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April/May 2002, pp. 8+

Copyright © 2002, KANSAS STATE HISTORICAL SOCIETY. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Fashion: 1890s

     By the 1890s, more women were attending college and working at jobs. Some earned their living by working two new inventions: the typewriter and the telephone. They also worked in other professions such as teaching, sales, writing and medicine. These women meant business, and they demanded "sensible dress." So out went the bustle.

     The professional look for women was a shirtwaist--a tailored, high-necked blouse with full sleeves--worn with a flared skirt. Many also wore a tailored jacket and a simple hat called a boater.

     Some still laced their waists into corsets, but most ladies no longer tried to wear them as tightly as before. Doctors warned adult women that fashionable 18-inch waists were unhealthy and unreasonable. Tight corsets had damaged women's ribs and internal organs.

On the Surface

     What a person wears makes a statement. But clothes don't always state what's true about the person inside. People can change clothes more easily than they can change their beliefs or culture.

     When Kansas became a state in 1861, many Native Americans had lived here for centuries. By the 1890s the United States government had moved most Indians to reservations. Many lived in poverty. Some Indian children were sent to work and live in mission schools or government boarding schools. The children could not wear their own clothes or speak their own languages. They had to learn English and wear clothing like that of the teachers.


     The missionaries thought they were helping the children. The government wanted the native people to be like main-stream society. Both thought it was best that the students forget their families' native customs.

     While the students changed their appearance, many did not forget their customs.

     * * *

     America built a fleet of modern, steam-powered ships in the late 1890s for the nation's new navy. Patriotism swelled and sailor suits in red, white and blue became a fashion craze.

Kids' Clothing Quiz

     The 1890s brought more fashion freedom for children. Children's clothing was loose and made to play in. Little girls got rid of their bustles. While girls' fashion was changing, very little boys still wore dresses and long curls. Often boys wore dresses until they were 5 or 6 years old, and then they were given short pants. This fashion continued into the 1920s. Look at the photographs to the side.


     Do the clothes or hairstyles tell you if the child is a boy or a girl?


     1. Boy. Harold Halbe, Dorrance, March 19, 1911
     2. Boy. George Halabe, Jr., Dorrance, September 21, 1908
     3. Girl. Fannie Carothers, Rice county, ca. 1990
     4. Boy. Illustration from the Delineator fashion magazine, 1894
     5. Boy. He had been gathering buffalo chips to burn for fuel with his mother when this photograph was taken in western Kansas.