Department of Textiles, Fashion Merchandising and Design

The URI Historic Textile and Costume Collection

On-line Catalog

Woman's Winter Coat, ca. 1880
Donor: Mrs. S. Jean Martin
Accession Number: 1985.11.1

Figure 1.   Coat front

Figure 2. Coat open to show lining

The design of this three-quarter-length coat is simple, elegant, and streamlined (Figure1). The front is flat, while the back is shaped by princess seams from the armscye to the hem. A decorative button and frog placket conceals the six-button front closure. The high stand-up collar and closely fitted sleeves further accentuate the clean lines of the coat.

The outer layer of this coat is a plush fabric similar to velvet. It has a cotton ground with cut silk supplementary wefts. It is lined with a quilted cotton fabric (Figure 2). The coat is machine-stitched throughout, except for hand stitching between the button plackets.

This coat was worn when dresses had slight bustles and tightly fitted sleeves. A mid-1880s date can be ruled out due to the lack of back fullness that would have been necessary to accommodate the large bustle of this era. By 1890, the bustle had deflated and sleeves were beginning to be gathered and raised high in the sleeve caps.

Figure 3.  "New Styles for Winter Wraps." Peterson's Magaszine, November, 1879.  Figure 4.   "New Styles for Winter Wraps." Peterson's Magazine, November, 1879. 

Figures 3-4 are examples of winter outerwear from the November 1879 issue of Petersonís Magazine. Three-quarter and half-length coats in black and brown were popular for outerwear in 1880. According to Naomi Tarrant, long, tight fitting coats made of plush velvet, heavy woolens, and lightweight jerseys were fashionable through the 1880s (Tarrant 1986:34).  Thus, the URI coat is representative of womenís outerwear circa 1880.

Cultural Analysis
The plush fabric and insulating qualities of the quilted lining would have offered protection on cold winter days. In Rhode Island, this type of coat would have been a necessity during harsh New England winters.
According to Douglas Russell, fitted coats became popular among middle class women in the late 1870s (Russell 1983:378). They were preferred over dolmans for traveling, skating, and other demanding activities. Considering the quality of the URI coat, it is therefore reasonable to assume the URI garment belonged to a woman of moderate means.

This winter coat offers insight into American culture and society. The fashions of the 1880s are closely related to the Victorian social structure. An examination of this coat may lead to an investigation of womenís movements and reform in the late nineteenth century. In another related direction, this coat may be analyzed as a step in the development of sport specific clothing. Furthermore, it provides an example of the constant struggle for balance between function and fashion.

Petersonís Magazine, November 1879, February 1880.
Russell, Douglas A. Costume History and Style. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice- Hall, Inc., 1983.
Severa, Joan. Dressed for the Photographer: Ordinary Americans and Fashion, 1840-1900. Kent: Kent State University, 1995.
Tarrant, Naomi. Great Grandmotherís Clothes: Womenís Fashions in the 1880s. Edinburgh: The National Museums of Scotland, 1986.

By Elizabeth Lykken

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