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Two Wisconsin women wearing conservative but fashionable gowns from 1873-1874. WHi(D31)395

Two Wisconsin women wearing conservative but fashionable gowns from 1873-1874.
WHi(D31)395

History of the 1874 Bustled Dinner Gown and Notes on Early 1870s Fashions

The Dinner Gown pattern is taken from a three-piece bright blue silk faille dress which has dark blue velveteen and white silk satin trim. Ida Louise Ela, an 18-year-old from a prominent Rochester, Wisconsin family, probably wore the original dress at the time of her older sister’s marriage in February of 1874.

These two ball gowns illustrate the amount of trimming and details an elaborate dress from 1874 could have. Le Moniteur des Dames et des Demoiselles, December 1874

These two ball gowns illustrate the amount of trimming and details an elaborate dress from 1874 could have. Le Moniteur des Dames et des Demoiselles, December 1874


According to period fashion magazines, Ida’s dress has the correct silhouette and fabrics. However, compared to most fashion illustrations, she trimmed it conservatively, so that its plain skirts lack the flounces and ruffles of more stylish outfits. Interestingly, in November 1873 Godey’s Magazine wrote that new dress skirts should not "be too elaborately trimmed, as the wheel of fashion is turning towards simpler styles. True elegance will be looked for in the perfection of cut, rather than in a profusion of ornaments." Yet few of their fashion illustrations ever matched Ida’s plainness of decoration.
The original bright blue silk fabric with white satin and blue velveteen trim from Ida's bustled dinner gown.
Ida’s vivid bright blue dress would have been considered a bit unusual at the time. Peterson’s Magazine wrote that the best colors should be "dark but faded" and that deep, full colors looked "raw and vulgar." Most of the colors listed in Harper’s Bazar and Peterson’s were soft subdued shades such as smoke gray, chestnut, and pale rose. Chemical dyes that could produce vibrant, intense colors had been invented in the previous decade. Generally they were deemed too striking for mature women, but adolescent girls like Ida may have considered the colors fun and beautiful.

Left: The original bright blue silk fabric with white satin and blue velveteen trim from Ida's bustled dinner gown.


A typical 1874 dress that is similar in style and trim to Ida's gown. Harper's Bazar, March 21, 1874

Ida created her gown with many of the typical features of an 1874 dress. These included a tightfitting, short-waisted bodice with a peplum and coat sleeves, a bustled apron-style overskirt, and an underskirt with a straight front and full back. When Ida’s gown was new, the three-piece bustled dress had been around for over five years, and its star was beginning to fade. In May 1874 Peterson’s wrote that "Many still cling to the graceful overskirt, with the puffed back, apron-front, and high looped sides. The style is old, but infinitely becoming to most persons." By September Harper’s Bazar predicted that "bustles will be abandoned" and the skirt "instead of being tightly drawn across the hips alone...will be so about the whole body."

A woman in a typical mid-1870s bustle, Harper's Bazar, October 30, 1875


For most of the early 1870s fashion had dictated that a trained dress be worn for all occasions, including walking in the street. In December 1873 Godey’s editors wrote of their disgust with this American practice of dragging dresses "through mud and dust," noting that it was not done in Paris. They went on to describe seeing dresses "three inches deep [and] thick with mud," and wondered what the underside must have looked like, "thankful...that we had come no nearer to [them] than the passing glimpse." Their disgust was tempered with a thankfulness that this trend seemed to be near its end. They noted that "American belles have at last proved sensible in again adopting [the short dress]" with the skirt "short enough to escape the ground." This is the type of dress Ida made for herself. She may have chosen this feature for practical reasons or she may have been persuaded by statements like those in Godey’s that short skirts were "much more neat and lady-like looking than a trained dress."

A "fishtail" bustle, Harper's Bazar, August 8, 1875


Perhaps the most conspicuous feature of Ida’s dress was the prominent bustle. In November of 1873 Godey’s wrote that "skirts no longer bulge out, except immediately below the back of the waist." The rest of the skirt was to be worn close to the body Godey’s noted, adding "all that clings is de riguer." Bustles in the early 1870s were usually worn high on the waist, curving out with a slight upward projection from the small of the back. They were meant to create a cascade of fabric down the legs. Though most bustles at this time were hip-length, a "fishtail" style was introduced in 1872-1873 that hung to the knees. Patterns of History’s 1873 Bustle pattern is an example of this type. Homemade bustles of the 1870s were usually not collapsible, which meant they could not be sat upon. So Ida, like other women, probably pushed her bustle to one side and balanced herself on one cheek when she sat down.


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©2002 Wisconsin Historical Society
Last updated April 02, 2002