Rebecca Armstrong, 1881 Bridal Historical Context

The event was in Tombstone, Arizona, which is preserved in close to its historic appearance:

“A Cult of Beauty”

It was the end of Queen Victoria’s time, & as the powerful empires of the world became settled & innovation & technology advanced, women found themselves with more choices than ever. While the everyday woman wore whatever was practical to her position, those positions varied greatly, & so did the choices. Three strong fashion movements rose in contradiction to each other: the “Cult of Beauty/Tailor Made” with its designer dictates for rigid corsetry & huge bustles, the “Aesthetics” who removed all structures & let the hair frizz free, & the “Mass Produced” simple & functional apparel for the new, working woman.












Reform Movement, Morris Counter to High Fashion

  • France gave America the Statue of Liberty as a gift in 1886
  • While conflict & independence over control of South American, African, & Pacific island territories continued for some, there was generally a sense of stability regarding the more powerful empires as boundaries had been established in Europe
  • Communication & trade continued to increase between Europe, America, & Asia
  • Countries were working on internal balance; e.g. American workers were rioting for rights, while the Netherlands were establishing policies for higher education
  • Women’s rights were being openly discussed in America & England, with women attending universities to pursue professions such as medicine
  • The first female medical school student graduated in Holland
  • Monarchies were nearing their end of dominance, as other governmental structures were put into place
  • Alfonso XIII of Spain would end the Spanish monarchy as one of the last remaining sovereigns in the world
  • Gas & electricity were being installed through wires & distribution systems
  • Electricity was used in manufacturing & transportation
  • There were many fires & explosions around the world as gas & electricity were not quite safe yet
  • The world of entertainment was evolving to include concepts & depictions of & by women, that would have been considered scandalous in previous eras
  • Cottage industries changed completely to mass production except in cases of specialty production of goods & services
  • Romance of the American West & adventure continued through literature & travels & investments by Europeans in American business & industry. These investments would lead to political change in America in the next century
  • America’s world dominance as an innovator continued with construction of skyscrapers, elevated trains, & the fountain pen




  • Women were more aware of the world around them & were becoming more independent
  • Individualism demanded there be many choices for lifestyle & fashion
  • The first Avon Lady was a man in 1886. He was a door to door book salesman who wanted to add a perfume gift as incentive to buy
  • There were 3 directions for fashion: Mass produced, “Tailor-made”, & the “Aesthetic” & “Artistic” (“Dress Reform”) movements



  • Clothes of “regular folks” from this time forward were very much plainer than those found in fashion plates
  • Even those who considered themselves fashionable or who had the money, still wore much plainer every day garments than earlier eras
  • A study of history of fashion of this time means taking the “fashionable”, & simplifying it to the basic elements of line, silhouette, color, texture, & function which would have been the everyday norm for people of European or American influence
  • Mass production of ready-made clothes flourished, so department stores & factories thrived, putting more women to work
  • One worker might be responsible for attaching sleeves to the bodice over & over all day long, unlike prior eras when one worker would make the whole garment
  • Many garment workers lugged their own sewing machines back & forth from the factory
  • By 1900, piece-work was often farmed out to workers to do in their homes. The”bundle brigades” became a profession in themselves to transport finished pieces to the garment factories
  • The term “sweatshop” came due to poorly lit & ventilated factories




  • The “Cult of Beauty” (“Paris mainstream fashion”) which lasted until 1900 was the fashion “standard” of the day. It emphasized a return to very high hand-made quality, but dictated designs generated by professionals which varied from fashionable to practical
  • English tailor-made was especially of high demand in America
  • The return of tailor-made versus ready-made was largely due to the heavy marketing of couture houses such as Redfern in Paris
  • Redfern’s designer at the time was an Englishman, Charles Poynter



  • The strong woman was the image of the day
  • Mainstream fashion depicted the strong woman, & met her demands for intellectual & physical freedom through “Tailor Made”, “Ready Made”, & even “Aesthetic” fashion
  • In the midst of this rising image of the strong, intellectual, innovative, & innate beauty, came a different type of feminine ideal
  • The heroine of the day was a Dicken’s-like frail heroine who had minute hands & tiny feet
  • She was quiet, calm, humble, & lived only for her man
  • She didn’t have a chance
  • Very quickly the full blown & powerful, outspoken, voluptuous, “Rubenesque” independent woman would knock the tiny pensive heroine off her pedestal
  • The prevailing ideal of the long lean look of the 1870s & 1880’s became the ’80’s-’90’s big, strong, & curvy silhouette of the emancipated woman with the literal & figuratively broad shoulders
  • There was an aggressiveness & rigidity about the new erect, square-shouldered female figure
  • Her image seemed to demand freedom for women from whatever suppressed them
  • The powerful image appealed to women
  • In spite of the counter movements for softness, weakness, & submission, the strong woman prevailed
  • The silhouette objective became the hourglass
  • From a young age, women strove for the new ideal
  • Girls were forced to walk with books on their heads & corks with needles sticking out around their necks to keep their necks long, their bodies strong, & posture perfect


Click here to go to the Fashion History Page with a comparison of the 1870’s and 1880’s (next)

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