Pretty white summer dresses were everywhere in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They were lightweight and cool, and everyone looked fabulous in them, whatever the occasion. No wonder these gowns were so popular.
In August 1897, a fashion writer counseled the wives of railroad men as follows: “The white dress is indeed the prettiest and most useful of all Summer frocks. It serves as an afternoon street costume, may be worn to a lawn fete in the evening, and with a little lace and ribbon decoration may be worn to Summer opera. Moreover, it is always charming as a house dress for small receptions.” According to Demorest’s Family Magazine in June 1890, “The simple hem-stitched white lawns with deep embroideries make pretty summer dresses for all-day wear, and a flat, wide sash of ribbon is all they need to make them quite dressy.”
Lace is the subject of “Mrs. Ralston’s Chat About Summer Clothes” in the May 1903 issue of Ladies’ Home Journal. “The plain white gowns of Swiss, organdy, and, in fact, all of the thin white summer materials, are trimmed principally with insertions of lace, either white or of an écru shade.” This early 1900s predecessor of Martha Stewart goes on to recommend that if you are using old, slightly soiled lace as a trimming, “it is a good idea to dip it in coffee and color it to the prevailing fashionable tint of écru. It may then be used to trim a white muslin gown. Very often the most inexpensive lace in white if treated in this manner assumes quite an elegance of its own and makes an extremely pretty trimming for a sheer white muslin gown.”
The Advertisers Cyclopedia of Selling Phrases (1909) devotes an entire section to “White Goods.” For example, Donaldson’s of Minneapolis reminds shoppers to purchase “a large and varied assortment of dainty white fabrics in all the most desirable materials, consisting of India Linens, Persian Lawns, Organdies, Swisses, Mercerized Poplins, etc. It is high time to have the materials for your summer gown in the dressmaker’s hands.” Meanwhile, in New York, Bloomingdale’s gets right to the point, “White stuffs lead, you know!”
Let’s take a look at a white dress of about 1895 in Bartow-Pell’s costume collection. Our eyelet lace ensemble is made of a fine lawn fabric and is embellished with lace insertions and embroidery. The separate skirt comes with a choice of two bodices—a long-sleeved version with a high neck for day wear, and a short-sleeved one with a lower, open neckline to wear to “dances and similar occasions. I always think it wise to have two bodices for either a white or a black dress, especially if one goes out much, for . . . one can in this way have two distinct dresses to all intents and purposes at very slight expense,” as Hélène advised in “Fashions from Paris” in Home Notes (November 1895). The sleeves of Bartow-Pell’s day bodice are very full at the top and fitted below the elbow. They are cut in the stylish leg-of-mutton shape from the mid-1890s, which was a revival of the gigot sleeves from the 1830s. Alternatively, the dressier (and lacier) low-necked bodice has short, puffed lace sleeves, a square lace-trimmed neckline, a lace yoke, and covered back buttons. The bodices, which are slightly pouched, presage the fashionable pigeon-breasted silhouette of the early 1900s. Readers of Leslie’s Weekly learned about this new style on February 28, 1895: “The favorite bodice has a pouched front. That is, it bags over the belt directly at the centre.” The skirt is narrow through the hips and flares out at the bottom; numerous small tucks control the fullness of the fabric. A succession of lace insertions gives an illusion of flounces, and a short demi-train sweeps the floor. This dress may have been worn in her youth by a member of the International Garden Club (now the Bartow-Pell Conservancy) or by one of her relatives.
Hats were a big fashion trend in the 1890s as bonnets began to go out of style. And in the early 1900s, hats just got bigger. These frothy concoctions often had trimmings galore, such as flowers, ostrich plumes, feathers, ribbons, and bows. However it was decorated, a stylish hat was easy to coordinate with a lovely white dress. In summer weather, women carried parasols, which were essential for protecting delicate complexions from the sun. Bartow-Pell’s collection includes one from B. Altman, the legendary New York department store. “Parasols to match the gowns are exceedingly fashionable,” writes Marie Duval in “Artistic Parasols” (Godey’s, July 1895). “A pretty brunette attired in a white, dotted muslin gown, trimmed with yellow lace and ribbon, is thoroughly bewitching beneath a white dotted parasol edged with narrow yellow ribbon.”
These outfits were especially popular for outdoor events. White fabrics were not only cool in summer weather, but they also created a pleasing picture when worn in the open air amidst fresh green grass and leafy trees. In July 1878, Demorest’s Monthly Magazine describes attire for garden parties: “The revival of lawns and muslins has given us a suitable material for garden-party costumes, of which ladies are availing themselves of largely. White is, of course, always used more or less, and still forms a large proportion of the toilets now upon dressy occasions of this character.” And sometimes, women dressed in white for lawn tennis, croquet, and yachting.
It is well known that white dresses come from a long fashion tradition and were not just a fin-de-siècle fad. In the 1780s, Marie Antoinette popularized simple white muslin dresses in a style known as the chemise à la reine. These gowns—which reflect the aristocracy’s fascination with pastoral life—caused a royal scandale because their informal appearance was considered improper for the queen of France. Furthermore, these garments did nothing to support the French silk and luxury textile industry. Josephine Bonaparte was among the trendsetters in the early 19th century who favored diaphanous white dresses inspired by classical antiquity. Neoclassical artists such as Adam Buck (Anglo-Irish, 1759–1833) recognized the aesthetic appeal and cultural underpinnings of these white Grecian-style gowns—which were considered very modern—and depicted them in their work.
Later, in the early 20th century, suffragists adopted white to symbolize the purity and solidarity of their movement.
White—with its ability to send a strong message—has been a powerful symbol throughout history. For example, babies, children, debutantes, and brides have worn it to signify purity, innocence, and virtue. And, at times, white has been worn for mourning.
Around the turn of the 20th century, women across the social spectrum were keen to own pretty white summer dresses, including the wives and daughters of farmers and railroad workers, college students, working women, housewives, Gibson Girl sophisticates, and society ladies. This wardrobe staple was always in good taste. Besides, it was a great look.
Margaret Highland, Historian