1888 style

Day dress, French, c1889. Photo: Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

I’m still hard at work on my novel set in 1888 but as I am having a bit of a break to do some research, I thought I would share some of it with you. Although the book is predominantly set in Whitechapel, some scenes are set in the well heeled Highbury home of one of the main characters, Alice Redmayne, and so I’ve been doing research not just into the conditions that ordinary East Enders lived in but also those enjoyed by their more fortunate fellow Londoners.

I picked on Highbury as I used to live there many MANY years ago and in fact decided to use the same road as I lived on for my characters as it was fortuitously coloured ‘yellow’ (meaning a dwelling place for the wealthy and upper crust) on the Booth’s poverty map. It’s also got some rather lovely detached and semi detached Victorian villas at the older end so I shoehorned Alice and her family into one of them.

But what sort of clothes would a wealthy young woman of 1888 have worn? Here’s the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art to the rescue as always!

Tea gown, Liberty, c1885. Photo: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

As Alice is the daughter of an eminent artist and has a bit of an artistic bent herself, I think she would have had a decided taste for the romantic loose fitting gowns produced by Liberty in the mid to late 1880s and which were so popularised by such fashionable ladies as Constance Wilde, Oscar’s pretty wife. A softly coloured dress like this would have been worn at home while relaxing or receiving visitors.

Gown, American, c1885-89. Photo: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

A dress like this one, high necked and long sleeved, would have been worn during the day. I often think that the back and side views of these gowns shows them at their best as the real beauty is in the elegant willowy shape revealed in profile and the careful bunching and draping of fabric behind. The front of such dresses is often a tad too fussy for my tastes.

Walking dress, Worth, c1885. Photo: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

This dress is a few years early but the elegant lines and the bustle would still be much the same in 1888 although becoming progressively less flamboyant. Alice would certainly have worn something like this while out during the day, especially in colder weather.

Afternoon dress, American, c1888. Photo: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

I love this dress from its deep blue shade to the pretty print to the soft brown velvet bows to the skittish kick back of the full skirts. It just has such a carefree feel to it, don’t you think? I can definitely see Alice in something like this and I know JUST the occasion for it as well.

Afternoon dress, Worth, 1888. Photo: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Being a Worth design, this dress is rather more elaborate than the last one and would probably have been a bit too grand for Alice when she went about her business, paying calls, visiting galleries and doing some light shopping as it’s probably more suited t to a fashionable young married lady than an unmarried girl. I really like the sash at the waist though and the subtle starburst patterning on the brown silk. Worth’s use of fabric is, as always, impeccable and inspired here.

Afternoon ensemble, American, 1885-88. Photo: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

This striking blue outfit, which comprises a dress and matching shawl would have been worn to make calls or go out and about during the day. The decoration is a bit fussy for me but I love the gracefully draped shape of the skirt and bustle, which I think is decoration enough.

Afternoon dress, Worth, 1889. Photo: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

This is an altogether simpler design, cut in the ‘princess line’ style, from Worth but is all the more elegant for it with plenty of grandeur in the lace trimming. I can definitely imagine Alice wearing something like this although she may well have thought the trimming a trifle ‘old’ for her.

Dinner dress, Worth, c1880-90. Photo: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

This is a lovely ensemble that would have been worn for less formal evenings spent at home. One of the things that I like best about the Worth dresses in the Metropolitan Museum of Art is that they were clearly made for ladies on the larger end of the scale rather than the willowy creatures with tiny waists that we usually associate with the period. I have a feeling that then as now, we larger ladies knew the value of a good cut to help us look our best and Worth was clearly a genius at accommodating them so they probably flocked to him.

Evening dress, Worth, 1888. Photo: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

This is a stunning gown with the Worth trademark eighteenth century details (in this case the love knot, a typically Rococo conceit) and wonderful use of a curiously modern looking fabric. Although this dress may be a tad too grand for an unmarried lady, I can see Alice in something similar as it isn’t too ostentatiously showy and is in the pale tones that conventional debutante damsels of the time were expected to wear when out at the opera.

Evening ensemble, Worth, 1887. Photo: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Again, as an unmarried lady, Alice probably wouldn’t have worn something quite this grand when out and about in the evening but she certainly would have seen other ladies dressed like this when going to the theatre or the opera. As is common for this period, this dress has some nods to eighteenth century styling in the shape and decoration. I also love its zesty lime green colour.

Evening ensemble, Worth, c1888. Photo: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

This ensemble of dress and evening jacket is FAR too grand for Miss Alice Redmayne but she would have worn things in a very similar style when out in the evening. I’m not sure who could carry this one off to be honest as it’s so incredibly fussy but I love the buttery yellow colour and the soft folds of the bustle.

Evening dress, Worth, 1880s. Photo: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

This dress is clearly WAY over the top but it’s still pretty marvellous isn’t it? What sort of lady do you think would have worn a dress like this? I’m thinking someone confident, a bit dashing and with artistic interests. Oh and very very rich.

Evening dress, American, 1885. Photo: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

This dress is a little early especially as, unlike, her fellow characters who live in Whitechapel, Alice doesn’t have to wear outmoded clothes, but who could resist that soft blue silk, those elegant little buttons up the front of the bodice or that wonderfully fluffy swansdown trimming? Not I, that’s for sure and I suspect not Alice either.

Ball gown, Worth, 1889. Photo: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

What an excellent dress and definitely one that I can imagine Alice wearing with its soft folds, green tones and delicate decoration. There’s something very arty and aesthetic about this one as well that I think would have appealed to her sensibilities.

Ball gown, Worth, 1888. Photo: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Two gorgeous ball gowns of the sort that would have graced the most refined and elegant ball rooms of London during the season. Again we have Worth’s trademark almost quirky handling of fabric and his usual eye for a bit of eighteenth century detailing.

Court presentation ensemble, Worth, 1888. Photo: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Presentation at court was one of the high points of any young girl’s life in this period and Alice, who would probably be presented, would have worn something very similar to this when she made her carefully choreographed curtseys at court although I suspect this particular dress was worn by a fabulously wealthy American heiress. As the court presentation gown was such a costly outfit and destined to only be worn once it was prudent to make it as multi purpose as possible to get some extra wear out of it – therefore this particular example has two bodices, extra sleeves, more skirt trimmings plus a detachable mantle to create a whole plethora (okay, a few) extra looks.

11 thoughts on “1888 style

  • Sarah Correia

    Lovely dresses. I can envision them on the character in my book too although they date from 10 years later.

    Seems to me that maybe the black & white polka dot dress could be a maternity ensemble.

  • Tina

    The burgundy with the dusky rose underskirt; the lime green ensemble, and the pink presentation at court gown — those are my favorites (I’m partial to pink and greens go with my red hair). But they’re all beautiful in their own way, and as a full-figured gal, I was pleasantly surprised and pleased to see the gown for someone who wants to look beautiful but not have the 18″ Scarlett O’Hara waist! Thanks again for sharing these gorgeous fashions!

  • Hester

    They really are stunning, but I can’t help wondering how on earth you sit down in the ones with the huge bustles?

  • Karen triggs

    thank you for uploading these images; the dresses are just gorgeous. I will definitely be putting this gallery high on my list of places to visit when I’m in London later this year.

  • Sara

    So exquisite…In terms of costume and textile history, it would be good to have access to some details of manufacture and construction. Were the details hand-embroidered, for example, or were there already methods of producing faux embroidery? How were the polka-dots produced? It seems unlikely that even Worth gowns would be primarily made by hand.

    On the other hand, do you know if the Met curators have tried to make patterns from these garments so they can be reproduced? Is there a source of technical detail about their costume collection?

    The Met’s costume collection is arguably one of the two or three largest and finest in the world. The Fashion Institute of Technology–also in NYC–also has a large collection.

  • yvonne

    I am impressed, this is a wonderful post.
    My favorite was the brown velvet and lace dress.
    They are all wonderful, you did a great jop and lots of work. Thank you

  • Cathy Bryant

    *drool*. One of my prized possessions is a silver Victorian button hook for doing up all those little buttons on bodices and boots. Now all I need is one of these gowns to go with it…thank you for including the plus size Worth gown. Lovely to see that not *all* women in history were wasp-waisted.

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