Victorian dress reform

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Victorian dress reform was an objective of Victorian dress reform movement (also known as the rational dress movement) of the middle and late Victorian era, comprising various reformers who proposed, designed, and wore clothing considered more rational and comfortable than the fashions of the time.

The movement had its greatest success in the reform of women's undergarments, which could be modified without exposing the wearer to social ridicule. Dress reformers were also influential in persuading women to adopt simplified garments for athletic activities such as bicycling or swimming. The movement was much less concerned with men's clothing. It did have some effects on men's undergarments, such as the widespread adoption of knitted wool union suits or long johns.

The bloomer suit[edit]

Bloomer Suit
Main article: Bloomers (clothing)

The United States was home to a number of high-minded, evangelical women active in the anti-slavery and temperance movements. Experience in public speaking and political agitation led some of these women to demand emancipation for themselves. They wanted the vote and some of them wanted sensible clothing as well—that is, clothing that would not restrict their movement.[1]

In 1851, a New England temperance activist named Elizabeth Smith Miller (Libby Miller) adopted what she considered a more rational costume: loose trousers gathered at the ankles, like the trousers worn by Middle Eastern and Central Asian women, topped by a short dress or skirt and vest. She displayed her new clothing to temperance activist and suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who found it sensible and becoming, and adopted it immediately. In this garb, she visited yet another activist, Amelia Bloomer, the editor of the temperance magazine The Lily. Bloomer not only wore the costume, she promoted it enthusiastically in her magazine. More women wore the fashion and were promptly dubbed "Bloomers". The Bloomers put up a valiant fight for a few years, but were subjected to ridicule in the press[2][3] and harassment on the street.[4]

Amelia Bloomer herself dropped the fashion in 1859, saying that a new invention, the crinoline, was a sufficient reform that she could return to conventional dress. The bloomer costume died — temporarily. It was to return much later (in a different form), as a women's athletic costume in the 1890s and early 1900s.[citation needed]

Undergarment reform[edit]

An attempt at dress reform in 1891, but keeping a fashionable silhouette.
Gaches-Sarraute in her (not fashionable) reform corset from about 1892. It was in fashion from 1900 to 1913, but only after many years of hard work.

Reformers turned their attention to undergarments, which could be modified without attracting ridicule. Physician Alice Bunker Stockham railed against the corset and said of the pregnancy corset, "The Best pregnancy corset is no corset at all."[5] The "emancipation union under flannel" was first sold in America in 1868. It combined a waist (shirt) and drawers (leggings) in the form we now know as the union suit. While first designed for women, the union suit was also adopted by men. Indeed, it is still sold and worn today, by both men and women, as winter underclothing.

In 1878, a German professor named Gustav Jaeger published a book claiming that only clothing made of animal hair, such as wool, promoted health. A British accountant named Lewis Tomalin translated the book, then opened a shop selling Dr Jaeger’s Sanitary Woollen System, including knitted wool union suits. These were soon called "Jaegers"; they were widely popular.

Dress reformers also promoted the emancipation waist, or emancipation bodice, as a replacement for the corset. The emancipation bodice was a tight sleeveless vest, buttoning up the front, with rows of buttons along the bottom to which could be attached petticoats and a skirt. The entire torso would support the weight of the petticoats and skirt, not just the waist (since the undesirability of hanging the entire weight of full skirts and petticoats from a constricted waist — rather than hanging the garments from the shoulders — was another point often discussed by dress reformers).[6] The bodices had to be fitted by a dressmaker; patterns could be ordered through the mail.

Criticisms of tightlacing[edit]

It is not clear how many women, in either the Americas or on the Continent, wore these so-called "reform" bodices. However, contemporary portrait photography, fashion literature, and surviving examples of the undergarments themselves, all suggest that the corset was almost universal as daily wear by women and young ladies (and numerous fashionable men) throughout much of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Eventually, the reformers' critique of the corset joined a throng of voices clamoring against tightlacing, which became gradually more common and extreme as the 19th century progressed. Preachers inveighed against tightlacing, with doctors counseled patients against it and journalists writing articles condemning the vanity and frivolity of women who would sacrifice their health for the sake of fashion. Whereas corsetting was accepted as necessary for beauty, health, and an upright military-style posture, tightlacing was viewed as vain and, especially at the height of the era of Victorian morality, a sign of moral indecency. However, it was in many respects simply an intensification of ordinary Victorian fashions, and the ideal image of feminine attractiveness that a Victorian woman saw around her (in fashion plates, advertisements, etc.) was invariably of a wasp-waisted, firmly-corseted lady.

Rational Dress Society[edit]

The Rational Dress Society was an organisation founded in 1881 in London. It described its purpose thus:

The Rational Dress Society protests against the introduction of any fashion in dress that either deforms the figure, impedes the movements of the body, or in any way tends to injure the health. It protests against the wearing of tightly-fitting corsets; of high-heeled shoes; of heavily-weighted skirts, as rendering healthy exercise almost impossible; and of all tie down cloaks or other garments impeding on the movements of the arms. It protests against crinolines or crinolettes of any kind as ugly and deforming….[It] requires all to be dressed healthily, comfortably, and beautifully, to seek what conduces to birth, comfort and beauty in our dress as a duty to ourselves and each other.[7]

Leading members of the Society were Lady Harberton (who created the divided skirt), Mary Eliza Haweis and Constance Wilde (wife of Oscar Wilde).[8] Woman cyclists, such as members of the Lady Cyclists' Association, were keen advocates of women's right to dress appropriately for the activity, as part of a belief that cycling offered women an opportunity to escape overly restrictive societal norms.[9]

In 1889, a member of the Rational Dress Society, Charlotte Carmichael Stopes, staged a coup at a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in Newcastle upon Tyne, when she arranged an impromptu addition to the programme on the subject of rational dress. Her speech was reported by newspapers across Britain and the notion of rational dress was the biggest news from the meeting.[10]

Artistic dress movement[edit]

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and other artistic reformers objected to the elaborately trimmed confections of Victorian fashion with their unnatural silhouette based on a rigid corset and hoops as both ugly and dishonest. Their wives and models adopted a revival style based on romanticised medieval influences such as puffed juliette sleeves and trailing skirts. These were made in the soft colors of vegetable dyes, and were ornamented with hand embroidery in the art needlework style.

The style spread as an "anti-fashion" called Artistic dress in the 1860s in literary and artistic circles, died back in the 1870s, and reemerged as Aesthetic dress in the 1880s, where the emphasis was not so much on honesty and purity as sensuality and languor.

Girl athletes and working women[edit]

In the 19th century, poor women were known to wear corsets "boned" with rope, rather than steel or bone, to facilitate work in the field.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Woman's dress, a question of the day". Early Canadiana Online. Retrieved 26 March 2012. 
  2. ^ New York Times, October 5, 1851: 'Bloomerism in London:...One journal hints very ill-naturedly that the new dress is best adapted for a particular class of "ladies", who, poor things, having a deal of "street-walking", would find the Bloomer costume quite a blessing..'
  3. ^ The Times, Wednesday, Aug 20, 1851; pg. 5; Issue 20885; col A: ‘DEBUT OF THE “BLOOMER” COSTUME IN BELFAST:...Three ladies... made their appearance in full “Bloomer” costume...Others, and these most numerous, expressed an opinion the reverse of complimentary to the rank and character of the ladies, identifying them with persons whose overdressed gaiety of appearance in public stamps the class to which they belong.’
  4. ^ The Times, Thursday, Aug 28, 1851; pg. 7; Issue 20892; col B: (A report from the ‘’Caledonian Mercury’’ of two women appearing in Edinburgh in reformed dress)‘BLOOMERISM IN EDINBURGH:...The singular spectacle thus presented attracted considerable attention even in the retired quarter of the town where it was witnessed, and comments, characterized by freedom more than politeness, were now and again made by urchins who followed the unblushing Bloomers...we learn that the ladies are Americans;...’
  5. ^ Alice Bunker Stockham. Tokology 1898.
  6. ^ "Woman's dress, a question of the day". Early Canadiana Online. Retrieved 26 March 2012. 
  7. ^ "Gilded Lily Publishing". 
  8. ^ See The Philosophy of Dress by Oscar Wilde.
  9. ^ Julie Wosk, Women and the Machine: Representations from the Spinning Wheel to the Electronic Age, 2003, Johns Hopkins University Press, pp98-99 ISBN 978-0801873133
  10. ^ Stephanie Green (2013). The Public Lives of Charlotte and Marie Stopes. London: Pickering & Chatto. p. 64. ISBN 9781848932388.