Women's Fashion in the 1870s
Tacoma's prosperity was growing rapidly when the railroad arrived in the 1870s. The frontier city, whose spot was first staked by Job Carr in 1865, was officially platted in 1869—the year hoopskirts disappeared from high fashion. Of course, Tacoma would not have felt these fashion revolutions much at that time, but in 1873 the trains first steamed into town with supplies of fabric, fashion plates, and the resources necessary to dress Tacoma up in the latest modes from France and the East Coast of the United States. The bustle, of course, came trundling along with them.
Tacoma was a bustling town and the women in town quickly adopted the latest fashions and accessories. The bustle, a term used to describe the extension of a woman’s dress to extreme proportions at her derriere, defined fashion and elegance from the year of Tacoma’s founding until well into its established cityhood.
Times were changing quickly -- Tacoma was booming, and formerly expensive fabrics and filigree were now cheaper thanks to mass production. Even working class women could afford a good Sunday dress, though perhaps without the bustle, while middle and upper class women would have worn some version of the bustle with dresses made of silk, foulard, alpaca and velvet.
Portrait of Anthony and Josephine Carr, ca. 1870
A day of shopping in Old Town or in New Tacoma would have entailed, for a middle-class or upper-class woman, a bustled skirt. Gowns were in two pieces, the bodice and the skirt, because the skirts themselves were so heavy that they would have pulled the bodice down; the bustle was designed to mitigate the weight and drag of immense folds of heavy cloth. Popular colors for formals gowns of the 1870s were gray, black, maroon, plum, emerald, browns, and sapphire blue.
Wives of notable and wealthy men would have worn such gowns for social events, though the pattern for their dresses might not have been as dramatic as European or East Coast fashion plates prescribed. Even given the immense growth and relative sophistication of Tacoma in the 1870s, it is likely that the fashions would have been simplified for all but the wealthiest ladies. These women would probably have worn conservative dresses made of durable brown, gray and black linen when contending with the mud and dust of the unpaved streets.
The bustle itself was made in various styles, but typically it was funnel-shaped wire tube with its narrowest point at the woman's waist and the widest point at the floor, where the heavy folds of the dress it supported would open into a train. It's uncertain how Tacoma women wore these fashions -- whether they modified them, which is more than likely, or whether they tried to wear them exactly as the women in La Mode Illustree wore them. A women could imitate the bustle effect by sewing together extra yards of cloth at the back of her dress, forming an elegantly rumpled train that would follow her about at an evening party.
Portrait of Marietta Carr, ca. 1870
A wealthy lady attending perhaps a Christmas Eve party and dance would wear an evening gown with a low neckline, or décolletage. After putting on the corset and bodice, she would attach a bustle, then fasten the petticoats and skirt over. Her hair, in this decade, may have been worn coiled in brads at the back of her head and her accessories likely included gloves and a fan. Somehow women managed to dance lively dances in corsets, wearing more than ten pounds of skirts and probably the equivalent in hair, with a bustle swinging around behind them.
Dresses in the 1870s had more variety than the hoopskirts of the previous decade. The gowns of the 1870s included the Princess cut, a dress that was figured almost exactly to the lady's form in front, narrower about her legs than dresses had ever been before. Princess cuts made for slightly scandalous evening wear, but also made very practical traveling outfits because of the relative simplicity of the style. However, the narrowness of the skirt about the woman's legs and then the long, gathered train behind her often gave her the look a mermaid.
The bustle soon underwent an evolution. In the mid-1870s, the bustle was slim and narrow, made of small, pliable hoops, clinging relatively close to the lady's figure. By the end of the decade, it seemed almost about to die out. But no, it returned in full force in the 1880s, this time in the form of the Shelf Bustle.
Harris, Kristina. Victorian and Edwardian Fashions for Women. Schiffer Publishing: Atglen, PA, 2002.
Olian, Joanne. Ed. Victorian and Edwardian Fashions from "La Mode Illustree." Dover Publications, Inc.: Mineola, NY, 1998.
Olian, Joanne. Ed. Wedding Fashions 1862-1912 from "La Mode Illustree." Dover Publications, Inc.: Mineola, NY, 1994.
About the Author
In 2008, the museum welcomed Corin Fayé as a volunteer. He came to the museum through his volunteer work with AmeriCorp where he spent his days working with kids who struggled to read. With his love of research, reading and writing -- combined with his BA in English from Whitworth University -- he was a perfect fit to spend some of his evening hours working as our "library lion." We were fortunate to have him as a regular research contributor.
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