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Dresses representing different decades are being prepared for display for Historic Waco Foundation's "A Fashionable Past" exhibit that opens Oct. 6 in the Fort House Museum.

Photo by Ken Sury

Women’s fashion trends reflect the times in which they are popular, from the bustles reminiscent of “Gone with the Wind” to the suits of the World War II era.

A new Historic Waco Foundation exhibit, “A Fashionable Past,” will highlight women’s fashion styles from the 1880s through the 1940s. The exhibit opens Oct. 6 and will run through March 31 at the Fort House Museum, 503 S. Fourth St. in Waco.

Rachel DeShong, exhibit curator, said in each decade the popularity of a certain dress style would peak about mid-decade and then would become less popular toward the end of the decade.

“The dresses and corresponding accessories are organized by decades,” DeShong said. “The exhibit is a visual snapshot of 60 years of fashion. Most of the dresses would be worn during the day, however, there are a few evening gowns. The dresses and accessories, such as shoes, hats, gloves, and purses, illustrate the changing times.”

Visitors can expect to see a glimpse into trends that were influenced by culture, economics, tastes and social customs.

The exhibit starts with a dress from the 1880s when the bustle with its padding and framework was designed to lift up the back of the dress below the waist. The feature was an evolution from the hoop skirts that were last popular in the 1860s.

“In the 1880s, the bustle was extremely popular,” DeShong said. “The 1890s saw the rise and fall of the leg o’ mutton sleeves and the popularity of ‘suits’ for working women.”

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Exhibit curator Rachel DeShong adjusts an 1890s-era dress that was designed with the working woman in mind. Women during that decade were finding employment as secretaries and telephone operators, DeShong said.

The red and black dress in the display was designed to look like a suit for a working woman as more women began to work outside of the home in that decade primarily as secretaries or telephone operators. The leg o’ mutton sleeves, which as the name indicates is like a leg of a lamb that is wide at the top of the arm and then tapers down to the wrist. The puffed-up sleeves gave the style its signature look.

“The S curve with a large monobosom and thrusted back hips was the ideal for the 1900s. This ideal can be seen in the Gibson Girl,” DeShong said.

Dresses of this decade were designed to show a woman's tiny waist and boasted a high neck for an elongated look. Skinny women were considered ideal at this time, and the corset worn with this dress was longer and not as tight as in previous decades.

“The 1910s saw a change in slightly rising hemlines and waistlines,” she said. “The Empire waist was very popular along with extremely large hats.”

Named for Empress Josephine, the first wife of Napoleon Bonaparte, the Empire dresses had a high waist as more changes in wearing corsets occurred. Dresses had a delicate neck and often were worn with huge hats.

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Fashions were changing a lot during the 1920s as this flapper dress indicates. It has a drop waist, which was a big difference from previous decades.

Big Changes

“World War I changed everything, and the 1920s fashions reflect the change in times,” DeShong said. “The old status quo was out and the desire to party and have fun was in. Additionally, women obtained the right to vote during this era.”

The “flapper era” was a post-war response to World War I as women wanted to do something new. Skinny was in as the dresses had more of a boyish look with a drop waist with the seam down at the hips instead of at the waist. By the middle of the decade the bottom of the skirt had risen.

Manmade material like rayon was created, which made the dresses more marketable and affordable for women other than the wealthy.

Also on display is a 1920s-era suitcase made for carrying cosmetics. Makeup for women first became popular in this decade and more affordable for more women to enjoy this new fashion statement. World War I was over and people had a desire to leave the past behind and charge ahead with change.

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This suitcase from the 1920s was designed for holding makeup as cosmetics became popular and accessible after World War I.

“Drop-waist dresses and cloche hats were all the rage. Makeup was openly worn and hair was cut into the Eton crop,” DeShong added.

Times shifted and so did fashion in the next decade.

“The 1930s was overshadowed by the Great Depression,” she said. “Fashion trends were influenced by popular films at the time that touted a more feminine look. Cut-on-the-bias dresses that created a flowing skirt and backless dresses were very stylish.”

Even dresses for daytime wear were more flowing, though the Depression kept more people from being able to afford new clothes.

The 1940s brought tiny shoulder pads that began appearing on dresses, a precursor to the more pronounced shoulder pads of the 1980s. Dresses took on a look of a “power suit” with a chic style although rationing during World War II limited the materials available.

“Fashion in the 1940s was heavily influenced by World War II,” DeShong said. “The suit with padded shoulders resembled a more militarist look. In 1947, the New Look, by Christian Dior, emerged. The full skirts and nipped-in waist was the new ideal and would continue into the 1950s.”

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Large hats, some of quite interesting design, were popular headpieces in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

At one point the government called for a stop to producing makeup but backtracked on that because of pushback from women and the social call for women to look their best when their “boys” returned from war.

“The clothing and accessories are set within a large, national context which makes it possible to see how fashion was affected by the events occurring at the time,” she said. “Women of Waco would have worn clothes similar to these.

“The cool thing about this exhibit is that every object that is displayed comes from Historic Waco Foundation’s permanent collection.”


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Rachel DeShong spreads out a fan made of ostrich feathers.

A Fashionable Past

What: Historic Waco Foundation exhibit of women’s fashions from 1880s to 1940s.

When, where: Exhibit runs from Oct. 6 through March 31 at Fort House, 503 S. Fourth St. Museum hours are 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays and 1 to 4 p.m. Saturdays.

Cost: Admission is $5 for adults and $4 for seniors and students. Active military and children 6 and younger are free.

More information: Online at historicwaco.org or call 753-5166.