New-York Historical Society

Spring Fashion, circa 1890’s

“Fashion is unfolding, just like nature,” reads the caption for a recent On the Street column by famed New York Times photographer Bill Cunningham (whose work is currently on exhibit at N-YHS).  Now that spring has finally arrived, we decided to take a look at seasonal fashion in New York over a hundred years ago.

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Stern Brothers Catalogue, Spring and Summer 1890. Landauer TT555.S84 1890.

Back then, spring fashion apparently involved more enfolding than unfolding. Store catalogs feature an assortment of stifling outfits that look more suitable for Siberia than summer. Imagine, for example, strolling along Far Rockaway beach in this “Seaside Costume” from B. Altman & Co’s 1896 Spring and Summer Catalog.

B. Altman & Co. Catalog, Spring and Summer, 1896.  Landauer TT555.B35 1896.

B. Altman & Co. Catalog, Spring and Summer, 1896. Landauer TT555.B35 1896.

 

If — when! — you started to perspire under all that blue Mohair, embroidered Grass Linen and shaded silk fabric, you could don your Navy Blue Flannel Bathing Suit, complete with bathing tights with feet, for a refreshing dip in the ocean.

 

B. Altman & Co. Catalog, Spring and Summer, 1896.  Landauer TT555.B35 1896.

B. Altman & Co. Catalog, Spring and Summer, 1896. Landauer TT555.B35 1896.

 

Even pre-global warming, cycling home from the beach in your Roycelle Bicycle Suit For Ladies (patented 1895) must have been an awfully sweaty business. And think how big of a backpack you would need to cart around all your other outfits!

 

B. Altman & Co. Catalog, Spring and Summer, 1896.  Landauer TT555.B35 1896.

B. Altman & Co. Catalog, Spring and Summer, 1896. Landauer TT555.B35 1896.

 

Since everyone was too hot to think about what to wear, there were specific outfits for every occasion and activity, such as this trio of dresses for street strolling, visiting and going to receptions, respectively.

 

B. Altman & Co. Catalog, Spring and Summer, 1896.  Landauer TT555.B35 1896.

B. Altman & Co. Catalog, Spring and Summer, 1896. Landauer TT555.B35 1896.

 

Men had special summer outfits too, like the Bicycle Suit and Livery Suit pictured below.  In a surprising display of equality, their clothing looks every bit as uncomfortable as the women’s.

Rogers, Peet & Co., Hints on Dress. Spring and Summer of 1888. AC901, Box R.

Rogers, Peet & Co., Hints on Dress. Spring and Summer of 1888. AC901, Box R.

 

Men’s clothing catalogs also included useful fashion advice, such as “DON’T wear checks if you’re short and stout,” DON’T wear stripes if you’re long and lean,” and “DON’T allow more than a yard and a half of handkerchief silk to protrude from your breast pocket.”

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Rogers, Peet & Co., Hints on Dress. Spring and Summer of 1888. AC901, Box R.

For more period fashion, come and visit our stylish exhibition, Bill Cunningham: Facades, before it closes on June 15, 2014.

 

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