Women’s clothing went through some big changes in the 1890s. Bustles disappeared, as did trails. Skirt shortened and lost layers of petticoats and frills. In the mid-1890s, the simple ensemble separate became the most popular and widely worn attire, ushering in a long season of increasing movement freedom in women’s fashion.
Women’s clothing up to the end of the 1800s was a serious affair. Comprising corsets, many layers of petticoats, pudding and a lot of fabric, these clothes were heavy and hindered movement considerably. Women were also expected to wear different attires at different times and occasions during the day. Being fashionable required money to invest and a lot of maintenance.
But in the 1890s, women started to demand more freedom of movement as they went to university and worked outside the house in increasing numbers. Clothe designers soon caught up on the trend.
By the mid-1890s, the ensemble separates became the last word on women’s fashion. It was a kind of dress that was easier to wear, allowed ease of movement and higher freedom, and was acceptable on most daily occasons.
This was the dress the New Woman chose for herself.
The New Woman appropriate the ensemble separates
The ensemble consisted of a shirtwaist and a bell-shaped skirt that were mass-produced in standardized sizes.
It allowed women to match different shirtwaists with different skirts and vice versa, creating a variety of outfits according to the occasion while giving the impression to have a larger wardrobe than was actually the case.
Because it was generally mass-produced, the ensemble came at lower prices and allowed more women to participate in this mainstream fashion.
As the decade wore on, skirts and shirtwaists became available in a great variety of colours and shapes, with more or less embroidery and decorations. This allowed women to create their own wardrobe, according to their personal taste and personality, with the opportunity to wear the appropriate outfit according to the occasion and always look respectable.
The revolution of the shirtwaist
The shirtwaist was an important part of this revolution in women’s fashion.
It was a derivation of the men’s shirt and bore the same adaptability to mass production, though it was adapted to the woman’s body. Women had worn it under tailored suits since the 1860s, but only in the 1890s, as women shed layers of clothing, the shirtwaist became a garment that was acceptable to wear with just a skirt.
The adoption of masculine elements into feminine attire was nothing new, but the shirtwaist marked a passage in understanding what feminine beauty was. The Gibson Girl who wore the ensemble was a much more active, more athletic and even more muscular – in short, more masculine – woman than her predecessors, but this didn’t detract from her beauty and attraction. It was indeed a new concept of beauty.
The essential simplicity of the shirtwaist allowed it to be adopted and appropriated by different sections of society and classes and was particularly significant for women belonging to minority groups, like immigrants or African Americans. Because the shirtwaist was a ready-made piece of clothing coming in standardized sizes and fashions, it allowed women of all walks of life to afford it, becoming part of this mainstream fashion.
Being able to buy a fashionable shirtwaist rather than making it at home (as it was common for lower-class women) changed the perception these women had of themselves. They could participate, and therefore appropriate, the latest fashion as well as the concept of New Woman, entering that logic, whether they were consciously doing it or not.
Wearing a shirtwaist was an experience of surprising liberation for many women.Ensemble Separates (Enter the New Woman #AtoZChallenge 2022) The Gibson Girl's modern attire, that allowed more freedom of movement #WomenFashion #WomenHistory Click To Tweet
Eabinovitch-Foz, Einan. Dressed for Freedom : The Fashionable Politics of American Feminism. University of Illinois Press, Champaign, Illinois, United States of America, 2021
Fashion History Timeline – 1890-1899