Academic journal article Journal of American & Comparative Cultures

Dress Reform and the Bloomer

Academic journal article Journal of American & Comparative Cultures

Dress Reform and the Bloomer

Article excerpt

In the mid-nineteenth century, the ideology of separate "spheres" for men and women dictated the nature of their activities and was both symbolized and reinforced by their clothing. If the saying "clothes make the man" is true, it was doubly so for the Victorian woman. A writer of the time noted, "Fashion says that the chief use of woman is to exhibit dry goods fantastically arranged on her person" (Russell 500). The accuracy of this statement was evident in the extensive wardrobes of middle- and upper-class women of the period. Composed of ornamental, cumbersome, impractical garments, the wearer was rendered largely incapable of participating in public life and relegated to the domestic sphere assigned to women.

Several groups within society recognized the absurdity of women's fashions and shared a commitment to reforming dress in spite of emphasizing different concerns. Orthodox or allopathic physicians were interested in dress reform due to the health effects of the corset and petticoat and their impact on childbearing, a central responsibility within a woman's sphere. Practitioners of alternative medicine, including hydropathy or the water-cure, emphasized good health as a right of all individuals, including women, and believed that without dress reform, women's health would continue to be compromised along with their achievements. Feminists, too, acknowledged the health effects of the day's fashions but also called attention to dress as an impediment to women's full participation in society and their freedom to choose their own course in life. While each of these interested parties contributed to dress reform at various stages, it was the mainstream feminists, under the leadership of Amelia Bloomer and Elizabeth Cady Stanton who brought dress reform to the attention of society with the introduction of the Bloomer costume. Ironically, it was also these same feminists, including Bloomer and Stanton who, in their promotion of women's rights, were among the first to abandon wearing the new costume.

In Beyond Her Sphere, Barbara Harris identifies four ideas that formed the "cult of true womanhood" in the nineteenth century. These included, "a sharp dichotomy between the home and the economic world outside that paralleled a sharp contrast between female and male natures, the designation of the home as the female's only proper sphere, the moral superiority of woman, and the idealization of her function as mother" (33). Together, these interconnected ideas outline the dominant nineteenth-century view of women and provide the foundation upon which their assigned role was built.

As the United States moved from a rural, agrarian society to a nation of industrial, urban centers, Americans felt the anxiety of such a significant change and the weakening of traditional class distinctions (Berg 61). The nature of work altered as the location of employment shifted from the home to places of industry, and wealth, as a source of security in a changing world, was sought to provide identity and to obtain an elevated position in a new hierarchy. Increasingly, the home, identified as women's sphere, was segregated from what was seen as the capitalistic, base world of the workplace, recognized as the domain of men. Having lost the tranquility of the rural countryside, men sought comfort in their homes, viewing them as havens in which the financial rewards of labor were enjoyed and displayed. Women oversaw as well as participated in this display of affluence. Just as the homes of the wealthy were decorated with "satin and velvet draperies, rich Axminster carpets, marble and inlaid tables, and large lookingglasses, the style in general being Parisian," so were women adorned in the latest, most extravagant fashions from Paris (Berg 61-62). Both a man's home and wife served to proclaim his financial success and to elevate his position in society. This relationship between men and women, in which men participated in the public realm for economic gains while women remained in the home, became entrenched within society, reinforced by men's characterization of women. …

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