Period Fashions Reference Library

Ladies’ Evening Dress: Turn of the Century

(Information on Gentlemen’s Evening Wear appears on another page)

An Overview
by Catherine Bishop, Vintage Victorian

This is the period of the Gibson girl. The fashions are shaped by the introduction of a new corset which created an S bend to the figure. The silhouette is soft and feminine, usually created with soft flowing fabrics. The large puffed sleeves of the 1890s have disappeared, replaced by fitted or drooping sleeves, often with fullness at the elbow. Evening necklines are open, just at the turn of the shoulder, and bodices are lightly fitted or gathered in the front, creating a pigeon breast silhouette. Skirts are trumpet shaped and flow softly over the hips, flaring at the hem, often with short trains.

Embellishments are usually soft and frilly, ruffles and lace are seen in abundance. Fabrics are usually soft silks such as chiffon, crêpe, and satin, also lightweight cottons such as voile. Trimmings of both superfine and heavier “antique” style lace are seen in abundance as well as rich trims of taffeta and velvet. Ornaments of beading, spangles, rhinestones, and velvet ribbon, often in contrasting colors, are popular.

Les Modes 1905

An absolutely to-die-for evening dress
from Les Modes, September 1906

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Evening Dress, The Delineator, 1899

Contemporary Descriptions

Evening Gowns for Mid-Winter Dances

This being the season of the year when social gayeties are at their height, the question of ball gowns is one of most serious import for women of all ages who attend dances, either in the character of debutante, young matron, or chaperon. Thin materials are for the present the most fashionable for ball gowns; nets, gauzes, laces, and the softer silks have for the moment banished the handsomer and more effective brocades. The embroidery and trimming on these light fabrics are marvelous, both as to the work itself and coloring, while the amount of jeweled effect would be theatrical and disagreeable if it were not that the colorings were so subdued.

Harper’s Bazar, January 5, 1901

Matron’s ball gown of lilac satin with violet velvet and white and gold lace; scarf of gold-dotted black gauze.


Fashions for Ball Gowns

A ball gown is supposed to be, and really should be, the daintiest of all costumes. If intended for a young girl it need not of necessity be so elaborate in design as to look like a ceremonious state gown, nor should it be so elaborately made nor have so long a train as to interfere with dancing, but it is essentially full dress, and as such permits of a fanciful design to start with, rich trimming, and with much attention paid to what is becoming. Low neck and short sleeves are necessary for a ball gown, and even when a girl's neck is thin she is not supposed to be correctly gowned if she has it and her shoulders covered. If she is very thin there can be folds of lace or soft illusion put around the top of the gown, that will veil the shoulders and hide their defects, and the sleeves may be nearly to the elbow; but the moment a guimpe is worn, that moment must be relegated to half-dress, or demi- toilette, as the French say.

1890s couple dancing
Ball gown of embroidered gauze in pale blue with garlands
of tiny pink rose-buds at the neck and on the skirt.

There are more satin gowns being made up all the time to be worn by the young married women as well as the older women, and these gowns are exquisite in both fabric and design. An odd fancy that is very novel is combining chiffon and mousseline de soie with the satin. Black velvet has not been much worn for ball gowns for the last few years, but the chaperones or patronesses of the dances occasionally appear in gowns of that material.
Artificial flowers are much used both for hair ornaments and as trimming on the gown-the largest size roses possible made of silk or velvet in black, white, or different colors with, as has been said, the dewdrop effect of rhinestones or diamonds. The regular ball gowns have all short sleeves, but the gowns worn for small dances have elbow sleeves or long sleeves, with lace or chiffon.
Glacé kid gloves are more fashionable for evening wear than suede. The very short-sleeved ball gowns require the gloves to come way above the elbow. The elbow sleeves and the long ones require only a glove that comes a little above the wrist. White is preferred to any color, and under all circumstances. It is even the fad now to wear white gloves with a black gown, but then that is not saying that black gloves are not also very smart with the black gowns.
Patent-leather slippers are much worn with evening gowns, either low-cut, with tiny jewel led buckles or with the high vamp and big, old-fashioned paste buckles of former generations. With the most elaborate ball gowns, however, the correct slipper is of satin or brocade to match the gown itself. With black gowns, and even with some colored ones the slippers are of jetted black satin, and nothing, be it said, makes the foot look so small and graceful as these last. With them are worn the most exquisite of open-work light-colored stockings.

Harper’s Bazar, January 26, 1901


The World of Fashion

Plain and brocaded satin evening gowns, such as were described in the BAZAR last autumn as being the newest fashions in Paris, are now among the smartest examples of the dressmaker's art. The lines are so extremely graceful, the beauty of the material so noticeable, and the almost severe styles in which they are made, all tend to render them quite the most noticeable fashions that have been introduced for many years. White, in cream or ivory tints, and all the pale shades of blue, pink, or green, are used, with the trimming the most marvelous hand-embroidery of gold, silver, or pearls. The embroidery in out around the very hem of the skirt and on the upper part of the waist, or occasionally there is a more elaborate design on the front breadth. The skirts fit close to the figure, but have a great deal of flare below the knees. The waist, while still having the straight-front effect, fits close at the sides, and there is only fullness across the bust, where the folds are draped in as becoming a style as possible.

Harper’s Bazar, February 16, 1901


Ball gown of rose velvet with bow-knots of silver; pink roses with silver hearts.


Evening Costumes and Wraps

There are some very handsome brocades, satins, and embroidered velvets for evening wear, the velvets with lace insertion and medallions; but the smartest gowns are of transparent materials. Lace-preferably Chantilly-in black over white of some light color, and with the most wonderful embroidery on the lace, makes one of the favorite models of the year.

Harper’s Bazar, December 1901


Evening gown of moss-green taffeta for skirt and bow on bodice; waist of black point d' esprit over green chiffon plissé; bolero of squares of black lace with outline of velvet ribbon.


Evening Costumes and Wraps

The evening gowns are beautiful, becoming, and expensive this season, and a never- ending variety of materials and styles from which to choose. The transparent materials, such as net, lace, chiffon, mousseline de soie, are still tremendously popular, and are made up either plain or entirely covered with appliqué of lace and embroidery. But there are also dinner and ball gowns of silk, velvet or satin, which are turned out by the smartest dressmakers and worn by the best-gowned women, so there is no limit to one's choice.

Harper’s Bazar, February 1902


Evening gown of lemon-color satin painted with La France roses; shaped flounce of lemon-color mousseline over under ruffle of plissé mauve mousseline; Vest and drapery of lemon mousseline over mauve; jewelled butterflies on sleeves and corsage.


Summer Evening Gowns

Summer evening gowns are not made in quite such elaborate designs as are those intended for the winter, although just now the craze for laces and fine trimming makes the cost of these gowns nearly the same. White lace and black lace are both very much the fashion. The black lined with white silk, and the white sometimes with black, but really the smartest gowns are those that are lined with a color to match. Point d'esprit is in favor again being made over satin, and trimmed with a heavy and rather rich lace. The princesse style is much used, with a broad belt, however, pointed in front and round at the back. A draped fichu of tulle or chiffon tied in front is also an adjunct to a gown of this description.


Evening gown of white mousseline and ecru lace; nasturtium velvet ribbon lacing the bodice, and loops at left side of decollete; velvet nasturtiums on shoulder.

Flowered silks of all kinds are in fashion for evening gowns, and queer old dull blues with pink bouquets or baskets of flowers are very effective. The jacket waist is used with these gowns a great deal, with the wide bertha collar of heavy lace.

Harper’s Bazar, June 1902



Dinner and Ball Gowns

Ball gowns for spring and summer are the daintiest, prettiest things imaginable. The light, thin materials are very much in demand, and at the same time the fancy silks and the bright satins are tremendously popular. The lighter materials seem more appropriate for summer, but for next autumn and winter it is safe to predict that the heavy materials will be the most popular ones. At the moment, the gowns of chiffon, tulle, net, and lace are the ones that are most attractive. White is still the favorite color, but bright green, bright red, a pale shade of blue, and, last of all, pink, are in fashion as well. The skirts of ball gowns are being made shorter, and while there are many waists that have long, flowing sleeves of some transparent fabric, there are also many ballgowns made with little or no sleeves at all, and only a strap across the shoulder and just below the top of the arm, the strap being of passementerie, jet, jeweled lace, or flowers.

Harper’s Bazar, April 1903


Evening gown of rose color and white mousseline with mother-of-pearl spangles; high draped belt of rose taffeta.


Summer Evening Gowns

Summer evening gowns are perhaps the daintiest of any, and should be quite different in style from the evening gowns of the winter, although of late there has been so little difference made between the materials used for the different seasons that it is difficult for an amateur to distinguish among them. The thinnest and lightest of fabrics are used for winter ball gowns, and, on the other hand, velvets and satins, which at one time were relegated to winter wear, are now often included in a summer wardrobe—that is, the summer wardrobe of the woman who spends the season at Newport and Lenox. One reason for this is that the entertainments given during the summer season at such watering-places are quite as elaborate as those given in the winter, and there is no better opportunity, except, of course, at the opera, to show off fine gowns and superb jewels.
Lace gowns of all kinds are prominently in fashion at the moment, and are made with both high and low waists. The evening gown with low waist made of lace is one of the very smartest a woman can wear. There are also long princesse effects without any trimming save what is in the pattern. There are some charming gowns in net and tulle, black or white with spangles of silver and gold, or with black lace and white lace combined, and other most attractive gowns in black net with insertions and flounces of black Chantilly lace. These are without spangles, but often are trimmed with jet on the waist. The white net with appliqué of lace in medallions and flounces is as popular as ever, and is made up in all sorts of styles.
Chiffon gowns, white, black, and colored, are also fashionable, and the accordion-pleated ones are exceedingly smart. Many of these are made without any trimming on the skirt, others have clusters of chiffon ruchings, while others, again, are made with bands of lace insertion and a broader band around the hem—or where the hem would be if hems had not gone out of fashion.
Flowered muslin, batiste, and crepe de chine gowns are in fashion again for evening wear, and many of the crêpe de chine gowns are most elaborately braided and embroidered, while others have only a polka-dot or small fleur-de-lis pattern. These embroidered crepes are trimmed with fringe instead of lace, which makes them rather heavy, it must be admitted.

Harper’s Bazar, April 1903


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