Late 19th & Early 20th Century Ladies' Dress Glossary
The parts of a lady's outfit in putting-on order
- chemise or undershirt of cotton or linen
- drawers / knickers /bloomers, worn with an open crotch until around
- corset shaping the body into the fashionable form by means of whalebone
sticks and a busk in front
- busk: two metal strips with nails and eyes that served a) to shape
the front and b) to close the corset, making complete un-lacing unnecessary.
- corset cover: a white, short, shirt-like garment worn over the corset
to protect the taille from rubbing against the nails of the busk.
- decency skirt, a narrow petticoat which protected the nether region
from view if the skirt was blown up by wind
- tournure or bustle shaping the skirt to overemphasize the backside
- depending on the period a half-petticoat stiffened with steel or whalebone
strips, a wire contraption that folded when the lady sat down, or a bag of
cloth filled with horsehair tied round the waist. Worn mainly in the early/mid
1870s and early/mid 1880s.
- petticoat / underskirt with volants (ruffles) and possibly pockets.
In the late 19th century, two or three were worn, but towards the turn of
the century, the slim line forbade more than one.
- suit: Consists of floor-length skirt, sometimes with train, and taille.
Dresses in the sense that upper and lower part are sewn together are not worn
until turn of the century. Hat and gloves are compulsory.
- taille / waist: A cross between the bodice of earlier times and blouses
and suit jackets of today, it fitted the body very tightly, sometimes
looked like a jacket and sometimes like a blouse. It was buttoned high up,
had a standing collar and long sleeves. Low décolletés and short/no
sleeves were reserved for ball dresses. Any impression of loose-fittingness
is false as it consisted of a whalebone-stiffened lining taille and top fabric
which sometimes was arranged in loose folds. These folds are part of the
- garniture: decorative pieces of fabric or lace, ribbons, cord, ruffles
and bows carefully arranged on the taille and skirt. a special part of the
garniture is the drapery on bustle skirts. In the 1870s to 80s, garniture
was almost exclusively on the skirt, then on both, and in the early 20th century
only on the taille. The garniture is the most important part of late 19th
century dress and absolutely typical of the era.
- accessories: hat, gloves, umbrella (more against sun than rain),
sometimes walking-stick if the lady had the courage (the walking-stick is
a male utensil). A fan for the ball.
Kinds of Dresses
From the early-to-mid 19th century until about the 1960s, there
existed a host of dress styles dedicated to different occasions.
One had to take great care to be "dressed for the occasion".
Names changed, definitions of occasions shifted and merged over
time - this is a rough overview of generic traits from the 1850s
to the 1920s.
- House Dress: A dress worn only at (one's own) home. It was the plainest
style of dress, relatively comfortable and as sensible as fashion allowed,
sometimes as shapeless as a dressing gown. Long sleeves, high neckline, subdued
colours, no or little decoration. Hardly reflects seasonal change.
- Toilette de Reception: A more elaborate version of the house dress
for receiving visitors. As visitors not always announced themselves and house
dresses were equally acceptable for the occasion, dedicated reception toilettes
are relatively rare. Politley subdued elegance to show respect for the visitor.
- Visiting Dress / Toilette de Visite: Worn for paying polite visits
to other people during the daytime. Politely subdued elegance that should
not embarass the hostess. As visiting others involved a certain amount of
staying outdoors on the way there, the visiting dress reflects seasonal changes
to a certain extent but doesn't incorporate warm overgarments (which are add-ons
rather than part of the dress) as they are meant to be discarded upon arrival.
Worn with a hat or bonnet. The visiting dress was later (1910s/20s) replaced
by the afternoon dress.
- Walking Dress / Promenade Dress / Toilette de Promenade: As the name
implies, it is an outdoor garment worn for walks. It therefore reflects seasonal
change to a great degree, incorporating warm overgarments such as coats or
mantillas into its very design as they are not meant to be seen without the
overgarment. Summer walking dresses should have a parasol to go with it. Worn
with hat or bonnet.
- Carriage Dress / Travelling Dress / Toilette de Voyage: A garment
for travelling on coaches, later also on trains (there were other, special
garments for automobiles). As outdoor garments, they reflect seasonal change
to a certain degree and are worn with hats or bonnets. The emphasis is on
practicality: avoiding problems with getting off and on coaches, ease of cleaning,
colours on which dust isn't too conspicuous.
- Riding / Equestrian Dress: The only dedicated sports garment until
the late 19th century. Evolved from 18th century hunting garments, which,
from the very beginning on, imitated male dress - the jackets. Forest colours,
black and red are favoured. No-nonsense garments without skirt supports, made
of fabrics that can take a twig or thorn. Worn with hats.
- Afternoon Dress: Worn in between morning/house dress and dinner/evening
dress for typical afternoon occupations, e.g. visiting, shopping, walks etc.
Combination and successor of the visiting and walking dress, appeared during
the 1910s. Relatively high degree of subdued elegance and formality.
- Dinner Dress: Worn during the late afternoon, e.g. for dinners in
public. High degree of elegance and formality, showing off the wearer's good
taste and the seamstresse's art. Neckline often lowered but not low, sometimes
- Cocktail Dress: Successor of the dinner and evening dress, did not
appear until the 1920s/30s. Low neckline, short or no sleeves, raised hemline,
- Evening Dress / Toilette de Soirée: Dress for evening occupations
such as formal Diners, concerts, theatre, parties. High elegance emphasising
the wearer's beauty, wealth and decency. Colourful, low necklines, short sleeves,
lots of decoration. It's difficult to draw a line between evening and ball
- Ball Dress: Dress for occasions that involve dancing and courtship.
Highest degree of elegance (a lady's best dress), meant to show off the wearer's
beauty and wealth and (if applicable) to attract likely matches. Low neckline,
short or no sleeves, lots of decoration, tight bodice.
- Wedding Dress: During the 19th century it became fashionable to marry
in white if one could afford it. Until the late 19th century, it was quite
normal to marry in one's best dress, unless it was a ball dress: Wedding dresses
usually had high necks and long sleeves. Even if they were white, they could
later be worn as visiting or dinner dresses as their cut didn't deviate from
the current fashion.
- Paletot: Long kind of jacket-taille, modeled on the men's version,
ancestor of the modern female suit jacket. For outdoor suits.
For more facts about these items, see the HowTo