The Fashion of the 1900’s

Prior to the 1900’s clothing had a very plain style. To call it fashion is an overstatement. Most clothing was used simply as covering to keep out the elements. It wasn’t until the 1900’s that fashion started to shape into an industry. The early part of the 1900’s showed women carrying over full cover dresses. This conservative style showed very little skin and underneath was generally a corset. The style of the time was formal by today’s standards. Lace, ribbons, and frills were the staple of early 1900’s fashion. Corsets played a big part of fashion at this time. The clothing of the time was fitted to emphasize the torso in a corset. Most clothing was tailored to fit each individual and then more expensive and fancier fabrics were sewed on around the lining to give it the formal look. These dresses were typically accompanied by a girdle or belt to hold the waistline. (Kass, 6)

The early 1900’s saw a shift towards ready-to-wear clothing. Before the fashion industry industrialized, most clothing, both male and female, was made at home during a lengthy tailoring process. During the early part of the 20th century, mass-production would slowly start to filter in to photographs. Men’s clothing was the first to be produced in ready-to-wear, but women’s soon followed. Also for the first time, fashion trends were just starting to be recognized. Most designs were from tailors from Paris that had been copied and reproduced in a factory to be sold at a much cheaper price than the original. Despite all these advances in mass-produced clothing, most formal pieces (especially for women) were still in the same style as the 1900’s where they would be sown by hand at home or by a tailor. (Pendergast, 664)

Examples of Clothing preceding the 1900’s in Mahwah:


Pictured above is a member of the Carlough family. This was a formal picture so the suit clearly appears to be of a hand-sewn nature. For most sit-down pictures, it was an event that families tried to look their best in. During the end of the 19th century, while mass produced clothing was available for men, any formal photograph usually required the finely tailored suits that were prevalent leading up to the 20th century.



Another Formal photo of the Carlough Family. As can be seen each piece of clothing the family members are wearing is different from the others. Hand tailored clothing ruled the formal photo setting. The men are wearing the traditional suits with trousers and button down shirts and jackets. The example of the fine style of dress is displayed perfectly. As the woman in the center left displays, dresses conformed to the shape of the woman wearing it. Most used a corset to compress the chest which also restricted movement as a side effect. Judging from the rigid posture of the two adult females, it is easy to speculate they are wearing one as well. In addition to the shape, the formal style of the time involved the layering of fine fabric in ornate patterns over the initial frame of the dress which is most easy to see in the shoulders and high collars. Women were expected to cover most of their body and skirt lengths typically reached almost to the floor.

Clothing for the decade of the 1900’s



Thee 1900’s saw a break away from the hand-tailored suits for men. In the family portrait of these Mahwah residents, while the women still wear hand-tailored clothing, the man appears to have shifted towards a ready-to-wear suit. The man appears to be of better standing as he is wearing a “sack suit” or three piece suit which consists of a detachable collar, button down shirt, and jacket. Meanwhile, women’s fashion was slow to embrace ready made clothing. The style still shows a very formal hand-sewn look. The ornate pattern of expensive fabric show that for formal photos, women still wore what was fashionable in the 1890’s for things like gatherings or sit-down photos.



Fashion was not limited to just adults. Children too were expected to dress up for formal photos. Pictured above is — wearing the same styles as any other grown adult. Trends were changing towards more mass produced clothing so to be still wearing a formal hand sewn dress that had been sewn to her exact size at this time shows that the family wasn’t in any real financial trouble. The ornate patterns of dress layered on still hold true at this time however, the dress isn’t tailored so tightly to form. This is most likely because despite continuing to wear the styles pre-dating the 1900’s, there was a moving away from the restrictive corset that was an important part of the style until then.