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1880s Brown Wool and Velvet Bustle Ensemble

From the 1870’s to the 1880s, women’s fashion went through three distinct periods that encompassed the rise, then fall, then rise of the bustle. From about 1869-1876, the so-called “Waterfall” period, bustles incorporating padding and petticoats, combined with trains, replaced crinoline and wire cages to give shape to dresses. From 1876-1882, designs shifted to a more natural figure that focused mostly on trains and skirts that fit tighter around the legs. Around 1883, the bustle returned with a vengeance, reaching its fullest form in the “Lobster Tail” in 1885, while trains decreased in focus and bodices increased in complexity. This ensemble dates between 1881-1883, due to its inclusion of a higher-cut to the bustle’s shape that increases the fullness of the hips, a skirt that fits closely to the legs, a short tail over the bustle, and a simple bodice style. These are all traits found in the garments of the early 1880s.

Ensemble (day dress) of brown merino wool and velvet, with basque bodice and bustled skirt; bodice has standing velvet collar and velvet lapels, center front button closure with brown crochet covered buttons, 2 piece set in sleeve with velvet cuff, brown polished cotton lining, metal boning inserted in seams and finished with off-white hand overcasting, inner waistband of off-white cotton twill tape with metal hook and eye closures; two layer full length bustle skirt: bottom layer has trim at hemline, swag on top has bustle at back, small bustle pad of net stuffing inserted in skirt at center back.

View of bodice and velvet accents

The high neckline reflects a return to that aspect of dresses in the first period, while the small, v-shaped collar and the buttons down the center of the bodice, as well as the use of two contrasting materials (wool and velvet) of the same color, reflect the fashion of the early 1880s. Although day dresses for all seasons commonly had long sleeves, the heavier fabric suggests that this was probably an autumn ensemble. The velvet accents on the collar and sleeve cuffs, on the center front of the bodice, and the side of the skirt, all add simple elegance to this respectable day dress. A garment such as this would have been a very viable option for a Vassar girl of the early 1880s.

With the advancement of technology and science, garment design shifted toward more stable and practical styles, though dresses remained elegant as well. This ensemble is an excellent example of these values and technology. With the invention as well as the developments of the sewing machine during this period, you can see that most of the seams are machine sewn, with the exception of the boning which has hand-sewn casings, however, they also appear to have been machine-sewn into the bodice. The inclusion of a built-in bustle pad further enhances the bustle’s practicality because it was easy to attach and difficult to lose, meaning that the owner would not need to replace these pads. This advancement and application of technology allowed for these simplifications, demonstrating the revolutionary ways the fashion industry was changing in this time.

 Dye recipe in "Textile Colorist: A Monthly Journal Devoted to Practical Dyeing, Bleaching, Printing and Finishing, Dyes, Dye-stuffs and Chemicals as Applied to Dyeing, Volume 1"

Recipe for Bismark Brown wool dye in the 1879 edition of 
"Textile Colorist: A Monthly Journal Devoted to Practical Dyeing, Bleaching, Printing and Finishing, Dyes, Dye-stuffs and Chemicals as Applied to Dyeing, Volume 1" 

Another example of this garment’s application of technology includes its apparent use of a revolutionary dye of the time called Bismarck Brown. Synthetic dyes had existed prior to the 1850's, beginning with a bright yellow used on silk in 1771 that was created using picric acid. Aniline dyes became increasingly popular after William Henry Perkin accidentally discovered the first coal-tar or aniline dye in 1856. Around 1858, Francois Emmanuel Verguin discovered fuschine, a rose-colored dye made with aniline and stannic chloride, and in 1863, Roberts, Dale, and Company discovered the color they named Bismarck Brown. As author Karl Aspelund wrote in his book Fashioning Society, “Paris was conquered in the summer of 1866 by a sea of [Bismarck] brown,” which became the “most popular color of the time.” The discovery of aniline dyes sparked a radical change in the fashion and textile industry because synthetic dyes require fewer ingredients, produce a consistent color, and are hardier than natural dyes, making them the most cost effective and practical to use in bulk. Bismarck Brown was not only a practical color for a day dress, but in the 1880s, twenty years after its entry into the fashion world, it remained de rigueur for the trendiest young women of the era.

- Maya Moiseyev-Foster, '20