First off, the girly-girls really get to have a party in the Seventies! If you’ve seen the first half of The Buccaneers you’ll know what I’m talking about. Even if you’re a tomboy and play softball with your skirts hiked up, you’ll still experience what “playing dress up” is all about.
My first dreams of Victorian gowns were full of “foofy-ness” – the romantic ruffles, the yummy colorful fabrics, the petticoat flounces, the bows and ribbons. ‘sigh’ Oh! to prance around in those airy creations as a princess (‘cause I thought only royalty had enough money to dress like that).
So what identifies a dress from the 1870s? How is the fashion different from the 1860s and the 1880s? Or rather, what sets this decade of fashion apart from the ones surrounding it? From my years of bustle research, here are 5 features that classify garments of the early-to-mid 1870s styles. Follow these tips to match what the real Victorians did.
1. Symmetry – This main feature is what defines the early bustle period from the revival in the 1880s. Both bodices and skirts are trimmed the same on both sides – no matter how much trim and detail are presented. If the apron is pulled up on the left, the right is also. The bustle skirt is pulled up to fall evenly over the back.
Day bodices are closed up the center front while ball bodices are closed at center back, and in the early years, in the front. You’ll rarely find an asymmetrical opening. 1870s bodices stay similar in silhouette to the 1860s (except for sleeve styles).
2. Ruffles & Puffs – You can’t have too many ruffles here. Although, 1 to 5 is a good amount to work with. If you think something is missing from your plain 1874 skirt, add a ruffle. Or two. Or three. Or a ruffle ON the ruffle.
Fabric ruffles can be pleated, gathered or ruched. The gathering can be at one edge or down the center of a strip to create ruched trim. Gathering a strip on both edges then mounted onto the skirt or sleeve creates a lovely puff.
Designs can have multiple rows of ruffles and ruched strips. You can imitate the skirt trim on the bodice sleeves, but remember to make each side look the same. Repeat the look around the neckline if you want.
3. Basque Bodices – Many bodices of this era extend below the waistline into what is known as a basque bodice. A separate back extension is similar to a peplum, but adds to the “puffy” silhouette as it lays flat or ruffle-y over the bustle. The lengthened bodice can also fit smoothly over the hips.
The front hem of the bodice can be cut straight across, slightly rounded, or the center front dip down into a V. In the late 1870s, the fitted top can also be extended down over the hips and cut straight around at the high hip or full hip level, or curve from center front up to the high hip and down again at center back.
4. Heavily Trimmed Sleeves – Sleeve shapes in the 1870s are very similar to what you see in the ‘60s but more narrow: 2-pc. coat shapes, pagoda, bishop, etc. And they are SO much more decorated. It adds to the fluffy appearance and balances the bodice with the skirt. Trims are generally applied only to the hem, which falls to the wrist or cuts off at the popular 3/4 length.
Cuffs are quite popular too. Remember, Trim rules the 1870s – so add several large buttons to your cuffs, vary your cuff widths, and use a complementary fabric to the main dress material.
5. Trains – Not just for evening wear, small sweep trains were seen on daywear throughout the ‘70s. For early styles they only need to extend 2” to 6” beyond the straight hemline, so don’t worry about a trained skirt causing issues when at a daytime event.
However, a proper 1878 dress wouldn’t look the same without a long train extending from a straight, tightly-fitted skirt. The late 1870s Natural Form era *loved* their trains. (Was it to take your cat for a ride? Keep a rowdy gentleman at a proper distance? Or trip your enemy?)
Apply a good balayeuse or street sweeper ruffle to the underside of your skirt to help keep that hem clean.
Remember the 1870s silhouette is all about the skirt. The skirt is the main design focus. Spend your time and effort creating a focal point on your skirt. Is it the front apron with contrasting patch pockets? Back sashes hanging down? Or five rows of delicately cut bias ruffles?
Add a fancy black velvet ribbon as a necklace and you’re all set. “Wow! Your dress looks just like an original in a museum!”