Bustles, bonnets and corsets: Expert explains how history shaped fashion

Samantha Hill

Whether they were milking a cow or attending a debutant ball, the women of the Victorian and Edwardian periods in the Western United States knew style, according to living history expert Anne Foster.

Foster, who works as an archivist in Gardiner, prepared a show depicting women’s fashion from the late 1800’s and early 1900’s at the Livingston-Park County Library Thursday night as part of a women’s history speaker series.

She said she has been all over the U.S. in these outfits that she created herself.

Starting in the 1850’s, Foster described some of women’s signature items during this time period and the purpose of them.

One of the key pieces of fashion during this time was the corset. She said after the invention of spring steel, women were no longer wearing the whale bone corsets which provided more flexibility for the increasing number of women in the work force, it was also far less restrictive than what is perceived in films.

“The 18 inch waist was an invention by Hollywood,” Foster said, stating that women’s waists were closer to about 28 inches, similar to sizes today.

A volunteer from the large group of women in the audience was invited to demonstrate how much room is actually in a corset.

“It cinches and rather changes the shape of your waist rather than making it smaller,” she explained, showing it could be pulled tight without air constriction.

With the addition of hoop skirts and wide shouldered tops, women were creating the illusion of  smaller waists, Foster said.

During this time period, women’s fashion was greatly influenced by times of economic development including inventions such as the sewing machine and chemical lace, which made decorative fashion more accessible to everyone, she said.  

There were also a growing number of women out west who were becoming homesteaders in the late 1800’s. Foster said despite women being thousands of miles from a large city, women still adhered closely to the latest fashion trends by reading many magazines.

Other women in the west wore multi-purpose clothing, such as a skirt that turned to pants when needed to be practical and feminine.

During the presentation, three of Foster’s friends dressed in different time period garb that demonstrated the functionality of each of the era’s fashions. Each of the women sat in chairs to show the sometimes impracticality of fashion at the time, such as maneuvering a bustle.

One of the models for the event was Foster’s sister Jean Foster said she has been modeling these outfits for her sister for a number of years. Her sister has even made custom era pieces just for her.

Foster will do another presentation at 6 p.m. March 9 at the library called “Alcohol, Corsets and the Vote” which will discuss Suffragettes as well as other social movements women brought forth during the 1910’s.