Jessica's Costume History Page
Feminist Dress Reform
During the mid 1800's all the way to the mid 1900's, feminists have been trying to reform women’s dress so that it is less confining and restricting. In many cases, such as that of Seventh Day Adventist, Ellen G. White, advocates for dress reform made their arguments on moral and medical reasons. In her 1874 essay on Fashionable Dress, Ms. White reasons against the fashions of the times from both a biblical and a medical perspective. She writes, “ If they [Christian women] would work from a high and elevated standpoint, they would bring their eating and dressing into conformity with the laws of their being, and in obedience to their moral obligation to God. And there would be less money, less brain-nerve power, and less physical strength, squandered for artificial decorations to the sacrifice of natural beauty.” What most feminist reformers focused on, however, was the restrictions placed on woman by high fashion and high society.
Feminists such as Amelia Bloomer and Mary Edwards Walker rebelled not only against fashionable dress, but also against the society that demanded such dress codes. Victorian society paralleled Victorian costume; stiff, rigid and confined women to being objects of display rather then action. An acquaintance of Amelia Bloomer once stated, “ – while spending many hours at work in my garden, I became so thoroughly disgusted with the long skirt, that in dissatisfaction – the growth of years– suddenly ripened into a decision that this shackle should no longer be endured.” Not only did long skirts have the habit of dragging about and picking up every manner of filth on the streets, but tightly fitted bodices and sleeves made even simple housework a challenge. So while the corset and bustle emphasized the “feminity” of a woman, it made the life of a woman, (i.e. cooking, cleaning, child rearing etc . . .), rather problematic. High fashion put women on an even higher pedestal, thus making it difficult to descend into everyday life.
Mary Edwards Walker, the only woman to have won a Congressional Medal of Honor, served as a surgeon and possibly a spy during the civil war. During the war she found the demands of traveling and living with army to rigorous to make accepted women’s dress practical, so she wore a somewhat altered officer’s uniform in order to remain unhindered in her work. Afterwards, she often went about fully dressed as a male and was proud of her numerous arrests for such “cross-dressing”.
Perhaps the most well know dress reformer is Amelia Bloomer, after which bloomers are named. She was not the originator of the fashion, but rather the “propagandist” of it, as she advocated the wearing of it in her paper, the Lily, of which she was both the editor and publisher. She happily abandoned boning and ruffles for the freedom of movement given by the bloomer outfit.
Many women in the past have fought for the social right of rudimentary practicality in clothes against opposition as inflexible as the very garments they were contesting. What won out in the end was not the specific liberating garments like bloomer wardrobe, or the aesthetic, or the biker costume, but the ideal embodied in each. The ideal was that a woman’s attire should not define her feminity, – thus constricting herself to whims of society – , but vice versa, her feminity defining her clothing. A woman should not have to disguise the fact that she is the mother of four, spent the morning cleaning and is now shopping for groceries to feed her family in tightly laced corsets and heavy skirts, she should be proud of what she is doing and her clothing should display that, rather then hide it. For being a wife and mother, raising the next generation of society, is one of the most important duties placed on this earth – something to be prideful about indeed.