Introductory Note:

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 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.

 

A "day dress," circa 1850

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" which Elizabeth Smith Miller invented the year after the 1850 Convention.


Elizabeth Smith Miller on the invention of the "bloomer" or Turkish costume.

Harper's New Monthly Magazine review of the new fashion

"The Bloomer's Complaint," a popular comic song

Punch, the British humor magazine, satirical view of "Woman's Emancipation"

Jane Swisshelm's critical reaction to the Bloomer

"Short Skirts," from "The Lounger" column of Harper's Weekly, 1860 with a reply

"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

 

Some Initial Questions:

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 "The Bloomer's Complaint" give?

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? What of Punch's Theodosia and the narrator of "The Bloomer's Complaint"?

What reasons did Jane Swisshelm give for disliking the Bloomer? To what extent do they parallel those cited by "The Lounger"?

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, tongue 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?


"Too large?" Julia says in this 1860 cartoon from Harper's Weekly. "Why Madame Crinoline tells me that by next spring it will seem ridiculously small. The general idea, I believe, is to achieve a sort of balance." Then a gentleman approaches, and they break off their conversation.

SOME ADDITIONAL RESOURCES:

"Nothing To Wear," a poem featured in the brand-new Harper's Weekly Magazine, February 7, 1857, created a popular sensation.

Prattle and Tattle, a regular feature of Harper's Weekly for much of 1857, purportedly written by a young lady of fashion, which began with a witty dismissal of "Nothing to Wear" and went on to expound upon the new hoop skirt, the hypocrisy of men who criticized the Bloomer, and even the best locations in New York City for catching revealing glimpses of young women's ankles and legs. Anyone who thinks mid-nineteenth-century women's fashions were devoted to perserving modesty and propriety will find these essays in a highly successful and middle reputable magazine a revelation.

Those who see the hoop skirt as thematizing the confinement of women to a "proper sphere," and the play upon words is admittedly difficult to resist, should test the theory with "The Horrors of Hoops," which appeared in Frank Leslie's Illustrated Weekly Newspaper in 1857. Its author's pseudonym, John Smith, suggested that his were the typical husband's complaints about the new fashion. Other male protests against the new fashion took the form of comic poems. "Song of the Hoops" is a fair specimen. The image in the "Song," "What gallant ships! What swelling sails!/How they resist opposing gales!" was a popular one. Cartoonists found it irresistable. "Roudelay of the Hoop," another comic poem, emphasized the imperial origins of the fashion -- French Empress Eugenie was the first to wear it -- and its paradoxically democratic effect. The hoop was so inexpensive that working girls, the poet noted, could dress like duchesses.

"Feminine Revelations" continued Harper's Weekly Magazine's preoccupation with the morality of fashion, in this case the affront the open display of women's clothing in Broadway stores, gives to a modest young man's sensibilities.