Gilded Age Fashion

Spanning the 1890s to the mid-1920s, the Maymont era was a time of dramatic change for women’s clothing. In the 1890s, oversized leg-of-mutton sleeves and flared skirts gave women a sculpted, well-defined, hourglass shape. Then as the 20th century dawned, the cycle of fashion turned from elaborately tailored designs to simpler, one-piece gowns. By the 1920s, shorter, loose, unstructured garments made of lightweight fabrics stood in sharp contrast to the closely fitted clothing of the 1890s and 1910s.

Paris was the fashion center of the world at this time and in the first decade of the 20th century, French designer, Paul Poiret, was dubbed the King of Fashion. Fashion magazines such as Vogue, first published in 1892, kept their mass audiences up-to-date, and department stores with ready-to-wear clothing were displacing custom dressmakers.

The Maymont costume collection primarily focuses on the fashions of the early years, the 1890s, including fashions for a variety of different social occasions.

House Calls

Fashionable ladies often established an “at home” day, the weekday afternoon when a lady would receive calls. On these days, the lady of the house would wear “a becoming and ornamental” afternoon gown. The butler would dress in formal livery, and the parlor maid would wear a black uniform with white cuffs, collar, cap, and “a delicate and immaculate” white apron. The proper lady visitor would wear a tailored walking suit or visiting gown, always with high neck and long sleeves, hat and gloves. The lady caller would never remove her hat, nor would she remove her gloves, even when drinking tea. The gentleman caller would always remove his hat and his right glove as he would never shake hands with his hand still gloved.

Photo Credit Dennis McWaters
Sallie Dooley's Lace Dress c. 1907

Dinner Parties

According to Emily Holt, for ladies “the essential dinner costume is décolleté; that is cut open about the throat and shoulders and short in the sleeves. The hair is elaborately dressed, and jewels are advantageously utilized.” Long over-the-elbow gloves would be worn and taken off at the dinner table. Ladies kept both their gloves and fans on their lap during the meal. The dress de rigueur for gentlemen was full evening dress—black swallow-tail coat and waistcoat to match or a white, stiffly starched pique waistcoat ornamented with two or three small pearl studs, high white linen collar, a white lawn or black silk bow tie, and cuffs with “link-buttons.” Gentlemen would wear a top hat (in winter) and grey gloves. Both were removed after they entered the house. The butler would wear complete evening livery without white cotton gloves (White gloves were only worn by waiters in restaurants or hotels).  Footmen or assistant butlers would also wear full house livery. If parlor maids were assisting the men-servants, they would wear black uniforms with white apron, cuffs, collar and cap.

Formal Balls

The fashions seen at a ball in 1892 were described in the Richmond Dispatch: Mrs. Dooley was attired in a gown of “white muscovite silk en train, trimmed with white fur and embroidered with pearls; diamond ornaments.” Her best friend from Staunton, Mrs. George F. Wilson, stood with her in “pink corded silk en train, trimmed with gold Armenian embroidery.” Richmond belle Miss May Handy wore a robe “of white brocaded satin, trimmed heavily with jeweled passementerie and rose point lace. She also wore a long robe of light blue brocade lined and bordered with ermine. The crown was of gold and heavily studded with gems. Her jewels were diamonds and rubies.”

At a reception hosted by the Dooleys in 1898, Mrs. Dooley’s gown was described as: “one of the works of art from the Worth establishment, with a front of “cream-colored brocade embroidered in silver, corsage draped with exquisite lace, and a court train of green satin falling from just below the shoulders. Magnificent opals and diamonds and a large bouquet of lilies of the valley completed the costume.” At a 1906 reception, Mrs. Dooley, was adorned with “diamond ornaments,” and wore “a gown of rare was rose point Duchesse lace over cream satin. In her hair was a white aigrette.”