Victorian Dress Reform  presented by Apparel Search

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During the middle and late Victorian period, various reformers proposed, designed, and wore clothing supposedly more rational and comfortable than the fashions of the time. This was known as the dress reform or rational dress movement. 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 dress reform 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

The new United States of America 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 as well. They wanted the vote and some of them wanted sensible clothing as well.

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 suffragette 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 ceaseless ridicule in the press and harassment on the street. A woman wearing trousers? Never!

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, as a women's athletic costume in the 1890s and early 1900s.

Undergarment reform

Reformers turned their attention to undergarments, which could be modified without attracting ridicule. 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 .. 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 skirt. The entire torso would support the weight of the petticoats and skirt, not just the waist. The bodices had to be fitted by a dressmaker; patterns could be ordered through the mail.

Criticisms of tightlacing

It is not clear how many women wore such bodices; however, the reformers' critique of the corset joined a throng of voices clamoring against tightlacing, the pursuit of the tiniest waist in the ballroom. Preachers enveighed against tightlacing; doctors counseled patients against it; journalists wrote articles condemning the vanity and frivolity of women who would sacrifice their health for the sake of fashion. Normal corsetting was one thing ... but tightlacing!

Rational Dress Society

The Rational Dress Society was an organisation founded in 1881 at 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 health, comfort and beauty in our dress as a duty to ourselves and each other. [1]

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The above article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Victorian_dress_reform    1/14/06

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