, given the rise of environmental awareness.
And Then Came Mauve: A Favorite Color Of Gay Nineties Spring Fashion
Until the mid-19th century, almost all dyes were plant based. In 1856, William Henry Perkins, an aspiring young chemist, made a chance discovery while attempting to create a chemically identical version of artificial quinine. With chemistry still in its infancy, most people considered it in the world of parlor tricks without practical applications. But Perkins changed a few minds when he stumbled on aniline dyes.
His discovery opened the world of fabrics to an amazing array of colors. One of those colors was mauve. By the 1890s, it became so popular, the era became nicknamed The Mauve Decade by Thomas Beer in his 1926 treatise on the Gay Nineties in America.
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