Instead of wide skirts, the early 1870s dress had a flattish front with an exaggerated bunch of material jutting out at the back. From the side a woman almost appeared to have four hidden legs, like a female centaur (in Greek mythology half man, half horse). By 1870, Britain’s population had risen to 26 million. During this decade, many ‘modern’ technological leaps were made: in 1873 colour photography was developed (in Sweden) and pressure cooking in food canning processing methods a year later. In 1875 the Public Health Act was passed and the London Medical School for Women was founded. Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone in 1876, with a telephone exchange being established in London in 1879 giving women the chance of switchboard jobs, and a year later Edison invented the phonograph. In 1878, the first electric street lighting in London was installed. Imperial power was at its height (Victoria was pronounced Empress of India in 1877). English taste was becoming very complex both in interior design and the embellishment of dress. A French 18th Century revival was about to take place.
14a Lady in ‘Watteau’ Dress, c.1870
France, the fashion leader of Europe, had recently endured a horrific siege of Paris during the Franco-Prussian War. English fashions had taken over temporarily and everyone, regardless of class, dressed alike. By 1871, Paris recovered, and the upper classes resumed balls and salons, popularising a taste for furnishings and dress styles reviving the Louis Seize period of the 1770s. Women wore their hair high and elaborate, with a hat perched on the front and tilted forward. Overskirts, looped up into 18th Century style ‘panniers’, joined the bustle in a re-make of the Watteau shepherdess (Victorian style). Women’s dress was excessively complex with multiple layers of frills, ruffles, lace, ribbons and puffs. Further 18th Century references included a revival of floral chintz and quilted underskirts, the most pure form being the ‘Dolly Varden’ dress, after the Dickens heroine of Barnaby Rudge. Our oval pastel drawing is of a very Victorian woman, wearing a ‘copy’ of a sack-back dress in gold silk.
Given by George and Samuel Bentlif of Maidstone, in 1897
14b Bride in white, 1875
Reproduced from a cabinet portrait, (larger than the carte-de-visite, and popular from the 1870s). Brides in white, though more numerous in the 1870s, were in a minority in the 19th Century, as coloured ‘special occasion’ dresses could be re-used as evening wear. This is Mrs William Morling, on her wedding day, showing her wedding ring prominently as was the tradition in bridal photography. Morling was a ladies and gentleman’s outfitters in High Street, Maidstone until the 1980s. Mrs Morling is dressed in the latest, fashionable flat-fronted bustle dress and bodice, and is well corseted. The photographer was ‘Clarke & Co.’, 44 Week Street, Maidstone.
Original given by Mrs Gibbons of Maidstone
14c Dinner dress, cornflower blue corded silk, 1870-75
Women’s dress in the 1870s was highly complicated, both in construction and decoration. Skirt drapes often had mysterious, one-sided trimmings and fastened with curious systems that baffled even contemporary fashion experts. Under the skirt, there were tapes to pull and create bustle shapes and puffs over a support (or ‘half-crinoline’). The bustle was both grotesque and sexy: by exaggerating the bulk of a voluminous and showy garment backwards it created a disguised body, but emphasised the bottom. By making the most of the swaying hips it was an obvious sexual signal. It has been said that a fashion that doesn’t have allure doesn’t succeed. Our dress, for a more mature woman, has the typical flat front, superficial decoration and massed material behind of the first years of the 1870s. Around 1875, the bustle temporarily slipped away, and dresses became sheath like, with a decorative, longer train.
Given by Miss Moon of East Farleigh, in 1963
14d Doll’s dress, white cotton, c.1870s
The styles of baby garments (and their doll equivalents) tended to follow some trends in adult women’s clothes. This example has many rows of horizontal pintucks across the front, like the horizontal decoration on the front of a bustle dress. Like standard children’s wear and underwear, it is trimmed with broderie anglaise. It was formerly the property of a wax baby doll.
14e Underskirt, corded cotton, c.1875
These were specially shaped petticoats to go over the metal and fabric half bustles, to protect the dress from damage. This example, in strong cotton, is corded at the hem and ‘back bustle’ area and is practical rather than decorative.
Given by Miss J. Masters of West Farleigh, in 1960
14f Girl’s drawers, white cotton, c.1875
Drawers in the Victorian era came in two versions ‘open-leg’ (two tubes of cotton drawn onto the legs and sewn to a waistband with the front and back seam left open), and ‘closed-leg’. Closed drawers had the inside seam sewn together and were first known as ‘knickerbockers’ then, by 1879 ‘knickerbocker drawers’. They were gathered to the knee with a frill, whereas the earlier open-leg type, were straight in shape.
14g Fan, ostrich feathers and tortoiseshell, c.1870
Ostrich feathers were used for fans in ancient Egypt. Their feathers can be ‘farmed’ by plucking from the live bird on a seasonal basis. This small, neat, rather sober fan has sticks of tortoiseshell, (actually from a species of sea-going turtle). Synthetic tortoiseshell made of celluloid (cellulose nitrate) was available in the 1860s. Unfortunately celluloid is highly flammable, and deteriorates over time, making it difficult to preserve in a museum collection, as it goes sticky and gives off nitric acid.
Given by Mrs May Monkton of Bearsted, in 1965
14h Dress shoes, cream satin, early 1870s
Cream/ white satin was the standard for ‘dress’ (formal) shoes in the 19th Century. During the 1870s, heels became a little higher and more tapering and were set well under the foot. Known as the ‘Louis’ heel from its resemblance to the heels of French 18th Century shoes, it had rosettes and bows as its usual decoration. This style, with increasingly pointed toes, continued during the 1880s and 1890s.
1870s – What’s New?
The Delineator, early 1870s
Ebenezer Butterick, produced a quarterly review in New York, originally to boost his sales of paper patterns. It became one of the top selling women’s journals and was devoted entirely to fashion.
Alice band, 1872
Lewis Carroll’s book ‘Through the Looking Glass’ popularised Alice bands for girls and young women.
Levi Strauss, 1872
A patent was taken out for canvas work trousers, being made from denim and dyed blue with indigo. Denim work trousers had been worn since the 1850s.
Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone revolutionising communication.
Edison invented the phonograph which made entertaining at home more lively!
Electric lighting, 1880
Edison and Swann independently invented electric lighting.
Fur farming, 1878
Fur farming began in Canada. Sealskin was the first popular fur.
Jersey, late 19th Century
Soft stretchable knitted fabric first used on the Channel Island of Jersey for sportswear and outer garments. Lillie Langtry, the Edwardian actress popularised jersey costume in the 1870s.
Known since Roman times jet was most popular at this time when it was associated with mourning jewellery, elaborately cut into fruit, flower and animal designs.