The Early Years of La Belle Epoque

Colin Lawton Johnson contributes his research on the fashion of the day.

The late Victorian era - the beginning of an era known as "la belle époque" or "the beautiful period" (1890-1914) - is a fascinating time for women's fashion. The following excerpts from The Mode in Costume, by R. Turner Wilcox, illustrate precisely and clearly the fashions current:


With 1890, the bustle disappeared, along with tied-up skirt drapery. The general design in costume became less complicated, although two or three fabrics were combined in one garment. As a rule, skirts fitted snugly over the hips, flaring to the floor in bell shape and ending in a train, which was worn all hours of the day, even when walking. In the streets, skirts were held up to one side, the proper handling of which became an art and a gesture, very characteristic of the period.


Latest Paris Fashions, supplement to The Queen, November 4, 1893

The skirt was cut in many gores and not only lined from waist to hem with silk, cambric or sateen but also interline with stiffening, the whole hanging from a narrow belt. In fact, in this period, even washable fabrics were silk lined, stiff taffeta being the most desirable because of its rustling sound or "frou-frou". Added to which were the ruffled taffeta petticoats of all colors, snug-fitting to the knee and flaring out below. The sleek "hourglass" silhouette caused the elimination of petticoats down to but one, and that fitted over the hips.

The "leg-o-mutton" sleeve, stiffened with tarlatan, buckram and lining reappeared and grew to enormous proportions. The puff reached to the elbow with the forearm section tightly fitted, followed in 1899 by the long slim tight sleeve. Evening gowns were sleeveless or had short puffed sleeves. The breadth of the shoulders was further enhanced by short capes, deep lace ruffles from neck to shoulder and wide circular bretelles. The deep pointed bodice was reinforced with whalebone and lining.

The soft, full overhanging blouse, either separate or part of the gown and always finished with a belt, is definitely of the "nineties". It was fashioned of a soft, sheer fabric and ornamented with embroidery, beads braid, lace and insertion.

The collar of the day dress was high, sometimes finished with a large tulle or lace bow placed either front or back. Small neck ruffs of tulle or ribbon loops were often won with the low round décolletage.


The princess silhouette of glove-like fit, tea gown and ball gown, and in 1899, the striking black spangled evening gown, followed later by colored spangles. Of the period was the fitted bolero jacket worn over the princess gown or the full blouse.

The vogue for costly lace, a novelty being bands of black lace insertion. Necks, wrists and fronts of blouses were finished with lace frills were in fashion. There were evening gowns made entirely of lace over taffeta. The chemise and drawers of fine linen, batiste, pale silks and satinet were lavishly lace-trimmed and beribboned. The lace edged, flounced petticoat in silk, linen or nainsook created a pretty effect, typical of the period, held to one side when walking.

Flounces were concentrated upon and accordion pleating was much favored, sometimes the whole gown being pleated. Materials were tucked, quilted, and laces were threaded with silk or velvet ribbon. Embroidery in silk and gold tinsel, pearl and crystal beads and gold lace insertion. The textiles of the decade were foulard, moiré, figured satin, damask, poplin, serge, muslin and tulle. Cloth was trimmed with rows of machine stitching, as it had only over the 40 years prior when sewing machines gained in popularity.

As to wraps, for which fawn and gray were the favorite colors, there were finger tip length capes. Capes were two or three tiered, severely tailored or elaborately trimmed. Winter wraps were of velvet or cloth bordered with fur, while summer mantels were of silk and finished with embroidery, lace and pleated ruffles. Characteristic of the period is the full-length mastic-colored cloth with side lapels and flaring collar.

A different outfit was required for each occasion, and the society woman changed her clothes several times a day. The specialization of costume for the specific occasion began to take shape in the nineties, and sports clothes following the English style. Yachting, lawn tennis, bicycling and golf became popular, necessitating more practical clothes. The smart woman wore the "shirtwaist" and separate skirt with golf cape or Norfolk jacket for golf, and when bicycling, a short skirt or full bloomers with a fitted jacket. The tailored separate skirt of walking length was the "rainy day skirt". The tailored suit with jacket, skirt and "shirtwaist" took firm hold and survived half a century.

Such sport clothes were made of homespun, coarse masculine tweeds and double-faced Oxford cloths. Colors were somber in dark blue, brown, Oxford gray and plaids. The tailored shirtwaist which accompanied such a suit was mannish with stiffly starched collar and cuffs, the collar either standing or turned down. A small felt fedora or sailor completed the costume.

The corset of firm heavy satin, in black or color, while lower than that of preceding years and only just covering the hips, was straight in front and decidedly fitted in at the waist, producing the "wasp-waist" effect. The entire garment was heavily boned with steel and whalebone. An 18 inch waist was the desired and admired size of the day. The chemise was worn next to the body, the corset over and the drawers over the corset. "Kangaroo walk" was the name given by humorists to the movement resulting from the figure encased in the straight front corset.

Small hats in toque form and hats with brims of moderate size were perched high on the head, invariably worn with the lace veil tied in back. Ornamentation consisted of Bird of Paradise feathers, aigrettes, ostrich plume, wings, ribbon, jet, artificial violets and roses.

The former sleek effect in hairdressing was discarded in favor of fluffy effect in which tiny curls softened the neckline and framed the face. The hair was simply dressed, drawn up into a knot on the top of the head. Small black and white ostrich tips with short aigrettes were added for evening wear.

A touch of rouge and a dash of rice powder sufficed in cosmetics, although, before the end of the period, cold cream was being used and "costly" perfumes were introduced.

The fashionable furs were chinchilla, Russian sable, seal and Persian lamb, of which scarves, capes, jackets and small round muffs were made. Bands of fur trimmed the velvet or cloth costume, while reverse and flaring collars were faced by it.

The fashionable shoe wardrobe contained walking boots and plan Oxford shoes, which were heavy in the English manner, and high button boots of kid to be worn under the trailing gown. Dressy slippers were of black or brown kid, black patent leather, also bonze slippers with stocking to match. Stockings were black in cotton thread or silk. Open-work in the black stocking made its appearance in the "gay" nineties.

Accessories were fans, suede gloves, parasols and umbrellas. Small gold watches worn on long fine chains were tucked into the belt or concealed at the waist. Purses were small and of fabric or leather, the favorite being the pocketbook, a flat folding book-shaped purse with compartments.

The bathing suit was a serge, alpaca or flannel in dark blue or black and usually trimmed with white braid. The fitted bodice, high neck and elbow length leg-of-mutton sleeves were of the prevailing mode. Bloomers were worn under the knee-length skirt with black stockings and low canvas shoes.

Fresh violets were very popular, worn in the evening and on coats, suits, dresses and muffs. The vogue for violets lasted throughout the first decade of the 20th century.

Colin Lawton Johnson is editor of the newsletter for the Fan Association of America.

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