1873 - 1912

Grand Entrance – Fashion in the “Ringstrasse era”

Wien Museum

When sophisticated Viennese society kitted itself out with a new wardrobe, elegance and opulence were at the top of the wish-list. The major fashion trends of the “Ringstraße era” make a grand entrance at Wien Museum: extravagant ball gowns and effusive hats, wedding dresses and widow‘s weeds, corsets and ankle boots.

‘What should I wear, and when?’
For ladies and gentlemen who belonged to ‘society’, this was a never-ending question, whatever the season and whatever the occasion. There was a visiting outfit for receiving or making social calls; a tea gown or suit for afternoon tea; a ‘turftoilette’ for attending the races; a promenading outfit for taking the air; and a special set of clothes, known as a ‘Firnis costume’, worn only for exhibition openings. 

A lady was only ‘properly’ dressed when equipped with a hat, gloves and a fan, and would never leave the house unless accompanied by these accessories. Displaying one’s spending power, along with adherence to a strict etiquette, governed the everyday lives of most prosperous families in the late nineteenth century; and an ability to understand the finest nuances of taste and appearance was one of the keys to social success.

Women’s clothing was decorative, symbolic and extremely flamboyant.

Men’s fashion, by contrast, was expected to conform to the bourgeois ideals of hard work and thriftiness, and so was generally characterized by a simple and functional style and restrained colors.

Negligé, sometimes still known as deshabillé in the nineteenth century, referred to an elegant house and matinée gown. This garment, often elaborately designed with plissées and square patches of embroidery, was worn by the lady of the house at breakfast.

Only close female friends and married men were permitted to see her in this dress; it was never worn for formal visits. The cut was similar to a day dress, but somewhat more comfortable, and it was no accident that the negligé was known as a woman’s ‘victory robe’.

The trotteur (from the French for ‘run’, ‘trot’, ‘suitable for walking’), a severely cut suit made of densely woven woollen fabrics, became the most common term for English tailored costumes at the end of the nineteenth century.

Arriving as the ‘tailor-made’ from England in 1887, the trotteur became increasingly popular. It was intended to be worn only for when leaving the house to do errands or make calls in the mornings, and was accompanied by a suitable shirt. The trotteur was the predecessor to today’s costume.

One of the great pleasures of Viennese society was the daily promenade along the Ringstrasse, a continuance of the older tradition of walking along the city walls.

The famous Sirk-Ecke (Sirk corner) was always the busiest spot, and critic Ludwig Hevesi wrote, “Every evening, the short stretch of pavement between Kärntner Gate and Schwarzenberg Square (but only on the city side), becomes a terrifying mass of people, a swarm of urban humanity, arm in arm with itself, pouring over and over itself like a wave, as if a conspiracy were creeping up on Vienna under cover of darkness. At the notorious corner, where, as if obeying some unseen command, everyone turns as one to go back again, the various groups press inexorably towards each other, preventing any further movement: the Order of the Knights of Fashion, the Bemonocled Aristocracy, the Creased-Trouserocracy.”

Carl Schuster who was born in Purkersdorf and created this painting was an artist and illustrator in Vienna.

Around 1850, men’s fashion saw the arrival of the double-breasted frock coat with overlapping knee-length coat-tails from the waist. As formal daywear, this retained its popularity until around 1930, usually with the coat itself entirely in black and the trousers in black and grey vertically striped fabric.

Tailleur generally referred to a gown or outfit in a French style, implying a feminine cut and the use of soft fabrics such as velvet or taffeta – chosen according to the time of year – embellished with ribbons, braiding and gemstones.

Women wore such a gown when walking out at midday or to meet friends at the patisserie, and accompanied it with a fantastically elaborate blouse made of lace, muslin or silk, along with a fur or feather boa, a gold or silver purse and, of course, a fashionable hat and gloves.

This enchanting spring or summer gown would have been ideal for walking in the city park or the Prater or for a stroll in the garden. The ‘hourglass figure’ was characterised by wide leg-of-mutton sleeves, a close-fitting upper gown, a narrow-laced wasp waist and a skirt that stretched smoothly and tightly over the hips to the knee before flaring out into a bell-like skirt.

Men’s suits took a step forward in the 1860s. The jacket gave way to the single-breasted frock coat, loosely cut and worn with trousers in the same fabric.

By the end of the nineteenth century, this kind of suit was being worn tailored close to the body with a small lapel, the forerunner of the everyday suits of the twentieth century.

Depending on fashion, the suit could (and still can) be worn single or double-breasted, with a narrow or broad lapel, loosely cut or tailored and with or without padded shoulders.

Visiting or calling clothes were required for social introductions or for attending afternoon tea. The cut and colour of each gown was adapted to the vogue of the time, but a small train was essential. These dresses were elaborately made from taffeta, grosgrain, satin, tulle and soft wollen materials. This variegated blue gown, with its pleated sleeves and fitted waist, is typical of the kind of dresses first to be worn with a tournure.

A tournure, or bustle, could be created with the help of either a small crescent-shaped cushion, stuffed with horsehair, or by using a semi-circular frame of steel rings incorporated into the centre of the petticoat at the back. Its function was to support the padding and gathering of the upper gown in order to create an overly large derrière.

The tournure was so popular that its name became synonymous not only with the dress itself, but also with the entire history of clothing at this time.

The unwritten rule that one should wear a different outfit for each kind of daytime social occasion resulted in special outfits being created even to attend the opening of an exhibition. Such events were known in Vienna as ‘Firnisstage’ (Varnish Days). These were seen as occasions where the members of certain social circles, who would often be well acquainted with each other already, could meet in a more intimate setting than usual.

Clothes for a Firnisstag should be a little more elaborate than one’s usual attire, even a little more daring. This silk dress is a typical example; note how it closely hugs the body, its conspicuous, flamingo-pink colour, the creamy tulle lace netting, the boned collar and coquettish rosette feature.

The term ‘turf toilette’ refers to an extravagant dress that was intended to be worn to the races. In Vienna, the first day of May was the most important date in the racing calendar. If the weather was good, then the whole of aristocratic society, from the Emperor to the landed gentry, would drive down to Freudenau via the Prater Hauptallee in their smartest carriages, often cheered on by the rest of the town.

“The most blue-blooded of princesses, accompanied by muses from Thalia’s and Terpsichore’s bower,” wrote a contemporary visitor, “appeared in their newest, most costly spring garments to take part in this magnificent display.”

All kinds of sartorial rules governed an appearance at the theatre, opera or concert. The important factors to be considered were the time of year, the seats (box or stalls?), the performance (an operetta, or something more highbrow?) and the time of day. Hats could be worn in a box, but not in the stalls. Dresses must be buttoned up to the neck except during the season (carnival time), when they were permitted to reveal a little of the décolleté.

Etiquette demanded that one should dress more seriously for the theatre, and with elegant restraint for an operetta or revue, as on these occasions fashion should be left to the voyantes, the demi-monde of women who could never enter society.

A ballgown, on the other hand, allowed a woman to make the most of her attractions, although here too, of course, she had to remember the demands of social etiquette.

The neckline, which was often wide, was only allowed to reveal a hint of bosom, and young girls were urged to be modest. The dress would generally have short sleeves or shoulder straps, and often be decorated in the most extravagantly spendthrift manner with lace, tassels, artificial flowers, pearls and paste jewellery.

Heavy fabrics were sometimes preferred, but dresses could also be made of dainty materials such as peau de soie, brocade, velvet, taffeta, moiré, muslin, tulle and organdie, often combined, and could be matte or shiny in a variety of intoxicating colours.

Fans were required when out walking, on excursions and when horse riding; when seated in a box at the theatre; at the ball; for flirtation and to go out in public without being recognised. Ideally, this important accessory would be adapted in colour and fabric to the occasion and to the clothes one was wearing. The fan shown here is an elaborately designed ball fan made of costly material. Fans, known in Vienna as Waderl, reached the height of their popularity in the eighteenth century, but remained an indispensable, if fragile, accessory for adornment, collection, practical use and flirtation well into the twentieth century.

White bridal gowns were first worn in the nineteenth century. They became fashionable in part due to the influence of Classicism, where women were often depicted wearing white, but also after a number of aristocratic brides chose to wear them.

Queen Victoria of England, Empress Eugénie of France and Empress Elisabeth of Austria all wore white at their weddings. The colour symbolised purity, chastity and virginity.

Of course, it was only the well-off families who could afford a white dress for the ‘most important day’ in their daughters’ lives.

This is an example of a particularly fashionable bridal gown in the style of designer Paul Poiret (1879–1944), who was inspired by the Ballet Russes and its oriental costumes. It has a rather high waist on a lace bodice that is sleeveless at the top, giving way to lightly draped panels at the sides.

The back of the dress is emphasised with a particularly large weave. In accordance with the demands of etiquette, the cut conceals the entire body. The dress is closed with a high boned collar and three-quarter-length sleeves.

This combination is typical of the outfit conventionally worn at weddings and receptions. At the wedding, the bridegroom wore a small bunch of rosemary or myrtle in his buttonhole. The groom’s ceremonial dress developed from the frock coat after 1850, but its origins are to be found in the cutaway, the English riding jacket of the early nineteenth century.

The cutaway was a tailcoat with cut-back tails, rather like a swallow-tail coat. It was always single-breasted with a tapered lapel, in a black or grey fabric, worn from around 1900 with black-and-grey striped cuffless trousers.

It may seem strange today that a bride should wear black, but in the nineteenth century it was a common sight. The ‘black silk’ was often a woman’s best dress if she was not from a wealthy family.

It could fulfil a variety of functions. It could be worn as it was for making and receiving calls, it could be combined with jewellery for parties and, if needed, it could even be worn as mourning.

In this way, it is a direct predecessor of today’s ‘little black dress’, and as such formed an essential part of any bride’s trousseau. However, when it came to weddings, even poorer brides liked to wear a white veil and carry an appropriate bouquet.

Fashion journals constantly discussed the newest bridal wear, but generally advised brides they should on no account wear a pure white dress, as these would make you look pale. Instead, an ‘off-white’ dress was recommended in satin, peau de soie, taffeta or crêpe de chine.

Bridal gowns were often adorned with myrtle and rosemary, evergreen symbols of love, and with orange blossom, which represented fruitfulness.

Mourning symbolised humility and respect for the dead. The requirement to be seen to be mourning was a particular burden for women, who were expected to wear ‘widow’s weeds’ for at least a year. Noble widows such as Queen Victoria and Maria Theresa wore their mourning until they died.

A mourning outfit had to be black and made in a matte material that did not reflect the light. Crêpe was particularly associated with mourning, but while for men a simple black crêpe band around the arm was sufficient, women were obliged to wear black dresses, hats and heavy crêpe veils.

It was not until the second year of mourning that a woman was permitted to wear colours again, and then only discreet colours such as grey or mauve.

A ‘city fur’ was a status symbol for a man of distinction. This was a typical winter coat made of heavy wool fabric with a fur collar, passemente fastenings and a fur lining.

Rudolf von Alt, son of the artist Jakob Alt, depicted scenes from his era in more than a thousand watercolours. Many of them feature Vienna, and his style particularly lends itself to revealing the atmosphere of a place.

Here we see a tableau of ‘Rich and Poor’ in front of the opera house; an officer in uniform, a man of the world in his frock coat and top hat, an elegant Viennese lady in intoxicating silks, wearing a little round hat hat and carrying a filigree parasol, and a poor girl, selling violets.

All life is spread before us: at the crossroads of the Vienna State Opera.

Wien Museum
Credits: Story

Wien Museum

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