Get Ready for the 1890s
Posted April 28, 2023
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By Truda Shinker, Membership Manager, with help from Marlise Schoeny and Grace Grammer

One of my favorite things about history is discovering how people in the past solved the everyday problems we all face with the resources available to them. What to eat, how to keep your house warm, how to communicate over a long distance and how to dress are just a few of the issues we all have to face no matter what time period we’re living in. I think learning about these everyday parts of life is a great way to feel really connected to people in the past.

So, when an opportunity arose for me to try on the type of clothing that women in the 1890s would have worn, I immediately said YES! This has been a bucket list item for me since I started working for the Ohio History Connection seven years ago (my coworkers have been teasing me that my bucket list is not exciting enough!). I met with Jennifer Rounds, the Ohio Village fabrication coordinator, to pick out some clothes. Jennifer set me up with a hat, shirt, skirt, petticoat and the all-important brooch.

Although my costume was not completely accurate and I was missing some key components (corset, boots, etc.), I definitely learned some things about what it was like to be a woman in the 1890s.

  • Getting dressed in the 1890s was a much longer process than it is today. There were many layers, buttons, clasps, ties and pins involved.
  • Wearing a long skirt and petticoat necessitates a change in how a woman walks. I found that I had to kick out my feet as I walked in order to keep from stepping on my skirt.
  • Women in the 1890s were basically hot and sweaty all the time during the summer months.
  • The skirt didn’t restrict my movements as much as I thought it would. Of course, I wasn’t wearing a corset, but I was able to play a rousing game of graces while wearing my costume.

From 2023…

…to 1890!

Game of graces

My very brief experience in 1890s clothing made me want to learn more, so I turned to our resident expert, Marlise Schoeny. Marlise curates the Ohio History Connection costume collection and specializes in nineteenth-century clothing. We had a fascinating discussion during which she talked me through the steps of getting dressed, 1890s-style.

  • Women would have started the process with anything that required bending over. This was because once they put on a corset, their movements would have been restricted. With this in mind, the first part of getting dressed involved:
    • Stockings and garters: Stockings would have been made of cotton, wool or silk (depending on the season and the woman’s income level). Garters would have been tied with a ribbon.
    • Drawers: These would have gone over top of the stockings.
    • Chemise: This is like a slip and would have gone down to the knees.
    • Shoes: These would have been ankle boots (gotta keep those ankles covered!) that would be buttoned (with a special tool) or laced. They would have had a pointed toe and had high heels.

 

  • Next would come the corset.
    • The corset would go over the chemise and not over bare skin. This kept the corset clean and protected women’s skin from the laces and stays.
    • Corsets at this time were designed for women to put on themselves without any help, but Marlise said that women usually did get help from family members to pull on the laces in the back.
    • Tight lacing, like we often see in movies, really wasn’t a thing that women did.
  • Over the corset would go a corset cover, which was like a camisole. Its purpose was to create a smooth line between the corset and the outer dress.
  • Next would come the petticoat, a bum pad (like a small bustle) and then another petticoat to create fullness.
  • Finally, the woman would put on her dress or a shirtwaist (blouse) and long skirt.

Paul Laurence Dunbar and Friends in the 1890s

  • Next come the accessories!
    • Combs and hairpins: Women ALWAYS wore their hair up. During this time period, most wore a bun just below the crown of their head. Very small bangs were an option.
    • Jewelry: This would include a brooch, earrings, rings and/or a necklace (lockets were very popular). If the woman was going out for the evening, she would include a more ornate necklace and bracelets.
    • Hat: A woman would NEVER be seen outside without a hat. It just simply wasn’t done. Hats were secured with a hat pin. They could be removed when the woman went indoors.
    • Handbags: These were very small. Women at this time weren’t expected to carry much. They might have a key, a handkerchief and a little bit of money.
    • Carpet bag: Working women (maids, cooks, etc.) would use a bigger bag to carry their aprons and other necessities for their job.
    • Cosmetics: Many women wore make-up, but it wasn’t overt and it wasn’t discussed. Face powder, rouge and lip make-up were all commonly used at this time.
    • Perfume: During a time when people didn’t bathe every day and clothes weren’t washed as often as they are now, perfume was a very important element of a woman’s routine.

This is obviously just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to this topic, but it gives you an idea of what women in the 1890s did every day to get ready. If you’d like to learn more about 1890s women’s clothing, here are some resources that Marlise recommends:

If you’d like to learn more about what it was like to live in the 1890s, join us as we open Ohio Village for the summer on Saturday, May 20. For more information, click here. Ohio History Connection members enjoy free general admission to Ohio Village and our other 50+ sites around the state. For more information and to join today, visit ohiohistory.org/join.

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