TBT: Back to the Future III (1990)


What with the whole Back to the Future Day thing (October 21, 2015, was the “future” date that Marty McFly and Doc Brown travel to in Back to the Future II), we had a mini-BTTF marathon at my house (the husband is a big fan). I was enjoying rewatching all three films, but when Back to the Future III came on and we ended up in 1885 (geography unclear — supposedly California, but filmed in New Mexico I think — “the Old West”), I sat up straight and said, “Hey, these are some damn historically accurate costumes!”

In the classic, first, Back to the Future, Marty McFly time travels to 1955, where he meets his own parents and becomes involved in their lives. By the end of the film, Marty has managed to make it back to his present (1985) with the help of inventor friend Doc Brown. In the sequel, Marty and Doc travel to 2015 to fix a problem with Marty’s kids, then back to 1955 again to fix further problems. At the end, as Doc shows up in the time machine to take Marty back to his present, the machine is struck by lightning and Doc disappears … Cue Part III, in which Marty learns that Doc was transported to 1885, finds a photo of a tombstone showing that Doc is killed shortly thereafter. He enlists the help of 1955 Doc to time-travel back to 1885 to save 1985 Doc. Phew!

The first film was costumed by Deborah Lynn Scott, with Joanna Johnston taking over for parts II and III. All of the films are adventure comedies, but the costuming (in the historical portions) definitely aims for realism. According to the production notes, “Johnston scoured the costume houses of Hollywood and found that most of their costumes were made for the westerns of the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s didn’t reflect the authenticity she sought. Extensive research uncovered original clothing patterns and hundreds of new ‘antique’ costumes were created.”


Men’s Costumes in Back to the Future III

The filmmakers have some fun with this realism. 1955 Doc dresses Marty in what he thinks will be appropriate “Old West” clothes so that he’ll blend in when he arrives in 1885:

Back to the Future Part 3 (1990)

Of course, this isn’t anything like what anyone is wearing in 1885. After Doc rescues Marty from almost getting hanged, they have this conversation:

Doc: Marty, you’re going to have to do something about those clothes. You walk around town dressed like that, you’re liable to get shot.

Marty McFly: Or hanged.

Doc: What idiot dressed you in that outfit?

Marty McFly: You did.

The series loves to play with references among all three films. In Back to the Future II, Marty sees a clip of Clint Eastwood in the cowboy film A Fistful of Dollars. When he then goes back to 1885 in Part III, he uses the alias Clint Eastwood in order to avoid his great-grandparents recognizing his name. Once Marty gets out of his 1950s atomic cowboy gear, the costumers put him into a copy of Eastwood’s costume from A Fistful of Dollars (1964) — but there’s no dialogue about it, you just have to catch the clues. At the same time, Marty’s serape was copied from an original (production notes).

A Fistful of Dollars (1964)

Clint Eastwood in A Fistful of Dollars

Back to the Future III (1990)

Marty McFly in a Back to the Future Part III

But what I really want to focus on are the women’s costumes — in particular, Mary Steenburgen’s costumes.

Women’s Costumes in Back to the Future III

As mentioned above, the whole idea behind the costume design was realism. However, the filmmakers could have gone for “clothes that look realistic to a modern audience, but aren’t specific to 1885” if they’d wanted. Instead, what you get are women’s costumes that are Right Out of 1885. I feel like if I just looked hard enough, I’d find original garments or fashion plates on which Mary Steenburgen’s costumes, in particular, were based on.

Women’s Costume in the 1870s-1890s

1885 was the height of the “bustle era,” which begins in the very late 1860s and goes through about 1889. The most notable aspect of women’s dress silhouettes in this era was the bustle, a cage or pad worn over the bum (and frequently extending down to about the knees), which makes the skirt jut out over the rear. In front, the look is relatively streamlined, particularly in the bodice, which was long over the hips and very fitted over a long corset. Bodices of this era were called “cuirass” style, a reference to the smooth breastplate worn in men’s armor, because they were so structured and so smooth.

While the entire 1870s-80s are referred to as the “bustle era,” because they almost always featured the rear-jutting bustle, there are very different silhouettes and details worn in different years. From about 1869 through about 1876, skirts were big all the way down to the hem, and everything was frilly and ruffly in a revival of 18th-century styles:

1869 Les Modes Parisiennes

Les Modes Parisiennes, 1869

1872 Journal des Demoiselles

Journal des Demoiselles, 1872

1874 L’Elegance Parisienne

L’Elégance Parisienne, 1874

1876 Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine

Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine, 1876

From about 1877 until about 1880, women’s dresses became super fitted and all about a long, streamlined look. The bustle was ditched (although a small pad could still be worn) in favor of a more streamlined, trained silhouette:

1878 Journal des Demoiselles

Journal des Demoiselles, 1878

From about 1880-2, the bustle was still left off, but the trains were often omitted for a shorter look.

1880 The Queen

The Queen, 1880

And then beginning in about 1882, the bustle came back and this time with a vengeance. Instead of the large skirt and drapey look, the skirt itself was allowed to hang straight down, the bustle jutted out at a nearly right angle, and everything became more tailored and menswear-inspired. The one sort-of exception were draped, swoopy, often asymmetrical overskirts, but these were still much more streamlined in terms of trim versus styles of the 1870s.

1882 Journal des Demoiselles

Journal des Demoiselles, 1882

1884 Journal des Demoiselles

Journal des Demoiselles, 1884

1885 Journal des Demoiselles

Journal des Demoiselles, 1885

1886 Le Bon Ton et le Moniteur de la Mode Reunis

Le Bon Ton et le Moniteur de la Mode Réunis, 1886

And then in about 1889, the bustle was again left off, and styles were fitted and close to the body:

1889 Journal des Demoiselles

Journal des Demoiselles, 1889

Les Modes Parisiennes 1890

Les Modes Parisiennes, 1890.

La Mode Illustree 1892

La Mode Illustrée, 1892.

Until about 1892, when the silhouette changed to a wide, A-line skirt and huge sleeves (called “leg-o-mutton”).

La Mode de Paris 1893

La Mode de Paris, 1893.

La Mode de Paris 1894

La Mode de Paris, 1894.

La Mode de Paris 1895

La Mode de Paris, 1895.

The reason that all of this background is important is that costume designer Joanna Johnston got the women’s styles of 1885 (and then 1895) down PERFECTLY. Let’s look at Mary Steenburgen’s individual costumes, and a few of other characters, so I can elaborate.

Mary Steenburgen’s Costumes in Back to the Future Part III

Mary Steenburgen plays Clara Clayton, the new schoolmistress — who clearly has some money because her clothes aren’t shabby (and are much nicer than anyone else’s) and she owns a telescope.

Her first dress is the one she wears when she arrives on the train. Doc is supposed to pick her up from the station, but doesn’t — then he sees her driving a wagon with a runaway horse, and he rescues her.

This dress is classic 1880s: it’s a lavender bodice and overskirt, with purple underskirt, collar, and cuffs. The bodice is long over the hips in that cuirass style, and it buttons down the center front. The collar is short and standing:

Back to the Future Part III (1990)

You can see lots of similar fitted, long bodices with center front buttons and standing collars in the period:

Day dress, 1884

Day dress, 1884.

It’s hard to say for sure, but it looks like like the bodice is cut in one piece with the overskirt. That being said, that would be a really hard thing to do technically, given that there’s so much fabric in the overskirt and it’s doing such different things from the bodice. The underskirt appears to be shirred or ruched in horizontal strips.

Back to the Future Part III (1990)

Here’s an example of a draped, apron-front, waterfall-back overskirt over a contrasting underskirt. Note how both images in the fashion plate pick up the contrasting underskirt fabric in the bodice trim.

1886 La Mode Illustree

La Mode Illustrée, 1886.

You can tell she’s wearing a corset underneath by looking at the fit and the ridges on this back shot (more on corsets below). The small brown thing pinned to her bodice near the waist is most likely a separate watch pocket, chatelaine, or needle case, according to my Victorian reenactor friends..
Back to the Future Part III (1990)

Her hat leans a little bit more towards an 1870s shape, but you still certainly see hats like this in the era. I LOVE the striped ribbon bow and the cut steel buckle in front.

Back to the Future Part III (1990)

Here’s a similar hat from an 1882 fashion plate:

Fashion plate, 1882

Fashion plate, 1882.

Clara’s next dress is my favorite, because it’s beautifully fitted (well, they all are), but it’s STRIPES and yet they’re subtle stripes AND they’re doing all kinds of interesting things with the stripe. There’s a long, cuirass bodice with some pleats at the center back. Notice however, that except for the solid ruffle on the very bottom of the skirt, there’s no trim — instead they just positioned the stripes into different patterns to make the collar, cuffs, and pleated hem trim stand out subtly.

Back to the Future Part III (1990)

Here’s a gorgeous example of a very similar dress. Subtle stripes, no trim except for interesting stripe placement.

3-Piece Striped Dress by Emile Pingat, 1880s, Augusta Auctions

3-Piece Striped Dress by Emile Pingat, 1880s, Augusta Auctions

Check out that hem trim in closeup!

3-Piece Striped Dress by Emile Pingat, 1880s, Augusta Auctions

3-Piece Striped Dress by Emile Pingat, 1880s, Augusta Auctions

The dress Clara wears to the party is another variation that is completely of the period. I love that they didn’t put her in an “evening” dress with short sleeves. For one thing, there were many evening dresses (dinner and reception dresses) that had 3/4 or long sleeves. For another, Clara would have no call to own a ball gown out on the frontier.

The dress itself is made in a floral print that’s shirred (small, tight gathers) in various places. A solid white fabric is used for a waistcoat effect on the center front and as contrasting ruffles on the skirt. Notice how the bodice comes down over the hips in front and back, but is super floofy below the waist in back.

Back to the Future Part III (1990)

The slightly lowered neckline is a nice nod to this being a party dress. Back to the Future Part III (1990)

You certainly see floral prints in the period, usually on cotton and often gathered:

Fashion plate, 1885

Fashion plate, 1885

Horizontally ruffled skirts are also very typical:

Afternoon dress, c. 1884, Galleria del Costume

Afternoon dress, c. 1884, Galleria del Costume

Notice how asymmetrical the overskirt front is:

Back to the Future Part III (1990)

They were waaaaay into asymmetrically draped overskirts in the 1880s:

Godey's Lady's Book, 1886

Godey’s Lady’s Book, 1886

This is the dress that Clara wears when Doc comes to break up with her, aka tell her he’s going back to the future. It’s a suit effect, with a gathered white “blouse” front and a green jacket effect with lapels:

Back to the Future Part III (1990) Back to the Future Part III (1990)

I wonder if they used this green dress as inspiration? No, it’s not exact, but it’s got the green and white and the suit-y effect:

1880s-90s dress

Clara’s last dress is the one she wears when she’s leaving town/climbing around on the train. It’s got another waistcoat effect, with a center front and collar in one (darker, figured) fabric and then another fabric as the “jacket”:

Back to the Future Part III (1990)

This was BEYOND a popular style in the 1870s-80s — you can find millions of examples:

bustle dress
Dress, 1880-1882, Charles A. Whitaker Auctions

Dress, 1880-1882, Charles A. Whitaker Auctions

The overskirt is gathered horizontally across the front, then poufs down the back.
Back to the Future Part III (1990)

Back to the Future Part III (1990)

This is again so typical:

Detail from an 1882 wedding fashion plate

Detail from an 1882 fashion plate

This hat is a little more fashionable than the others. It’s dark straw with fabulous striped and figured ribbon:
Back to the Future Part III (1990)

It looks very much like the other “flower pot” shaped hats you see in the mid-1880s:

1886 La Mode Illustree

La Mode Illustrée, 1886

Finally, at the end of the film, Clara and Doc show up in 1985 Hill Valley to tell Marty that they’re more than fine. When I first saw this costume, I thought, “What the hell? They’ve been spot-on 1885 this whole time, why are they suddenly going 1890s?” Then I realized they had 2 kids, which means we’re seeing them from 5-10 years later than we’d seen them last, so we’re looking at 1895ish … and again, the costume is spot on.

Again Clara is in a tailored, suit-type ensemble, but this time it’s all 1890s with no bustle, A-line skirt, and huge sleeves that are large at the top and tapering towards the wrist.

Back to the Future Part III (1990)

This kind of around-the-neck skirting (or other things that break up the upper chest area) is very mid-1890s:

1894 Journal des Demoiselles

Journal des Demoiselles, 1894

The trim is a soutache braid that’s laid in patterns, and the hat is a newer, flatter shape with more great trimmings:

Back to the Future Part III (1990)

Applied braid, and this whole menswear look, was very fashionable in the 1880s-90s:

Magasin des Modes

Magasin des Modes


And that flatter-crowned, but still small, hat is spot on:

1896 Delineator

Delineator, 1896

So, yeah. Right Out of a Fashion Plate. Go Joanna Johnston!

Lea Thompson’s Costumes in Back to the Future Part III

I’m not going to get as in-depth on anything else, but I did want to point out that Lea Thompson’s outfits are similarly appropriate, if simpler (as they should be, since she’s a farm wife).

Back to the Future Part III (1990)

She busts out her slightly-nicer dress for the evening festival. It’s made from a gathered, printed cotton:

Back to the Future Part III (1990) Back to the Future Part III (1990)

No, not the same thing, just wanted to point out that such gathered cotton dresses were very much of the period:

Walking dress by Callot Soeurs, c. 1884, Galleria del Costume

Walking dress by Callot Soeurs, c. 1884, Galleria del Costume

Extras’ Costumes in Back to the Future Part III

And I just wanted to mention how happy I was to see the prostitutes 1) in 1880s-period-appropriate corsets (okay, curvy lady on the right could use more bust support, but then maybe she’s advertising) and 2) “combinations,” which was a one-piece undergarment that combined the chemise and drawers (worn under the corset, this gave you a more streamlined shape in an era of fitted dresses):

Back to the Future Part III (1990)

Here’s an example of an 1880s corset, which covers the bust but provides room for it and extends over the hips:

Corset, 1880s, Kyoto Costume Institute

Corset, 1880s, Kyoto Costume Institute

Combinations, 1887, Manchester Galleries

Combinations, 1887, Manchester Galleries

Combinations, 1905, Victoria & Albert Museum

Combinations, 1905, Victoria & Albert Museum

And two different examples of combinations:

And finally, just wanted to say that although no one is as well-dressed as Clara, most of the other female extras look spot on — notice again the flower pot hats, stripes, and asymmetrically draped overskirt.

Back to the Future Part III (1990)

All of the Back to the Future movies are fun to revisit if you haven’t recently, and I recommend that us historical costume nerds give Part III another whirl — you’ll be glad you did!

Which other movies have unexpectedly accurate costumes?


About the author



Kendra has been a fixture in the online costuming world since the late 1990s. Her website, Démodé Couture, is one of the most well-known online resources for historical costumers. In the summer of 2014, she published a book on 18th-century wig and hair styling. Kendra is a librarian at a university, specializing in history and fashion. She’s also an academic, with several articles on fashion history published in research journals.

9 Responses

  1. Katy

    I’ve always noticed that some of the classic Muppets movies have surprisingly accurate costumes. The Muppet Christmas Carol has great 1830s/1840s costumes and Muppet Treasure Island is mostly fantasy pirates but a lot of the extras in the town scenes are dressed really well!

  2. Emily Barry

    I have always LOVED Back To the Future III for this very reason! It makes me so giddy to see historical costuming that actually looks RIGHT! It definitely adds to the time-travel feel as well. I just wanted to add that I always thought that Clara’s outfit when Doc “breaks up” with her (the green one with braidwork) was a wrapper, worn over her white nightgown. Her hair is down, and she’s alone at home in the evening, so it would make sense.

  3. Emily Barry

    Oh, also, the hair is good! It probably helps that both the 1880s and the 1980s were eras that appreciated curly, fluffy bangs. ;-) Our own era usually tries to make things look sleek, which is OK in certain eras, but not OK in eras that favored abundant, fluffy curls.

  4. embellishedbody

    Every time this movie comes on TV, my husband has to listen to me gush about how accurate the clothing is over and over! If they can get them so good in an 80s comedy, why can’t today’s big-budget costume dramas do it?

  5. mmcquown

    I think it says volumes about the Hollywood mindset that the costumes from a sci-fi comedy are far more historically accurate than those of a big-budget historical epic. I wonder if that will be the case for the Jane Austen zombies movie, which I just saw a trailer for today. I think the actual title is “Pride and Prejudice Zombies.”

  6. CatnipTARDIS

    One day I will make Clara’s climbing-the-locomotive dress. I may never wear it, but I am going to make that fabulous thing so help me!

  7. lulubella

    Loved this article! So happy to have found this site. In the first dress in lavender, you can see the seam line between the bodice and the apron front in the right show of the side by side discussing the boning. In the last gown (in lavender too – I like how the began and ended her story with similar colors!), the sleeves are in the leg o’ mutton. And agreed – stripes stripes stripes forever!