The Gay Nineties is a micro-era within the larger Victorian time period. Gay as in joyful and Nineties as in 1890s. It was a transitional period from the stark Victorian era to the (relatively) easy-going new century.
A supposedly calm and carefree period right before the turn of the century, the Gay Nineties evokes a sense of gaiety and industrial development. It covers the last decade of the 19th century, from 1890-1905, and represents a decadent period of excess right at the turn of the century. It crosses over with the Gilded Age (1870s-1900) and the Belle Époque (French, 1870-1910), and leads into the Edwardian Era (1901-1910).
Using micro-eras as inspiration for digital collage creation is a great way to try something new. Narrowing down on the exact visuals of a single decade makes it easier to explore that specific time period and really nail a particular “look” for the collage.
This post will briefly go over the history of the “Gay Nineties” as a nostalgic time period, focusing on visual elements, typefaces, and colors. The sequel to this post will include resources for where to find Gay Nineties graphics and ephemera to use in junk journals and digital collages!
I have lots of vintage photos and ephemera available for download on this website, by the way!
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History of the Gay Nineties
A fantasy era
The creation of the Gay Nineties as a time of decadence and extravagance was almost entirely because of nostalgic reminiscing from people in the 1920s (and throughout the 20th century). The 1890s was the final decade before the new century began, and for 1920s people it represented a period of new beginnings.
This was a period of big urban growth for the United States, the “frontier” growth having ended in several bloody battles. New technologies such as the bicycle and the early automobile started gaining popularity. Sears Roebuck Company opened their major mail-order company. Sports like basketball, hockey, and professional golf made their debut.
The World’s Columbian Exposition was held in Chicago in 1893, a major social and cultural event which had a profound effect on architecture and the arts. Vaudeville was really picking up, bringing new forms of entertainment to the masses. Art styles developed into a more naturalistic style, leading to the creation of Art Nouveau and the Arts and Crafts movement.
Of course, the 1890s wasn’t always as happy and carefree as people remembered it. A major financial crisis in 1893 followed by years of economic downturn and disease, horrific acts of violence against Black Americans, imperialism, and nationalism paints a very different picture from the rosy Gay Nineties.
Nostalgia makes fantasy out of history. As often happens, happy memories of fashion and art, plus a desire for “simpler things,” overrides any unhappy memories from the public consciousness, and now all that’s left is big puffy sleeves and barbershop stripes.
The creation of the Gay Nineties
Richard V. Culter, an illustrator for Life magazine, coined the phrase “The Gay Nineties” for his series of illustrations starting in the mid-1920s. He was in his 40s at the time, and pulled on memories and influences from his childhood and young adulthood. Obviously he struck a chord with other people who had a nostalgic familiarity with the 1890s as well.
A collection of Culter’s Gay Nineties drawings, titled The Gay Nineties, An Album of Reminiscent Drawings, is currently out of print. However, some of Culter’s original works are available to view on the Scanlan Collection.
Due to the popularity of Culter’s drawings, the Gay Nineties nostalgia exploded into the collective consciousness where it would continue to well up over the next few decades.
Gay Nineties in the 20th Century
The public’s love for the Gay Nineties style continued throughout the 1930s and 1940s, particularly seen in popular media of the time. The stage musical Show Boat was created in 1927 by Florenz Ziegfeld and is set from 1887-1927. It had two revivals through the 1930s and 1940s, and several movie adaptations.
The Gay Nineties Revue, a 1930s musical variety radio show, featured music, comedy, and skits typical of the 1890s. It was even hosted by a Joseph E. Howard, a vaudeville singer who first became hit it big in the late 1890s. The radio show was so popular that it spawned two spinoffs, Gaslight Gayeties and The Beatrice Kay Show, both of which ran through the mid-1940s.
Even restaurants got in on the 1890s love. A New York City speakeasy, Bill’s Gay Nineties, opened in the late 1920s and only recently closed in this century.
And this wasn’t the only time nostalgia ran amuck. Some art and graphics styles in the 1960s/1970s were heavily inspired by the visual elements of the 1890s. Think of the bright colors and curlicue typefaces on rock n’ roll posters and album covers. Psychedelic art took inspiration from Art Nouveau and Gilded Age artists, as well.
Disney also played a part in the Gay Nineties style becoming popular in the latter half of the 20th century. Walt Disney himself would’ve been a young man during the original Gay Nineties 1920s revival, and he had an interest in historic Americana in general. The Nifty Nineties, an animated short film released in 1941, highlights the fashion, music, and early technologies of the time wrapped in a Mickey Mouse exterior.
Disneyland’s Main Street, U.S.A., created in the mid-1950s as part of the original park, took direct inspiration from the 1890s. Disney cast members wear costumes fitting the era, shop interiors have Tiffany-inspired lamps and wonderful wooden design, and there’s even a wandering barbershop quartet that sings Gay Nineties and Edwardian era songs. If you’ve never been, this fan-created walkthrough shows a good amount of the buildings and overall style of Main Street.
1960s movies also played a part in keeping up interest in Gay Nineties style, as several big titles were set in the turn of the century and utilized Gay Nineties fashion in their costume designs. Hello, Dolly! (1969) was set in 1890 and had AMAZING costumes by Irene Sharaff, who was nominated for an Academy Award for her work. They went hardcore with bright colors, extravagant hats, and huge puff sleeves.
And once again, restaurants got into the Gay Nineties revival. T.G.I. Fridays’ started in 1965 with a dining room heavily influenced by the 1890s: Tiffany-style lamps, wooden floors, Bentwood chairs, striped tablecloths, and brass rails around the bar.
Gay Nineties in the 21st Century
In modern times, the “gay” aspect of the 1890s has fallen to the side in favor of a more realistic portrayal. It’s typical for movies and TV shows to depict the 1890s in a darker tone and to dress their characters in a color palette. For instance, The Alienist (2018) is set in the mid 1890s and has wonderful costumes but relies heavily on browns and grays for its color palette when in reality clothing was pretty brightly-colored.
It’s also popular for movies/TV shows to combine the aesthetics of the late 1890s with fantasy (gaslamp) or scifi (steampunk) elements. Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes (2009) is set in the early 1890s and has many more steam-powered devices than found in the original Holmes stories.
As for the arts and crafts scene: the Gay Nineties nowadays is usually mixed into general Victoria era merchandise. Companies like 7gypsies, Tim Holtz, and Graphic 45 incorporate Gay Nineties themes into their vintage-style papers, stickers, stamps and stencils as part of an overall “vintage” collection.
What is Gay Nineties style?
I see the Gay Nineties style as especially American, as a lot of its iconic visual elements have been used in Americana and American-theme nostalgia pieces throughout the years. That might just be because I’m American myself, of course.
In general, the Gay Nineties style is a lot of bold colors, striking typefaces, and excessive decorative elements, heavily inspired by the Art Nouveau movement.
The early 1890s fashion followed pretty closely from the previous decade, with some changes. Skirts also changed shape slightly, going from large dome-shaped things supported by a huge dramatic bustle, to bell-shaped with a more demure bustle. The huge, puffy sleeves so characteristic of the time were called leg-of-mutton-sleeves, and were enourmous, and enormously popular for some times. The big sleeves and bell-shaped skirt helped make waists seem smaller, thus achieving the desired hourglass shape.
See also: 15 Vintage Women in Hats | Free Download
Eventually, the mutton sleeves shrunk down again to small pulls, quickly disappearing into thin, straight sleeves as the new century rolled around.
Womenswear was heavily influenced by menswear. For instance, the iconic shirtwaist look had a simple skirt, a blouse tailored in the style of a men’s collared shirt, a structured jacket, and a straw boater hat.
Sportswear for women often used mens sportswear as a starting point. In particular, bicycling outfits became popular. While the “bicycle suit,” featuring a jacket and huge bloomers came into being, few women actually wore it as it was too shocking.
Women’s hats were extravagantly trimmed with feathers, ribbons, stuffed bows, berries, and flowers. They weren’t particularly wide, but they were extremely tall. Men’s hats could also be pretty tall, and this was the time when the bowler came into fashion. (Men didn’t trim their hats, except for maybe a ribbon around a straw boater.)
Daily menswear was, to be frank, pretty standard stuff. The Dandy came back into style around this time, but men’s suit colors remained relatively staid. The British and American Dandy tended to go for dark-colored skinny suit with a (huge) top hat or bowler, lots of light-colored sportswear, and maybe a few stripes or plaids to liven things up.
That said, the French Dandy was more experimental with colors. Comte Robert de Montesquiou, for instance, was known for wearing clothing to suit his moods. He frequently wore things like a sky-blue or almond green suit, along with huge pieces of jewelry.
New dying techniques in the 1870s allowed for brighter clothing colors than previously available to the masses. That fondness for bright colors continued through to the 1890s, though colors generally shifted towards a slightly paler version when compared to previous years. While contrasting color combinations had been very popular previously (to the point of clashing), outfits in the 1890s tended towards the monochrome or very simple color combinations.
Yellow was very popular in the early 1890s, shifting towards a preference for purple by the end of the decade. Mauve and light green aka “heliotrope and chartreuse” was probably the defining color combination for the decade. The Gay Nineties also loved bold patterns, particularly stripes, though really only in daywear. Tans, soft whites, and other light colors worked well for evening wear and sportswear both.
Regarding the Gay Nineties color choices for home decorating… they aren’t exactly what we’d want to be using in our homes today, but they’re not terrible. They were generally more soft and relaxed compared to what they wore. Color combinations found in a Gay Nineties home might be robin’s egg blue and dull yellow, pale olive and warm salmon, French gray and vermillion, olive and orange, apple green and warm tan, chocolate and pea green.
Art, Graphics & Typefaces
The 1890s were the start of the Art Nouveau style with its naturalistic, fluid colors and sweeping stylistic themes. Art was pretty floaty and delicate-looking, though the colors could be pretty bold. Major artists include Aubrey Beardsley, Louis John Rhead, Alfons Mucha, J. C. Leyendecker, and Charles Dana Gibson.
The Gibson Girl was created by Charles Dana Gibson, an American illustrator who worked for publications like Life, Harper’s Weekly, and Scribners. The Gibson Girl represented the idealized “New Woman” of the 1890s. Sporty, beautiful, intelligent (she went to collage!), talented and socially successful, the Gibson Girl remained popular through the 1910s before giving way to the Flapper.
And she rode bicycles, of course!
On the text side of things, the stylized typefaces (fonts) were directly influenced by Art Nouveauand medieval manuscripts. For instance, Bradley typeface, developed in 1894, has a very handwritten manuscript look despite being made for wood typeprint. Typefaces tended to be either curvy with interesting swoops or angular with intriguing pointy bits. These were meant to be seen on posters and advertisements, so they needed to be interesting to look at and clearly read.
The medieval era inspired other design elements in the 1890s, most especially in glass designs. Stained glass made a big comeback, best remembered through the creations of Louis Comfort Tiffany and his design team.
For further inspiration, think of the iconic visuals of the time. Think of the new technologies of the time such as the bicycle, particularly the penny-farthing bicycle. Large groupings of flowers, huge hats and massive sleeves, art pieces surrounded by curlicues and nature designs, bold colors and pattern, etc. Brass, stained oak, and large bustling plants (including ferns and huge flowers) are also a good idea.
Fashion History Timeline 1890-1899
Fashion History Timeline: leg-of-mutton sleeves
Geri Walton: Gigot or Leg of Mutton Sleeves of the 1800s
The Scanlan Collection – The Gay Nineties
Wikipedia: Gay Nineties
Wikipedia: TGI Fridays
Costume Designer Irene Sharaff: The Frock Flicks Guide
Wikipedia: The Gay Nineties Revue
Wikipedia: History of Western typography – Art nouveau and New Book Art
International Printing Museum: Wood Type – Bradley
Edwardian Promenade: The Dandy
Library of Congress: The Gibson Girl’s America
Victorian Decorating and More: Decorating in 1890s
The Victorian Web: Fabrics and Color
Vintage Dancer: 1890s-1900s Fashion, Clothing, Costumes
The Washington Post: 1890-1899
Library of Congress: African-American Timeline: 1881 to 1900
Wikipedia: World’s Columbian Exposition