Compared to the fashions of the previous decade, the 1890s styles were plainer, simpler, and more practical. Women had more freedom in their clothing choices and often sported reform clothing for outdoor activities like biking. Also notable is the widespread use of the shirtwaist or blouse and skirt. All walking skirts in the 1890s were designed to completely clear the ground.
In the early 1890s, the dominant skirt shape was the swooping tulip of bell form, which was snug and smooth over the hips and flared dramatically to a wide hem. The shape reappeared in the late 1890s.
Trim was largely concentrated on the bodice during the early 1890s, having contrasting fabric, lace, braids, puffs, frills, gathers, tucks, pleats, and fancy collars. By 1898, the bodice trim continued down the skirt, with sweeping curves and scallops of braid or lace sewn diagonally.
Corsets were loosened in the 1890s, and the shirtwaist or blouse, in white, pastels, deep colors, or stripes, were popular. These were generally worn with darker skirts. The bodice was cut extremely narrow in the shoulders with thick gathers of pleats and full over the bosom. The bust line was quite low by 1898. The women in the images below all wear separate skirts and blouses. The blouses are loose in the bosom with gathers and pleats down the front.
The back of the shirtwaist was usually shorter than the front, seamed down the back, and fitted. Collars were usually quite high and often very stiff and straight.
For active wear, women donned white or navy blue tops with sailor-like braid on a deep square sailor collar and long, black silk sailor ties.
The sleeves are one of the most distinguishing features of the 1890s costume. In 1890, the sleeve was very tight on the upper arm, and a puff was set vertically, high on the shoulder.
After 1892, the puff expanded around the upper arm. Leg-o'-mutton (or gigot) sleeves, characterized by their extreme fullness and puffiness from the shoulder to the elbow were fashionable at this time. Prior to 1895, sleeves were drooping.
By 1896, the sleeve extended almost horizontally from the shoulder without any drooping lines. A range of other shoulder-enhancing trim was seen on the bodice.
By 1898, the sleeve was tight, with a small, full, ball-shaped puff set very high on the arm.
The bishop sleeve (a full sleeve extending from shoulder and gathered at the wrist) still remained popular, although not as stylish and contemporary.