Fashion and Isabella

It’s Spring! With the change of season comes certain rituals, like going to our closets to see how we can incorporate the latest styles and fashion trends into our wardrobes.

Isabella Alden lived to be eighty years old, and in her lifetime she saw many Spring fashion trends come and go. One of the earliest photographs of Isabella was taken about 1877 when she was 36 years old.

The Aldens and Macdonalds at Chautauqua in about 1877. Left to right: Gustavus “Ross” Alden (Isabella’s husband), Raymond Macdonald Alden (Isabella’s son), Myra Spafford (Isabella’s mother), Isabella Macdonald Alden, Julia Macdonald (Isabella’s sister), and an unidentified woman.

That’s Isabella sitting in the foreground of the photo, along with her husband, the Reverend Gustavus “Ross” Alden” and their son Raymond. The photo was taken in front of the Alden’s first cottage at Chautauqua Institution.

Isabella’s dress, with its lacy collar, long sleeves, and modest train, was very much in keeping with the style of the day.

Her choice of a plaid fabric for her gown indicates Isabella kept up with current styles, such as the plaid gown in the 1875 fashion plate above, or the plate dated 1877 below:

By 1891 women’s fashions began to change dramatically. Skirts took on slimmer silhouettes, and sleeves went the opposite direction—instead of slim and fitted, they were gathered to form puffs at the shoulders before tapering to fitted cuffs like these:

Once again, Isabella’s attire reflected those fashion trends. In the photo below, taken about 1895 when she was in her fifties, Isabella is wearing a dark, solid-color gown, with a standing lace collar and sleeves that gathered at the shoulders.

In keeping with the clothing construction of the time, Isabella’s gowns would have been either a single, one-piece garment consisting of a bodice, sleeves and skirt; or her gowns might have been made up of two pieces, consisting of a bodice—sometimes called a waist—and a skirt; both pieces were typically made from matching fabric and styled so they appeared, when worn together, to be a single garment.

But in the late 1890s an entirely new innovation hit women’s fashion: The shirtwaist.

Today we’d call it a blouse, but in the late 1890s, shirtwaists revolutionized the way women dressed. Shirtwaists buttoned down the front or back and were constructed of lightweight fabrics such as silk, cotton, or linen for summer; flannel and wool for winter.

More importantly, shirtwaists instantly gave women many more clothing options. They were suitable to be worn with tailored suits, or with a simple skirt for housework or playing sports. Dressier versions were suitable for afternoon receptions, going to the theater or evening wear.

Styles varied, too; from impeccably tailored shirtwaists, like this one:

To highly decorated styles with lace, embroidery or pleats.

Isabella readily adopted the new fashion. This publicity photo, taken in 1900 when she was about fifty-nine years old, shows her wearing a very feminine shirtwaist with ruffled collar, pleats, and lace:

Shirtwaists were versatile and affordable. The Sears catalog of 1902 offered ladies’ shirtwaists starting at sixty-nine cents, which is equivalent to about $20.50 today.

With those kinds of prices, it was easy for women to enlarge their wardrobes simply by alternating different shirtwaists with their skirts and suits.

By 1905 shirtwaists were firmly entrenched as must-have garments for every woman’s wardrobe. Their production helped launch the ready-to-wear industry that we know today.

Isabella, on the left wearing a shirtwaist and skirt, with her sister, Marcia Livingston.

During her lifetime, Isabella embraced innovation, from gadgets (such as typewriters and telephones) to automobiles and women’s suffrage. And while she knew that, as a minister’s wife, she had to set an example for the manner in which Christian women should dress, she still seemed to keep up with the times when it came to fashion.