People living in the 1870s dressed much differently than we do today, and the clothing least like our own was the clothing worn by women.
Ladies’ dresses fitted smoothly from the shoulders to the waist (bodice) and the sleeves of dresses were almost always simple and straight, extending to the wrist. Women often wore ruffled frills or collars and cuffs to dress up plain sleeves and bodices.
Skirts were long, reaching to the instep and sometimes to the floor. Fancy dresses often had extra-long skirts (trains) dragging along the ground. Dresses had hoops that were flat in front, with the greatest fullness of the skirt pushed out behind. Gradually, hoops became smaller and smaller until they disappeared altogether and were replaced by the bustle. The extra fullness of the skirt was gathered to the back of the dress over this hump. Frequently two skirts were worn, one over the other. Sometimes the two skirts were of different colors, the overskirt usually matching the bodice. By the late 1870s, the bustle was usually only a small pad, for the dresses were much less full. The snugness of the bodice began to extend down over the hips.
Dresses were often of two colors. Black or dark-colored trim on lighter colors was quite popular. Stripes, checks, and plaids were the most popular patterns of the period. Although some women wore bright colors such as emerald green, crimson, purple, magenta, yellow, and electric blue, many women wore quiet colors such as browns, grays, dark greens, olive drabs, and darker purples. For many women, their best dress was of black silk.
Ladies wore their hair smooth in the front, with the bulk of it in a chignon (large bun) at the back. Hats were small and decorated with feathers and artificial flowers. Sunbonnets had long “curtains” at the back to protect the neck, and the bonnet strings were very narrow and tied in front under the chin.
Little girls were dressed very much like their mothers except that their skirts were shorter, coming about midway between knee and ankle. Girls wore pinafores for school and play. Often they had only a large bow in back of their dresses instead of a bustle.
Babies were usually dressed in long dresses, with wide necklines.
Small boys to the age of four or five were dressed in skirts just like their sisters. Then they wore short pants. By the time a boy was school age, he wore long pants like his father. Small boys’ jackets were often collarless, fastening with a single button at the top. Sailor suits for boys and girls started to be popular.
The clothes of older boys and of men were very much alike with a few exceptions. Both men and boys wore three-piece suits, consisting of pants, coat, and waistcoat or vest. These three pieces were sometimes the same color or with pants or vest lighter than the coat. The pants came down to the instep and were not creased down the front. Both men and boys wore “sack” coats that were similar to modern dress coats. However, they buttoned up the front as high as a modern vest. Men wore frock coats for more formal occasions. These came almost to the knee.
Pictures of Abraham Lincoln and of Brigham Young show them wearing frock coats. Both men and boys wore shirts with long sleeves. The collars could be short and fold over (like a modern shirt) or were standing collars, with or without the corners turned down. Ties were usually black and either tied like a modern tie (four-in-hand) or in a bow. Bow ties were common for boys. Hats included bowlers and top hats, as well as planter or cowboy hats. Colors for men were black, gray, buff, and brown. Sometimes there was a trace of bright color in a tie.
Boys and girls and men and women all wore shoes like a low-topped boot for every day. These shoes either laced up the fronts or were buttoned up the sides. The toes were rounded rather than pointed. Women and children had white stockings although sometimes children wore stockings with horizontal stripes.