As exercise began to increase in popularity in the late 19th century, women’s clothing emphasized freedom, movement and the ability to explore the world outside. Taking walks became fashionable, and women’s walking skirts shortened in length to accommodate movement. A woman’s walking suit might consist of a durable fabric like tweed or wool in two pieces – a bodice or jacket and a skirt – like the garment shown here. The illustrations of Charles Dana Gibson for Life Magazine in the 1890s epitomized this sporty woman. She became a symbol of emancipation and modern independence through her tailored and practical outfits.
Our tweed suit, c. 1895, follows this new fashion aesthetic. The bodice is ornamented with brown braid and has stylish, huge leg-of-mutton sleeves. The smooth, gored skirt was favored by this modern woman, making activity – both at work and at play – easier. This outfit has a blue silk lining which is unfortunately in very fragile condition. It was given to the Museum by Col. & Mrs. George B. Buell in 1980.
By 1893, the “hourglass” figure had taken shape. Ballooning sleeves and widening skirts helped to make an already tightly corseted waist seem even smaller. It was an era of exaggeration – everything was done in a big way, especially the sleeves. Voluminous sleeves, not seen at this level since the 1830s, actually increased to the point of absurdity by 1896. There was even a patent for a wire hoop in some of the most expansive. The skirt was gored rather than pleated or gathered to result in a smooth, snug fit at the hips. Sometimes, godets (additional pieces set in which were wider at the bottom than the top) were added for even more flare without waistline bulkiness. Skirts were usually unornamented, as is this one, and just brushed the floor or was a inch or two shorter.
Our suit is also pictured in this posting with a bicycle, 1895. This Model 102A Racycle Self Oiling bicycle, was patented Dec. 3, 1895 by the Miami Cycle Company, Middleton, Ohio. It was sold in Charleston by their agent, the Army Cycle Mfg. Co., at 22 Broad Street. It has a metal frame and wooden wheels (the tires are missing). It was given to the Museum by Mrs. John R. Cone in 1965.
Susan B. Anthony stated that “the bicycle has done more for the emancipation of women than anything else in the world.” Gaining popularity since the 1860s, bicycling for women allowed greater freedom on many levels. While considered an excellent form of exercise for both men and women, women especially were now able to travel unchaperoned by bicycle as far as they chose. Many who were once confined to the home found new independence.
This suit is currently on exhibit in Seasonal Fashion: Autumn in Charleston.
TEXTILE TUESDAYS: Each Tuesday we post a piece from our textile collection. Some items have been on exhibit, some will eventually be shown in our new Historic Textiles Gallery and some may be just too fragile to display. We hope you enjoy our selection each week – do let us know if there’s something in particular you’d like to see on TEXTILE TUESDAY! #TextileTuesday