Fashion in the 1890s: Jane Emily Ewart

Jane Emily Ewart (b. 1847) was the daughter of Mrs. Catharine Seaton Ewart and second wife of James Johnston (J.J.) Steele when they married in 1880. They had two daughters together, Anna Bertha Steele and Mabel Ewart Steele, both who later married. Anna and Mabel donated this dress to the collection.

In 1868, James’ father bought a distillery in Greensville and named it the Flamborough distillery. In the next two years, J.J. changed it over to a malt house and continued to run it well into 1897 when he partnered with the Dundas Malt House. Unfortunately, the business folded in 1902 and J.J was forced to sell the company. Jane died in 1923, one year before her husband. Both are buried at Grove Cemetery.

This dress features “leg-o-mutton” or gigot sleeves on the upper arms.  The widths of these sleeves are fairly tame compared to some of its predecessors. While the baggy sleeves seem to be an odd fashion trend, they served to create an optical illusion as the wider sleeve made the top half of a woman exceedingly wide. Therefore, the tapering of her waist looks extremely slim in contrast to the ridiculous sleeves. This trend was popular in the 1820s and 1830s with far wider sleeves than these ones. The style returned in the 1890s but was subdued.

The silhouette is significantly reduced by the end of the decade. By now, women have shed the metal structures underneath their skirts and tended towards strategic folding and pleating that gave their dress volume on the surface without the heavy undergarments.

As this decade came to a close, there were significant changes in the way women were receiving their clothes. The Industrial Revolution was slowly making it more acceptable to purchase ready-to-wear dresses. No longer did a woman need to purchase the fabric and then consult a dressmaker. There were now dresses that were pre-made in a few standardized sizes. Advents in the sewing industry made machine stitching far easier and cost effective than hand-sewing the dresses.  It would take a few more decades for Industrialization to take over completely, but this decade sets the stage for further mechanization.

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