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1890's Wool Suit

unnamedMary Dotson shares with us pictures of an 1890's wool tailored suit from her collection. Marion McNealy flips through her late 1890's fashion magazine collection and not only dates the suit to a specific season and year but finds the fashion plate that probably inspired it.


About ten years ago, I was approached by a vintage clothing dealer who though I might fit an 1890s dress that she was in the process of having relined.

I was a person who wanted to only buy clothing I could wear--so while I loved shopping for vintage wear, I'd kept away from anything older than the 1930s up to that point. To be honest, I was a bit dubious that an outfit over a hundred years old could be relined, much less in wearable condition. However, when I saw the dress--with the lining partially in place--I was surprised that indeed, it was possible.

The dress was made of the heaviest possible green and black wool--and really the lining had almost no structural function (unlike most Victorian clothing I've seen) simply because the fashion fabric was so dense. It had been sewn originally in one single layer, then the original lining was basted in place.


The original dress was lined with black silk crepe, which had shattered. The dealer made a conscious decision that relining it would make the outfit look most like it was intended, especially in the very dramatic revers. Unfortunately, silk crepe is a fabric (a very dull, flat silk) that is no longer manufactured. With my agreement, her seamstress replaced it with a dull black cotton that looks--but does not feel--like the original lining.

The collar is held in place by strips of whalebone, which unfortunately are now completely sealed inside the lining, ( I wish I could show them to YWU readers). They are sewn in at both sides of the notches of the revers and radiating outward in the back. Interestingly, I have read that collars of this type were often supported by wire--but there is no wire in this one.

Late Victorian, Front of the collar Late Victorian, Back of the collar


The construction is deceptively simple, when one considers that the fabric is too heavy for pins. The sleeves have voluminous pleats towards the back of the armscye, the front basque is cut on a bias, the bust area is fitted with front pleats and the back is fitted by princess seams that end in large reverse box pleats. The design also permits a surprisingly large range of movement--which is indicative of the social changes of the end of the 19th century. The big sleeves have a large volume of fabric drawn to the back--making the arms appear pressed back when in fact, the sleeves accommodate a full range of motion without resistance. Similarly, the wide skirt permits--but hides--a wide range of movement in the legs.

Late Victorian Suit Detail of Waist Detail of Waist closure
Back of the Jacket Back of the Jacket, showing the pleats Back of the Jacket, showing the pleats open
Front of the sleeves Top  of the sleeve head, showing the pleats Upper sleeve, from the back

 

In the photos, you will notice that the wool shines. That reflective quality is real, the wool has a little silk fiber mixed in to give it that sheen. From what the dealer told me, the family that sold her the dress was a prosperous family from central Pennslyvania. The dress combines very stylish, but simple lines with a very sturdy, functional, but subtly luxurious fabric.

This gown has always been known to me as my "skating dress" since one of the first times I wore it out, I went skating at the ice rink outside the Smithsonian's castle building (one of the few Victorian landmarks in Washington, DC). The day I wore it, it was terribly cold--and my wonderfully attired husband froze in his tails and tophat. I wore this gown with a simple black highnecked shirtwaist, leather gloves and a purely decorative hat. I stayed warm, despite the weather--and staff from the museum came out and asked me to pose for their own photographer! It left me understanding that the right clothing could make drafty, cold conditions comfortable. However, it is not something that is at all comfortable when the indoors is heated or in the summertime--it is very, very warm.

 

Historic Fashion Analysis by Marion McNealy

The late 1890's were a time of huge fashion changes. The sleeves went from voluminous leg-of-mutton sleeves in 1896 to narrow fitted sleeves by the end of 1899. Skirts also dramatically changed from the bell shape of the early to mid 1890's to be very fitted through the hips and then flaring below into a lily shape by the end of 1899.

 

Four "Street Toilettes" from 1896 to 1899

Delineator November 1896, Color plate 27 Delineator, October 1897, pg 381 Delineator February 1898, pg 160 Delineator December 1899, pg 636
Delineator, November 1896 Delineator, October 1897 Delineator, February 1898 Delineator, December 1899

 

Dating the Suit

There are several key features that helped to date this suit.

  • Cut and width of the skirt - Still a bell gored skirt, but not as full as 1896.
  • Size of the sleeve heads - The sleeves are full, but not overly so, and are pleated not darted, dating it to to 1898-99
  • Shape of the collar - High collars in the Medici or Lafayette style were only in fashion from early 1897 to late 1899
  • Pouching of the jacket front - only found Winter 1898
  • Size and shape of the lapels - Very distinctive lapel shape, especially combined with the collar - found late 1898-99
  • The very distictive belt only in front, with the fitted jacket back. - Very much in the "Russian" style of Fall/Winter 1898

 

In the February 1898 issue of the Delineator, the Russian style influnces continues from Fall 1897, with jackets having a "pouching" effect for the first time, overlapping fronts and high collars. Up to this point, pouching effect had been reserved for waists, and rightly so as melton and other heavy coat wools don't take gathering well! Pouching on coats was a short lived fashion, by the Fall of 1898 there is no trace of it and jackets have gone back to their tailored fitted shapes, with pouching being reserved for lighter weight fabrics in waists and gowns. By Fall 1898-Winter 1899, fashion had changed and Russian styles were out, and Spanish styles were in.

Here is the suit compared with a Russian style Street Toilette from the February 1898 Delineator. Its almost a perfect match!

Tailored Suit Jacket back Tailored Jacket, front
Feb_1898_pg160 Feb_1898_pg153

Delineator, February 1898, pg 160 Ladies' Street Toilette

 

9609 Ladies Russian Coat

9571 Six gored skirt

 

Delineator, February 1898 - Pattern # 9609 Ladies Russian Coat or Jacket with Coat-fitted back

 

From the February 1898 Delineator, the description of the jacket.

9609 Ladies Russian Coat or Jacket, with coat fitted back. To be made in either of two lengths, with the sleeves box-plaited or gathered, with a Lafayette collar or a standing military collar and with the overlapping fronts closed to the top or rolled in a lapel to the bust or waist.

This coat or jacket displays a trip coat-fitted back and blouse fronts in the Russian style. It is here illustrated in dark-blue broadcloth. At the sides and back it is fitted with underarm and side back gores and a center seam and coat laps and coat plaits are arranged in regular coat style.

The fronts may be lapped so as to close on the left side in Russian style, or the right front may be rolled over in a pointed lapel to the waist or bust, as illustrated. The fronts are smooth at the top but have fullness collected by two rows of shirring at the bottom, the shirring being tacked to a belt stay so as to make the fronts pouch in the fashionable way over shaped belt sections that are included in the under-arm seams and fastened with a buckle at the center of the front. The coat is lengthened at the front by smooth front skirts that lap with the fronts. The neck may be completed with a standing military collar or with a high flaring Lafayette collar that is composed of four joined sections. Two seam sleeves may be arranged in five box plaits or gathered at the top. The coat may be made in one of two lengths as illustrated.

Velvet, kersey, diagonal, melton and fancy coating will make a stylish coat of this kind. Velvet or silk could be used for facing or inlaying of the lapen and fur band of any variety admired and braid will be very appropriate for decoration.

 

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