Dress Reform


X-Ray of a woman wearing a 19th c. corset, Image from Huffington Post

It confounds me to think, as I sit here in my disreputable linen shorts and favorite  “I Have Issues” sweatshirt, in the mid-19th century women wore approximately 13 pounds of undergarments. Once you pulled on your dress? The whole costume could top out at a whopping 25 pounds – of apparel. Seriously, we insist on removing our shoes, coat, and laying aside our purse when weighed at the doctors office with the hope of shedding a quick five pounds before we step on the hated scale. Little wonder Victorian ladies carried around smelling salts – they were exhausted!

Ease the Squeeze | A Brief Jaunt Through Dress Reform

A recent episode of the Cinemax series The Knick (I highly recommend it, it’s a great character study set in a Belle Epoch era Knickerbocker hospital, with hunky Clive Owen as John Thackeray, a brilliant but troubled surgeon, enough said) showed this very issue in-depth. The episode opened with the vibrant Cornelia Robertson performing her morning toilette, with the aid of two servants. It was fascinating, no way could Cornelia have dressed herself – what with all the layers and lacing. Let’s keep in mind, by this time the weight of her underclothes had decreased to approximately ten pounds, inclusive of a S-curve (Sylph) corset. Even with that said, she probably hauled around a good 20 pounds of clothing when fully costumed.

Image by fidm

Edwardian underpinnings. Garter would have been under petticoats.

As an independent, active, and servant-less woman, this dressing ritual and wardrobe expectation is nearly unimaginable. How did women function?  Walk more than a short distance?  Not faint from being overheated and exhausted?

The Women’s Suffrage and Rational Dress Reform movements vigorously challenged the societal paradigms that defined women’s rights starting in the mid-1800’s. Many of us, as lovers of all things vintage, say “if they ever invent a time machine, I’d be the first in line.” Of course we would, if we could paint certain aspects of the past with our 21st century brush! There we’d stand, decked out in our vintage finery with our iPad tucked into our reticule. The lack of freedoms, both physical and societal, would insult our modern sensibilities.

Image from Augusta Auctions

Mid-1900s tea gown

Let’s take a whirl through the most active periods of dress reform, shall we?

Dress Reform | Pre-Civil War through the Belle Epoch

“When you feel a burden in belief or apparel, cast it off!” – Amelia Bloomer

As shown in the opening sequence of The Knick, getting dressed to go out into 19th century polite society was quite the undertaking. Our great-grandmothers couldn’t hop out of bed and be out the door in 30 minutes the way most of us can. She had to don approximately ten pieces of clothing BEFORE she even got into her dress. This included getting into and lacing a corset, which was difficult if not impossible to do by one’s self.

The burden of this process, as well as heightened concern voiced by the medical community surrounding the physical effects of tight lacing, brought the notion of dress reform to the forefront. Many mid-19th century Suffrage leaders embraced the movement, notably Elizabeth Cady Stanton and most memorably Amelia Bloomer, who embraced the look of wearing shortened, knee-length skirts over trousers (thus retaining modesty). She praised the movement in her feminist tract “The Lily” and this is where the term “bloomer” was born.

Image by Augusta Auctions

Artistic or Aesthetic dress

Fast forward to the Belle Epoch, women want to participate in sport – and gasp! – ride bicycles. Taking bloomers to the next level and acknowledging that corsets were too tight and perhaps dangerous, Dr. J.H. Kellogg (Battle Creek Sanitarium) and Annie Jenness Miller (author/lecturer on physical culture and correct dress) devised “dress systems” to replace the constricting corset and cumbersome layers of undergarments. These systems included split skirts and gowns cut in a more loose, princess style, known as the “artistic dress” (or aesthetic dress). But for the most part, women still wore a great a great deal of stuff under their clothes!

Dress Reform | WWI and The Jazz Age

Lucky for us, those crazy dress systems didn’t stick around! But the concept of less restrictive clothing, fewer layers, and the eschewing of tight lacing did. We can see the influence of the artistic dress movement in the beautiful lines of late 19th century fashion. Granted, bodices were still frequently boned, layers of petticoats were still worn, and let’s not forget the dreaded “hobble skirt” – but the change is still quite evident. Any of us who have tried on or purchased a dress from this era can appreciate how complex the garments remained.  Beautiful “tea gowns” were still worn while at home (the 19th century more elegant equivalent of “home is where the pants aren’t”) among family and intimate friends. Take a browse through the early work of Poiret, Lanvin and Chanel – you can definitely see the influence. Let’s not forget the gorgeously original Delphos gowns of Fortuny, with scandalous body skimming pleats and sumptuous fabrics.

Image from xroads.virginia.edu

Girls gone wild, belle epoch style

Great strides were made after the Armistice and as the Jazz Age blossomed – women won the vote!

Hemlines went up (just below/at the knee at the shortest in the mid-20’s), dresses were more tubular in shape ,and underwear was even less restrictive. (Though many women still wore corsets, as shown in this truly terrifying 1927 Barcley Custom Corset infomercial-type advert here. Visceroptosis the scourge of womanhood.)

Scourge aside, women were now able to dress themselves, breathe, and easily participate in sport. They were no longer weighed down by 25 pounds of clothing or constricted by a corset applying up to 80 pounds of pressure to their bodies. The modern girl could ride a bike, play golf, or climb a mountain – and look and feel fabulous while doing it.

Image from Wikipedia

Bloomer Girl

Dress Reform walked hand in hand with the Women’s Suffrage Movement, freeing women from the bond of heavy and body distorting ensembles. Looking at how we dress today (which can be a discouraging proposition), we can thank the suffragettes and other progressive thinkers for the relative simplicity of our wardrobes. It took over 160 years for the Reform Movements goal to be completely realized – though Amelia and Elizabeth, being the proper ladies they were, may be at this moment spinning in their graves. One could argue we have taken the  concept overboard; many modern women do not feel compelled to wear “real clothes” when leaving the house or dress appropriately for events.  Plus, we all know at least one woman who flat out refuses to wear hose! But then, of course, we are exercising the rights those brave and stalwart ladies fought for.  Right?

To our dear readers-would you have embraced dress reform?

Ellen would like to thank her tremendous resources: costume.OSU.edu, Wikipedia, Metmuseum.org, NWHM.org, IMA.org, DoOneThing.org, Feminism.org, and the people who post their images without restriction.

Want to dive into this deeper? Here’s Ellen’s recommended reading/watching list:

“The Road to Wellville” | A mildly amusing review of Kellogg (who was nuts, BTW) & the Battlecreek Sanitarium. Sir Anthony Hopkins is the good doctor.

“Hysteria” | A well done review of women’s issues, ie:  hysteria – known as “the vibrator play” on Broadway. It’s a bit racy, but well done with Hugh Darcy & Maggie Gyllenhal

“Iron Jawed Angels” | Starring Hillary Swank and Angelica Huston, it highlights the fight for the 19th Amendment

“Unmentionables” | By Laurie Lowenstein. I really enjoyed this book about romance, WWI, and rational dress

“The Chaperone” | By Laura Moriarty, this is an awesome book about the difference between the pre-war world and post. All about clothes, booze, sex, and marriage – I found it actually pretty moving. The story is loosely based on Louise Brooks and I’ve read it twice!

Replies for “Dress Reform

  • Kay

    Loved this article. How dress reform was related to suffrage is often overlooked – too often the popular perception is that WWI happened and then women suddenly turned into uncorseted flappers.

    • Ellen Dial

      Thank you Kay!

      I’m thrilled you enjoyed the piece… And you are spot on, suffrage was a big movement with a many layers and platforms – the vote (which is the most known), dress reform, birth control and the like. And it didn’t end with winning the vote in 1920- the first Equal Rights Amendment was presented in 1927, only took about 50 years for that to pass!

      Oh, and the 19th Amendment BARELY made it – one vote ratified it!

      Those silly boys, so scared of us girls!



    • Ellen Dial


      Thank you!

      What an interesting profession you have-how wonderful to work with all those fabulous vintage garments!

      Yes, women were ultimately controlled and constricted by their wardrobes-up until Edwardian times, good health was outré and illness (weakness) was stylish..

      Tons of clothes and tight lacing helped that crazy mindset right along!


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