1870s - 1880s: Keeping Up: Changing Fashion

Between 1870 and 1890, fashion changed rather quickly. Women desiring to look “modern” followed fashion closely and adapted accordingly. Being up-to-date with the latest fashions and refined etiquette, allowed women to engage in elevated social circles and advance their status.

Ideas of feminine beauty changed after the Civil War. The prewar thin, frail, helpless appearance fell out of favor, replaced by the popularity of a more robust silhouette. Touring British and French stage performers had popularized more voluptuous figures. Many Germans had immigrated to America in the mid-nineteenth century bringing their ideal of physical fitness, which included a more stout appearance.

Throughout this period, women’s clothing remained restrictive, as did their political standing. In 1865, women who had previously fought for the right to vote supported voting rights of African-American men in hopes the circle of enfranchisement would extend to include women as well. When the Thirteenth amendment passed, suffragists were disappointed that voting rights extended exclusively to African-American men.

In just a few years from the late 1860s to the mid 1870s, skirts dramatically changed from the more or less bell-shape form of the previous 40 years. Dresses in the two decades following the Civil War exaggerated women’s curves. This was achieved through elaborate undergarments that added bustles to the customary corsets. Women were still tightly corseted through the hips, but the skirts became comparatively form fitting, and between 1870 and 1889 the bustles moved up or down to different locations on the back of the skirt, depending on the year. Sleeves became so tight and skirts were so restrictive that women could barely move.

Technological advances contributed to the increasing complexity of fashionable dress. While home sewing machines became more affordable after the Civil War, innovations in the industry made extremely complicated dresses possible. To achieve the refined dress details necessary to meet new fashionable standards, women required the services of professional dressmakers. Technology extended the need for professionally created custom dresses for women.

Growth of the Fashion Industry
Technology and a large labor pool including millions of new immigrants advanced mass production of ready-made clothes in the later decades of the nineteenth century. Innovations in industrial sewing, cutting, and in pressing machines enabled faster fabrication. Clothing production depended on a robust labor force. Massive immigration in this period provided cheap and often exploited labor, much of which was female. After cutting fabric to measure, pieces were often taken to “sweat shops” where women and children would sew for hours at a time.

By 1875, pioneering department store Montgomery Ward sold a limited number and styles of women’s suits, (as dresses were called), wraps, and cloaks out of their catalogue. Overall, however, the clothes-making industry began slowly producing ready-made clothing for women. Industry got off to a faster start with men, in part because the lines of men’s clothing were simpler. During the Civil War, manufacturers collected measurements of thousands of soldiers enabling them to develop a dependable sizing system.

In Chicago, the clothing industry focused on menswear. New York produced more women’s clothing. Chicago had numerous shops and factories scattered throughout the city, employing nearly 40,000, more than any other industry including meatpacking. About 60% were foreign born or were second-generation immigrants. Women made up half the work force, but performed the low-paid hand work. Men worked as higher-paid cutters and tailors.

Rural women always had access to fashion information. Godey’s Lady’s Book had wide circulation before the Civil War and other popular publications, such as Harper’s Bazaar, extended the fashion discussion for the rest of the century. Publications were shared among friends, and urban women often reported the latest fashion trends to their rural relations. Rural women frequently donned dresses with fashionable lines, but adapted the cuts and fabric to make the dresses more practical. According to fashion historian Joan Severa, studio portraits of women from various classes living in the Midwest do not show differences in taste or availability from fashionable clothing.