The period of around the 1870s to 1910s was one of relative peace and prosperity in Western Europe and has often been referred to as La Belle Époque - “the beautiful era.” Due in part to the industrialisation of textile manufacturing, female fashions during this time changed more rapidly and dramatically than had ever been seen before. This is particularly obvious when we look at the wildly different shapes the female form was expected to metamorphosize into from one decade to the next.Two superb recent gifts to the collection, a wedding gown from 1896, and a 1911 court presentation ensemble, epitomise the drastically different silhouettes the age produced, and show just how belle the beautiful era could indeed be.
Ever decreasing circles
The late 1860s to early 1870s was an important transitional period for women’s fashion. The bell-like shape created by the hooped crinoline of previous decades was gently deflating, and the emphasis started to shift towards enhancing the posterior. This was the beginning of the infamous bustle!
Even though this dress hints at a new silhouette in fashion, it is also very reminiscent of the 18th century with its low square neckline, three quarter length sleeves and liberal lace trimmings.
Bustles were padded or wire structures that were worn tied around the back waist. Their effect was to lift and thrust the back of skirts outwards. In the early 1880s bustles were relatively modest, but would soon become more exaggerated before disappearing almost entirely by the end of the decade.
The longline bodice of this dress fits sveltely in a clean line at the front, and the draped panniers over the hips make the waist appear very slender. This long line bodice was called a ‘curaiss’ bodice, as it appeared similar to armour.
This dress has several of the most fashionable features of the 1880s including extensive use of pleating, including box pleats and rows of knife pleats around the bottom of the skirt.
Details inspired by menswear and military uniforms were also very popular. The front and back of the skirt both feature military style braiding and knotting.
Dolmans were fashionable from the mid to late 1880s, and were designed to be worn over dresses with large bustles. Their full sleeves and half-length cut meant that they were less cumbersome than coats, and could easily be worn over bulky gowns. This dolman is made from heavy wool, velvet and gold thread - ideal for autumn and winter months.
The shelf bustle
Dress with dinner bodice and detachable train. 1885 circaSilk with metallic iridescent beading and lace trim. Unknown maker. Irish. Donated 1984 by Mrs J.E. Fair. BELUM.T2260
The mid to late 1880s were the last and most exaggerated phase of the bustle phenomenon. This style was often referred to as the “shelf bustle” as it stuck straight out from the small of the wearer’s back at a 90 degree angle.
There is also a hook-on train, which made the outfit more formal for evening wear.
This ensemble was part of the trousseau of a Donegal woman. The back skirt has in-built hoops which give a bustle shape, and a separate wire bustle, tied on at the waist, would also have been worn. It has two matching bodices, one a dinner bodice, with elbow length sleeves and low square neck, the other a day bodice with long sleeves and high neck.
The bustle trend died down by the late 1880s, to the relief of some.
Day dress. 1890s. Watered silk with Limerick lace. Irvine and Co., Londonderry Ltd. Irish. Purchased 1996. BELUM.T4017
As the bustle began to disappear from fashion at the end of the 1880s, the shape of the skirt changed again. It became wider at the bottom hem, whilst on the top half of the body, the shoulders gradually ballooned. The overall effect was to create a silhouette similar to two triangles balanced on top of each other with the narrowest points meeting.
Embellishments, such as the sequin beading and Limerick lace details that decorate the bodice of this ensemble, migrated towards the upper half of the body, allowing the line of the skirt to remain uncomplicated and sweeping.
Leg of mutton sleeves
Quarter Mourning Dress. 1893-1894. Silk with lace collar and cuffs. Jays of London. English. Purchased in 1985. BELUM.T2611
The wide sleeves of this dress are an example of the “gigot” or leg-of-mutton style sleeve that was popular during the 1890s. The exaggerated shoulder line was enhanced by the tightness of the lower half of the fitted sleeves. The volume at the upper half of the torso is echoed by the width of the skirt at the bottom, making an already corseted waist appear wasp-like by comparison.
The 'S' bend
A swan like silhouette developed towards the end of the nineteenth century and lasted until the early 1910s – the ‘S’ bend. This graceful shape was achieved by a new corset that caused the wearer to tilt her hips backwards, arching the back and pushing the chest forward.
Even the very top of the spine was reshaped during this era as the high-necked bodices were now stiffened with whalebone to keep the head back and the chin out.
Despite the control and constriction beneath the surface, the overall effect was flowing and feminine. This was further enhanced by the use of light, airy fabrics such as the soft pink silk trimmed with lace seen here.
The new figure
During the early 1900s skirts were cut long and straight in front and flowing at the back, both for day and evening wear. Dress reformists, however, campaigned for dress trains to be abolished, believing them to be partially responsible for the spread of dirt, dust, and therefore, disease.
The bodice of this dress has rectangular neck insert that accentuates the fashionably low hanging “mono-bosom” effect caused by the ‘S’ bend corset.
From curves to classical lines
The S-bend corset remained until under-bust, hip-length styles emerged around 1908, smoothing and streamlining the lower abdomen and hips in accordance with the resurgence of the “Empire line” silhouette and classical Greek trends in fashion.
The raised waist of this satin evening gown is in the Empire style, modelled after dress of the Empire period in France (1804-1814). Empire style was itself based on the dress of ancient Greece, in which women's unstructured garments were banded under the bust with an adjustable cord. In this Liberty & Co. evening gown, the criss-cross bands hint at this feature of ancient dress.
The 'Delphos' dress
In 1909 the artist and fashion designer Mariano Fortuny registered the invention of his ‘Delphos’ dress in Paris. The Delphos is a column of finely pleated fabric that draws its shape from the Greek chiton. Like the ancient chiton, the Fortuny Delphos could be either stitched or buttoned along the shoulder line.
This design proved very popular within avant-garde artistic circles when it first appeared, but only as “at-home” wear. It would not be until the 1920s that women would venture out in public in Fortuny’s daringly unstructured gowns.
The 'Hobble' dress
This day dress has the narrowed skirts which developed into the narrow 'hobble' style first introduced in 1910. The hobble skirt was so named because it was cut very closely to the ankles and in its most fashionable form made walking difficult. A silk insertion at the hem of this dress aids freedom of movement. The French knots seen this otherwise plain dress were extremely popular at the time and are seen on many contemporary dresses.
Fabric and form
Two recent donations to the collection, this wedding dress and a court dress ensemble, illustrate perfectly the huge change in the fashionable female silhouette between the 1890s to the 1910s. What is more extraordinary is that they both belonged to the same woman at different periods in her life.
Even though the fashion in the 1890s was for highly embellished bodices with lots of trimmings, the main decorative element of this ensemble is the deeply folded pleats around the waistline. The effect is to simply allow the quality of the fabric to speak for itself. This level of care for the material is not surprising as the bride, Elizabeth Balfour Clark, was a textile heiress whose family owned the international ‘Coats and Clark’ thread manufacturing company.
Fit for a queen
This Brussels lace and Irish crochet dress with separate train is one of two ensembles recently gifted to the collection that once belonged to Elizabeth Balfour Clark. She wore it when she was presented to Queen Alexandra during the last viceregal event held in Dublin Castle in 1911.
In contrast to the stiff silk satin used to make her wedding dress of 1896 displayed nearby, the combination of flowing lace and crochet fabrics used in this dress creates a soft yet clinging texture that helps to achieve a swan like silhouette.
The dress has a maker’s mark reading “Madame Duboc By Special Appointment to HM Queen Alexandra”. Madame Léonie Duboc was one of the most sought after and high-quality couturières of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, ranked among Doeuillet, Maison Laferrier and Worth, and regularly patronised by royalty.
The remarkable cream silk train attaches at the shoulders of the dress and may also have been made by Madame Duboc. It measures 3.5 metres long and over 2 metres wide, which was in line with court presentation dress protocol at the time.
A delicate layer of net overlays the train, which is decorated with elaborate beading and floral motifs. The swirling patterns of the bead work are reminiscent of the Art Nouveau movement which gloried in convoluted patterns inspired by the natural world.