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What Would Tacoma Wear?

Fashion in the 1890s

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

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Fashionable tea gown, ca. 1890

A New Decade of Style

At the dawn of the 1890s, fashions were becoming more practical for women. By the end of the Victorian era, Tacoma department stores carried simplified gowns. These flowing, graceful fabrics were worn at a time when societal values changed. Women were entering the workforce, riding bicycles, and gathering momentum for the suffrage movement.

Convenience and comfort slowly began to make headway in a fashion world formerly preoccupied with excess. Without the wire bustle and all its engineering, fashions became simpler and easier to wear in a town like Tacoma.

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Fashion plate ca. 1892

Women in the 1890s wore two-piece dresses as they had in the 1880s. However, what was formerly called the bodice was now called the shirtwaist or blouse. Although women dropped the bustle, they still had many layers of petticoats beneath their skirts, often rather stiff petticoats to preserve a definite shape to their gowns and conceal their legs. While Tacoma had its fair share of saloons and brothels, a woman showing her legs was still considered taboo.

Working and middle class women could wear the new ladies' suits that were plain and practical. These were simple outfits with fitted jackets, blouses and skirts made of linen or wool. They were often in brown or gray shades to hide the dust and dirt of daily life. By the end of the decade, pastel colors became popular. They could also afford to have a fashionable Sunday dress or two with machine-made lace and cheaper fabrics. The increase in ready-made garments, the lower cost of fabrics like velvet and silk, and the simplified fashions meant that all ladies in Tacoma could now afford to dress in the latest fashions.

Fashion-conscious and upper-class women would likely have worn lighter gowns made of finer, thinner material. Ladies having tea or going to an evening party in a Tacoma mansion would have worn the lacy, light evening gowns, oftentimes with a high waist drawn just under the bust in an effort to echo the Empire fashion of Napoleon I one hundred years before.

Another big change in fashions was the end of the bonnets and the rage for straw hats. Often our concept of towns of the American West include women wearing poke bonnets. These were likely present in Tacoma in the 1870s, but by the 1890s they would have been discarded even by working class women and replaced by wide straw hats often decorated with feathers, flowers, fake fruit, lace and other accessories.

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A young woman in a blouse, long skirt and straw hat rides her bicycle across Tacoma's Galliher Gulch bridge, constructed in 1896 by the Tacoma Wheelmen. ca. 1900, Source: Tacoma Public Library


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.