Labor Day: fashion then and now

September 7, 2020

Labor Day — always celebrated on the first Monday in September — is an important public holiday in the US. Honoring how industrious American workers have brought prosperity to the nation, the first Labor Day was held in 1882 when how we worked, lived and dressed was very different.

But how different were clothing styles in 1882 compared to today? To celebrate Labor Day 2018, we’re exploring the top fashion trends of both eras to see what similarities and differences exist…


Although skirts became narrower as the 1800s wore on, skirts from 1882 onwards started to widen again. Around this time, the biggest skirt trend was for the design with the accentuated ‘bustle’ — padding worn under a skirt at the top to puff the fabric out.

Using deeply folded pleats, this style accentuated the hips and became one of the era’s most attractive and sought-after looks — something we’ve seen brought back in style today by Kim Kardashian, Nicki Minaj and Amber Rose. The trend for emphasizing the hip area didn’t last too long, but it was long enough to show that even prior to Instagram and hip-boosting, ‘body contouring’ surgery; there was a fascination for volumizing this part of the female body.

Fine silks were used to create formal going out tops and tailored skirts were made using linen or wool — fabrics that are still widely used today. There was a noticeable difference in the materials used by older and younger women too, as more mature women were often seen wearing thick velvet fabrics as opposed to thinner materials. Cotton wasn’t as commonly used as it is today either, this material was reserved for royalty or wealthy families as it was imported from abroad.


During the late 1800s, puff sleeves were very popular and this style is roaring back into trend according to Elle and Harper’s Bazaar, with Gigi Hadid, Margot Robbie and Emily Ratajkowski all rocking the look.

If you look at old photos, you’re sure to notice ladies wearing tight bodices and high-neck corsets. This was a leading trend for stylish women around 1882, partly due to a need for ladies to appear ‘covered up’ and respectable, yet still flaunting a feminine silhouette. High-collar shirts — especially with cut-out sleeves or completely bare arms — are popular today and bring the same air of sophistication to a modern-day style.


When it comes to patterns, tartan and plaid were popular largely due to the influx of Scottish immigrants to America who brought the fabric with them. We still see these prints today, largely around the autumn and winter months due to the warm color palettes.

Coats and jackets

Keeping in line with the covered-up approach to style, women were often seen in long-sleeved jackets that complemented their skirts.

Nipped in at the waist, jackets during this era were like dresses at the time, as their cinched waists showed off the female silhouette. We have similar styling today in tailored suit jackets and belted jackets; women often pair these with slim-leg trousers to show off their curves and extenuate their legs.

Bright colors were commonly used in the late 1800s, peacock blue and bold red are two hues that were especially popular. In addition to these, the 1890s are known by some as the “mauve decade” due to the invention of this color dye around this time. Nowadays, we have a wider range of clothing to choose from, but we still take inspiration from the bright hues of the 19th century if we’re looking to add a pop of color to our look.


Women still accessorized in the 1800s, bonnets in particular were popular which were secured around the chin with ribbon or lace. Although this style of headwear is long gone, hats and head pieces, such as fascinators, are still widely worn to weddings and formal events to complement an outfit.

Tight-fitting necklaces were also worn in the late 1800s, made popular by Queen Alexandra of England who wore one to hide a scar on her neck. Although they’ve changed in appearance, chokers are still a popular accessory today. As noticed by Hello magazine, this style has been spotted on the likes of Taylor Swift and Kim Kardashian.

Of course, fashion trends have changed since the first Labor Day, but we still take a lot of our inspiration from the ladies of the 1800s. Could lace bonnets and knee-length swimsuits make a comeback…?



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