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What Would Tacoma Wear?

Fashion in the 1880s

Written by Corin Fayé

Portions were originally published in the Eureka Times, 2009 Winter issue

Updated for blog publication in 2020 by: Holly Stewart, Program Manager

This is the first in a three-part series about women's fashion in the 1870s, 1880s and 1890s.

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A New Type of Bustle

The 1880s were a boom time, both in fashion and in Tacoma. By 1887, the Job Carr of 1865 would not have recognized the solid-looking town that had emerged with long avenues of brick buildings. Women's fashions were also changing quickly.

Women in the 1880s still wore the bustle, but the bustle itself changed shape. The Shelf Bustle's name speaks for itself. No longer did dresses descend within reasonable proximity to the back of a woman's waist; it remained level of her waist for a considerable expanse behind her, like a shelf, before descending to the floor in a cascade of brightly colored silk, sateen, gingham, batiste, crepe de Chine, and wool (the choice of fabrics of the wealthy). Popular colors were red, emerald and amber. Stripes, dots and floral prints were also in fashion.

An Alternative to the Bustle

Women realized, even at the height of the bustle's international popularity, that they were uncomfortable. Their recourse was the tea gown. The tea gown became widespread in the 1870s and 1880s as a less formal alternative to the heavy gowns many women wore in society. Tea gowns typically had no bustles and were made of a flowing light material like chiffon. A lady could receive close friends at her own home in a tea gown.

Despite being supposedly low-key, tea gowns could be just as much a statement of wealth as the draped ruffled, lacy, decorated bustle dresses themselves. In an era when mass-produced fabric and accessories were blurring the lines between classes, there was a made rush to decorate gowns and look as covered in finery as possible. The upper classes found refuge in dressing in the most expensive fabrics and by looking down on machine-made lace and other mass-produced filligree that middle and working class women could afford. In the end, however, even the wealthy began to use store-bought items.

The End of an Era

1889 was the year of reckoning for the bustle. Soon, skirts fell to the floor unhindered, and much of the rigging and expense that went in to the elaborate architecture of the Shelf Bustle were abandoned. Women wanted to move more quickly, be less constricted and have nicer clothes for less money.

Find out more about fashion trends in the 1890s in our next post.


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.