A Century of Party Dresses

A few months ago, I was interviewed by Collectors Weekly about party dresses throughout the 20th century. We covered almost every decade, defining what looks were predominant. The interview was posted on Monday, and I wanted to share it with you. I had a lot of fun talking about party dresses!

It’s kind of funny to read a transcription of the way you talk, but this is my voice through and through. I only went on a handful of tangents, which as my interviewer Hunter said, “that’s often when you get to the most fascinating tidbits.”

I hope you enjoy!

The 1870s Lobster Bustle


evening dress, about 1873, from McCord Museum

In the 1870s, dresses shifted in shape dramatically. Instead of a full circle encompassing the wearer as was worn throughout most of the 19th century to this point, the skirt took the shape of an ellipse. The skirt was narrow over the hips; instead the fullness moved to the back. By 1873, this new shape was pronounced, and by 1875, it was often referred to as a mermaid’s tail.

Have you ever wondered how this shape was accomplished? How did they support all the volume at the back of the skirt?

To fill out this shape, a new bustle combined the crinolines of earlier decades with structural support in the rear. Sometimes called a lobster bustle, the structure is accomplished with exaggerated horizontal wire ribs or horsehair padding in a crinoline skirt that is slim at the front and sides.

Take a look at these great examples!

bustle, 1870s, from American Textile History Museum

bustle, 1873, from Metropolitan Museum of Art

bustle, 1870s, from Metropolitan Museum of Art

bustle, 1870s, from Metropolitan Museum of Art

I really love the lobster bustles from 1870s. Such a cool shape. Like architecture underneath a dress. And they do remind me of lobster tails!

Friday File

Today is my last day of work of the year! I have two weeks off to spend with family for Christmas and recuperate from a busy semester. I’m also going to take some time off of the blog, but I’ll be back on January 6. I hope you get a little time off yourself, and I’ll meet you back here in the new year!

Here are a few extra links (than normal) from the past week:

photo of art collectors Herb and Dorothy Vogel, from the National Gallery of Art, Gallery Archives

I’m so inspired by this couple and the priceless art collection they amassed.

Meet the newest designer to join the haute-couture ranks in Paris.

Dressing a mannequin in historical clothing is no easy feat. See how the V&A mounted an 18th-century bridal gown. Bet you won’t guess how a pruning hand saw is a necessary tool!

Historians are pumped that the British Library recently put 1,000,000 images into the public domain with a crowd-sourcing invitation to help it learn more about them. In fact, these are the fashion and costume images that have already been tagged by the public.

On Christmas Day, fashion designer J.W. Anderson will offer downloadable patterns of a leather top and balloon skirt from his autumn/winter 2013 collection. I’m thinking about trying my hand at sewing the avant-garde ensemble.

Jayne Shrimpton dates and analyzes a family photo from the 1860s.

Wishing I had found this gift guide for avocado lovers weeks ago so I could add it to my wishlist. Thanks for tweeting about it Emilia!

Happy holidays!

1960s Paper Dress Fad

Have I told you that I love the 1960s? It’s one of my favorite decades. I’m over at Raincoast Creative Salon with another Fashion One-Oh-One post — this time on an aspect of the 1960s!


Dress, by Poster Dress, Ltd., late 1960s, from Metropolitan Museum of Art

So much changed during that decade socially and culturally, resulting in big shifts in fashion. This offers fashion historians a lot of meat to work with.

For my most recent post on Raincoast, I chose to share a bit about paper dresses — an odd fad that emerged out of the 1960s disposable culture. Head over to Raincoast Creative Salon to learn about them!

2013 Gift Guide – Fashion History Books

My next holiday gift post is for any budding fashion historians or vintage fashion collectors. I’ve got some books that will be excellent additions to a personal library.

These first three books are great reference books. If you know someone who wants to learn more about fashion history, you can’t go wrong with any of these.

Fashion: A History From the 18th to the 20 Century from the Collection of the Kyoto Costume Institute is a gorgeous book. The pages are filled with full color photographs that bleed off the page of some of the finest clothes that were ever created. The pieces featured are the height of fashion through three centuries.

The next book, 100 Ideas That Changed Fashion by Harriet Worsley, chronicles fashion history through specific aesthetic influences, movements, designers, events, technology improvements, and more. Each spread is a snap shot on a limited topic that impacted fashion. These snippets are fascinating.

Fashion: A Visual History from Regency and Romance to Retro and Revolution by NJ Stevenson, is set up as a chronological timeline that looks at women’s and men’s style from period to period, major designers, and innovations in types of garments. Again, broken up into spreads, it covers a lot of ground to give a well-rounded picture of changing Western fashion.

Moving on the collecting side of fashion history, these next two books are great for anyone who dreams of assembling their own collection.

Your Vintage Keepsake: A CSA Guide to Costume Storage and Display by Margaret T. Ordonez introduces the reader to the basic aspects of caring for historic fashion. He/she will learn the foundations to caring for and displaying clothing.

If your giftee wants to get serious about collecting fashion or textiles, Preserving Textiles: A Guide for the Nonspecialist by Harold F. Mailand and Dorothy Stites Alig takes things up a notch. This book covers more technical aspects of collection management and exhibition. I highly recommend this guide.

P.S. More gift ideas on my Pinterest board!

Holly and ivy graphic by MyCuteGraphics.

New Look, New Silhouette

Starting the week off, I have a new post over on Raincoast Creative Salon! This time I’m looking at Christian Dior’s New Look and how it changed fashion. Dior’s debut collection in 1947, not only changed the fashionable silhouette but also cemented Paris as the center of the fashion world and revitalized the haute couture industry.

Head over to Raincoast Creative Salon to read all about the New Look’s impact!

How Shoulder Pads Changed Fashion History

Today I’m back on Raincoast Creative Salon with the third installment of Fashion One-Oh-One. Today’s column focuses on how shoulder pads changed women’s clothing in the 1930s. Introduced into womenswear by designer Elsa Schiaparelli, they were very popular throughout the 1930s and 1940s and are reoccurring design details that regularly reappear on the runway.

Head over to Raincoast Creative Salon to learn their full history.

New Fashion One-Oh-One Post

Sorry for my silence, but I’ve got something to share. My second Fashion One-Oh-One post on Raincoast Creative Salon is up today! Go on and read about Fortuny and his Delphos gown.

A Column on Raincoast

When Sandra at Raincoast Creative Salon asked me to write a column on fashion-history game changers, I jumped at the chance. I’ll be writing two posts a month from October to December for her blog in a series titled “Fashion One-Oh-One.” And today, I’m really excited that the first post is up.

The Marriage of Queen Victoria, 10 February 1840, by Sir George Hayter, 1842, from the Royal Collection Trust

For the first column, I began with Queen Victoria’s wedding dress. I thought it would be a great place to start — many people know that Victoria set the white-wedding dress tradition, but they probably don’t know why and how that caught on. So head over and find out!

And if you are coming over from Raincoast Creative Salon, welcome! I’m happy to have you here. The Hourglass Files is a mix of historical and contemporary fashion, personal style, art, design, and a bit about my life. If you’re looking for more posts on fashion history, may I point you to the historic fashion tag. And I love discussions and questions, so please don’t hesitate to leave a comment.

Late 19th Century Bathing Suits

As Labor Day weekend approaches, I’m sure many of you are planning to spend some time at the pool or beach. If you are, be glad that bathing suits have evolved into what they are today.

bathing suit, 1876-80 | bathing suit, 1878-80, both from Metropolitan Museum of Art

Both men and women used to wear wool bathing suits. Having examined many myself, let me tell you that this was not a soft wool. Unfortunately they could be made of scratchy flannel. Late nineteenth century suits were often navy blue, although suits of white, grey, and brown were worn too.

Remember, these suits weren’t really meant for actual swimming. Women could dunk themselves underwater and do a little frolicking, but women weren’t swimming laps.

bathing suit, c. 1885 | bathing suit, 1885, both from Metropolitan Museum of Art

In the late 1870s to the 1890s, bathing suits were made of two to three pieces — a dress over bloomers; a blouse, skirt, and trousers; or a unitard under a skirt. Many featured a belt at the waist. Some women wore slippers or bathing shoes.

Trousers provided modesty and greater mobility, as opposed to wearing full-length skirts in the water (which were worn for swimming prior to the 1870s). As trousers got shorter, women covered their legs with stockings.

Above you can see these bathing suits in use at the beach in Atlantic City. See the women in the water in their suits — far from the body-baring styles and modern fabrics today. Can you spot the woman trying to wring out her suit? The wool suits could get quite heavy when wet.

And below, check out similar styles worn by women at a photo tent on the beach. You can really get a good look at their trousers. It looks like the woman on the left is also wearing stockings.

Can you imagine how uncomfortable the bathing suits must have been, especially when wet?