Reform in mid-nineteenth-century America could take many forms. One of the most controversial dealt with dress. In mid-century, a woman of means wore five or six petticoats under her dress. Her skirt was long so that writers of ettiquette books like Emily Thornwell's The Lady's Guide to Perfect Gentility had to provide instructions of how to lift it in a a graceful and decorour way when climbing stairs or walking on a muddy street. A woman of the time often wore a corset since it was considered fashionable to have a "wasp" waist. Day dresses had long sleeves and high necks. Evening dresses were typically sleeveless and cut low in the bodice. Corsets not only cinched in the waist but also pushed up the breasts. French-heeled" shoes -- the heels were typically three or more inches high -- completed an evening costume.
No one ever accused women's clothes of being comfortable or practical. And many sought change. Some, like Thornwell, campaigned against the corset on the grounds that it imperiled women's health. This also was her reason, morality aside, for criticizing low-cut evening gowns. Others lamented the impossibility of keeping their skirts clean. The popular writer Fanny Fern once quipped that women should be paid by New York City for sweeping its streets every time they took a walk. Still others saw in women's dress the implements as well as the symbols of their subjection to men. Despite all of this dissatisfaction, dress reform was a dangerous topic. In a culture as intent upon distinguishing masculine from feminine as the United States in the nineteenth century, any change in a woman's appearance was sure to provoke ridicule. Indeed Paulina Wright Davis, who was determined to build the broadest possible coalition in support of woman's rights, effectively banned discussion of dress from the first national Woman's Rights Convention held in 1850 in Worcester, Massachusetts. "We think the subject an all important one," she wrote in the Proceedings, but "there is neither time nor room to treat it fitly now; no doubt future Conventions will devote to it the thorough consideration which it merits." Despite this silence, opponents like James Gordon Bennett, editor of the New York Herald, lost no opportunity to charge that woman's rights activists sought to wear the "pantaloons" [pants]. The most famous dress reform of the day was the "bloomer." We have brought together here a variety of materials dealing with its creation and reception.
Elizabeth Smith Miller on the invention of the "bloomer" or Turkish costume.
Harper's New Monthly Magazine review of the new fashion
Punch, the British humor magazine, satirical view of "Woman's Emancipation"
"Modern Belle," a satiric look at a fashionable young woman
"Ladies Dresses," a comic poem
"Important to Husbands," still another critique of the fashionable woman
Did Harper's New Monthly Magazine offer similar reasons for adopting the "Turkish costume" as Miller gave for inventing and wearing it?
What reasons did Punch put in the mouth of its fictitious correspondent for adopting the new costume?
How similar in outlook were Elizabeth Smith Miller and Punch's Theodosia E. Bank?
One of the characteristics of the new costume that Harper's praised was its modesty. What was immodest about "Ladies Dresses"?
The "belle" was subject to as much criticism, though of a very different sort, as the "emancipated" woman. What was the cultural "ideal"? Harper's New Monthly offered this description of the "true Woman" in 1854:
. . . the true Woman, for whose ambition a husband's love and her children's adoration are sufficient, who applies her military instincts to the discipline of her household, and whose legislative faculties exercise themselves in making laws for her nursery; whose intellect has field enough in communion with her husband, and whose heart asks no other honors than his love and admiration; a woman who does not think it a weakness to attend to her toilette, and who does not distain to be beautiful; who believes in the virtue of glossy hair and well-fitting gowns, and who eschews rents [tears] and raveled edges, slipshod shoes, and audacious make-ups; a woman who speaks low and who does not speak much; who is patient and gentle and intellectual and industrious; who loves more than she reasons, and yet does not love blindly; who never scolds, and rarely argues, but who rebukes with a caress, and adjusts with a smile: a woman who is the wife we all have dreamt of once in our lives, and who is the mother we still worship in the backward distance of the past: such a woman as this does more for human nature, and more for woman's cause, than all the sea-captains, judges, barristers, and members of parliament put together--God-given and God-blessed as she is!
With this as your guide, what were the "modern belle's" shortcomings?
"Important to Husbands" suggested, touch in cheek, a plan to abolish the hold of the "Muslin Palace" over wives and daughters. What was the nature of that attraction, according to the author? Why, according to him, would only a "Maine Law" totally prohibiting fashion work? Why did he suggest that women would themselves welcome such a prohibition?
Harper's New Monthly Magazine's "true Woman" -- note the capitalized W -- was an angel with glossy hair who, among her other qualities, did not "distain to be beautiful" or to wear "well-fitting gowns." Such gowns, by the late 1850s, had hoops, wire contraptions which replaced the multitude of petticoats and which caused women's dresses to billow out even further. Ichabod Washburn, the nation's largest wire manufacturer estimated that "the annual consumption of three thousand tons of steel is required to expand and give prominence to the ladies' dresses in this country."
Navigating in such a costume was no simple task, as the cartoon at left gleefully pointed out. Young women who wore hoop skirts were known as "tilters" because the skirt's tendency to rise up or "tilt" in the back. Indeed some male humorists accused women of exploiting this feature. Consider "A Tilt at the Tilters" below. Clara has set up "an imitation set of front door steps." "What's the effect now, Julia dear," she asks. "Charming," her friend assures her. Clara "might even flirt just a little more with safety."
There was, such humorists suspected, no end to the deviousness of females on the prowl for male admirers. Not only did they practice "tilting" so as to give a man a seemingly accidental but actually well-calculated glimpse of a "well-rounded" ankle, they even stooped to artificially padding their calves! "Don't stuff your calves with bran," the caption warned, "lest you re-veal the real state of your understanding."
Nonetheless, for all their coquettish and voyeuristic possibilities, hoops were simply impractical. "An Ill-Hoop" dramatized the misadventures of a young woman trying to take a ride on a trolley.
First she had to somehow wedge her skirt through the too narrow door.
Then she had to navigate the too narrow aisle.
Next came the challenge of sitting between two fellow passengers.
Who can blame her if the whole adventure leaves her somewhat morose?