In partnership with the Maine Memory Network Maine Memory Network

Historic Clothing Collection

1870-1890

After the Civil War, sewing machines reached the professional dressmaking and home sewing market. They were expensive. It took time before there was one in every home. Sometimes a group of women clubbed together to make the purchase and share. On the one hand, machine sewing mitigating the endless hours women spent meeting the demands of household and family garment sewing. On the other hand, speedier sewing encouraged extra detailing in fashionable garments. In the 1860s and 1870s small thread mills, such as the Haskell Silk Company of Westbrook proliferated, producing the special twist thread in high demand for machine sewing. They also made other types of threads to supply the county’s new narrow goods industry, now manufacturing decorative braids, cords, ribbons, passementerie, lace, soutache, and fringes, items heretofore imported. Seeing these silk products at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition of 1876, Americans were surprised to learn that they were American made rather than imports. The 1870s steadily increasing supply of Asian raw silk for making silk yarn encouraged dress silk manufacturing, which became well established in the 1880s. Many twist mills now switched to weaving broad silks, as did the Haskell Silk Company in 1883.

Between 1860 and 1890, the transitions of skirt style provides a recognizable example of evolving fashions. Early examples include a blueish purple 1860s highly trimmed walking dress with a short basque (a fitted jacket-like bodice) and flat fronted skirt flaring out at the back. An early 1870s short gray-green basque dress also features a flat front skirt, with an overdress creating a heavy double layered skirt at the back, which could be gathered into a polonaise (looped bustle effect.) Some period dresses featured a front ‘apron’ style overdress and a double skirt at the back. For the next twenty years, 1870-1890, fashionable dress comprised basques--fitted bodices, some short and some extending well over the hips--and skirts with various forms of back interest, known as bustles.

Basque example, ca. 1865
Basque example, ca. 1865
Double layer skirt detail, ca. 1872
Double layer skirt detail, ca. 1872

Between the mid-1870s and early 1880s, the bulky overskirt 'polonaise' styling gave way to the unusually slim silhouette called cuirasse (a French word meaning close fitting, like armor), of which the collection includes a very fine example. Made of lightweight camel colored wool, it’s below knee length basque fits closely over a flat front skirt edged with a wide band of pleating. The back of the basque divides to accommodate a modest low draped bustle. The garment is trimmed throughout with colorful hand embroidered floral sprays and a deep chenille bobble fringe edges the sleeves and basque. Some 1880s basques (seen in some of the collection's wedding dresses) are long, but not as long as the example just described, and sweep back over the hips with folds forming paniers that merged with back bustle drapery.

In August 1882, Peterson’s Magazine reported: “Velvet-figured goods will also be extensively worn next season. In solid colors the ground will be a dead, rep-like fabric, and the velvet figure will be quite large.” This fashion for contrasting plain and figured cut velvet fabric is seen in the collection’s solid brown two-piece bustle dress with plain sleeves and basque, plain bustle, with a large cut velvet floral motif on the bodice and skirt. Dated about 1886, Ida M. Bowles wedding dress, a two-piece brown faille (ribbed appearance fabric) ensemble, is notable for iridescent hexagonal glass bead buttons and edge trimming, large looped up bustle, and skirt front with an asymmetrically draped swag. Tapes used to hold bustles in shape survive inside both of the described brown dresses.

Women wore bustle supports of various shapes and sizes. Some were separate items such as half cage crinolines, tied on at the waist, while others were fixed to the skirt. A small horsehair stuffed cushion shaped bustle support remains attached to the inner waistband of Sarah Wilson's black watered silk skirt. The dress also includes two large jet beaded medallions, holding a satin swag that is draped over the skirt's front. The same medallions trim the fitted bodice.

A sturdy metal half hoop bustle support is still securely sewn into the lining of a ca. 1880 wine-colored taffeta bustle skirt. The skirt has deep pleats of velvet and taffeta along the hemline, and a short wine velvet basque adorned with eight round silk thread covered buttons. The collection includes a variety of 1880s bustle dresses with heavily draped and layered skirts, all of which would have required some sort of specially shaped and structured bustle support. Numerous elaborate, heavily trimmed bustle and trained wedding dresses from the 1880s and 1890s are tributes to remarkable dressmaking skills.

In the late 1880s, the bustle simplified in shape and disappeared by 1890. As fashions moved towards the next century, skirts lost the over layers and elaborations accrued over the past twenty years.