Women’s Liberation through Dress

This post was originally submitted as a final essay on the history of women’s liberation through fashion throughout the progressive era (1900-1920). For questions on sources quoted or used ask Natalia!

  In all societies the body is dressed and shaped to reflect a cultural understanding of what a body should look like and how it must be covered or left exposed. Clothing is so much a part of our living and our culture that we use it to define ourselves within the contexts of our society as a reflection of our agreement or dissent to cultural values, as reflected through dress.

It tends to be the rule, rather than the exception that forms of dress will change to reflect a culture’s value system at a slow, conservative pace. However, the Progressive Era is certainly an exception to this rule. Throughout the years of 1900 to 1920 women’s dress progressed at a greater pace than it had changed throughout the whole19th century. This essay explores the changes in women’s apparel throughout the Progressive Era, mainly focusing on the parallel relationship between women’s dress and their liberation during these years. Contrary to popular conception, I argue that women’s apparel reform throughout the progressive era moved mostly parallel to women’s progressive movements, meaning dress reform was not directly influenced by women’s movements so much as it was by three other social movements. Ultimately I propose that the changes in women’s dress reform during these years—largely influenced because of new artistic trends, urbanization, and scientific discoveries—allowed for increased control over a woman’s own body and her decision to decide what to wear on the basis of her judgments and preferences.

Before discussing the fast-paced years of the Progressive Era it is important to set the historical foundation for the changes that were to come. It seems unlikely that at the turn of the century a new mindset would sweep over traditions of dress and culture and suddenly allow for the fermentation of a ‘progressive era’. The changes that took place during the years of the progressive era had foundations and roots that had been planted throughout the 19th century, these foundations ultimately allowed for the rapid change that did occur at the start of the 20th century. The changes that took place in the 19th century mostly happened in wardrobe “transformations [during] the second half of the century” (McNeil, p 267). The 19th century gave raise to the “notion of fashionability”, but most importantly this era was the first to be impacted by “industrialization [which forever] changed people’s lives” (McNeil, p 269).  Industrialization in the textile industry became a “turning point in the history of fashion: it became a ‘democratization of fashion’”(McNeil, p 269).  In addition to being influenced by industrialization, most changes in dress were influenced as a result of three factors: a rising artistic movement, novel scientific discoveries, and urbanization. These movements were essential to the success of the progressive movement at the turn of the century because all together these three factors holistically tackled women’s dress reform from different perspectives, ultimately giving American women from different cultural backgrounds and classes comfort in the idea that reform-dress had a historical tradition as well as a scientifically backed logical component that was not a radical invention of the twentieth century.

It is important to devote some time to the discussion of these three movements because their failure in the 19th century created the foundation for their success in the twentieth century.

Firstly, the rising artistic movement that occurred throughout the second half of the nineteenth century was called the pre-Raphaelite movement and it was vastly inspired by Greek culture and thought (Wilson, 210). Artist and poets began to look back to Greek influences for inspiration from Classical scholars. These same artists sought inspiration and ultimately found themselves dismayed with the discrepancies in definitions of the term ‘beauty’ within their culture as compared to Greek culture. When looking back at ancient Greek art, American artists found that women’s bodies had been meant to be beautiful within their nature, and not under the constrictions of a corset (Wilson, 209). This artistic movement ,with support by poets and writers such as Oscar Wilde, rallied a movement that would question the very definition of beauty in contemporary culture.

Secondly, throughout the late nineteenth century scientists had begun to find substantial empirical evidence that pointed to the negative health effects of the corset and the weight of skirts in women’s dress—which at times amounted to 36 pounds! Doctors and scientists began to publish journals noting the health offences corsets had on women’s bodies (Wilson, 166). Additionally, scientist urged doctors to encourage physical movement in free air, including walking and bike riding. Because these suggestions came from health professionals, social effect came about with greater ease because it was not a social movement, but rather a prescription or a set of doctor’s orders. This scientific backing allowed women to enter fields of sports including gymnastics and biking—fields that had been controlled by men for most of history.

Finally, urbanization was a key factor to the developmental change in women’s dress. Urbanization not only meant increased physical proximity to a greater numbers of people, it also meant the development of urban schooling, a new role in women as workers, and increased exposure to the social sphere which had long been withheld to women. The importance of urbanization cannot be understated—it is because of urbanization that women became exposed to different cultural traditions, ways of life, political movements, socioeconomic differences, and even fashion trends.

These three factors became the foundation that would be necessary for the progressive movement. The foundations set in the 19th century remained as un-watered seeds do because industrial progress in fashion was met with social discouragement from adopting new fashion trends. These un-watered seeds stood waiting to be nourished for years, only to be cultivated and utilized during the progressive era. The period of the progressive movement (1900-1920) can thus be separated into three sets. The first, which maintained 19th century styles lasted from 1900 to 1910. Changes during these years occurred largely because of scientific studies and long standing artistic movements that encouraged a change in fashion. The second set consists of the years from 1910 to 1915, years heavily influenced by continued artistic movements and urban development. Finally, dress reform in progressive movement is concluded in the years of 1915 to 1920, a critical set of years influenced by World War I, urban movements, and artistic influences. 

Gibson Girl

The years of 1900-1910: At the turn of the 20th century trends that had been building up created an environment ready for change. By the end of the nineteenth century, the strong, independent woman had become the ‘New Woman’, who was visible in education, in athletics, in reform, [and] in the workforce” (Crane, 341). The ‘New Woman’ was epitomized by the “Gibson girl in shirtwaist, tie, and long skirts” (Crane, 339). Though significant ground had been laid out for dress reform, the early years of the 20thcentury

Belle Epoque- Age of Opulence

ere still referred to as “La Belle Epoque” and “The Age of Opulance” meaning lavishness in textiles and extravagance in women’s dress still followed the dress code set during the 19th century—a code heavily influenced by the stringent rules of the Victorian Era (Mendes, 10). Victorian clothing was “a form of social control that contributed to the maintenance of women in dependent, subservient roles”, fashionable clothing in these early years “exemplified the doctrine of separate spheres…[and] suited the subordinate and passive social roles women were expected to perform” (Crane, 336, 343). At thistime “the dictates of fashion were rigidly followed; to depart from the norm was to risk social ridicule. Status, class and age were clearly signaled by dress” and it was not until “1908 that there was significant redirection of fashion”(Mendes, 10). Up to this time scientific discoveries had been the leading factor urging dress reform, but most women remained unconvinced leaving reform “unable to win the support of substantial numbers of women outside these [scientific] groups” (Crane, 342). While “the dominant [most popular] style was designed to maintain existing social class boundaries, being relatively inaccessible to the lower middle and working class. The alternative [reform] style, relatively inexpensive and uncomplicated to reproduce, crossed class boundaries” (Crane, 348). Because science did not deal with class issues the alternative style remained unpopular throughout these first years, leaving little change in this decade. However, a large success occurred in 1908 when leading designer Paul Poiret “energetically led the movement away from the full, curvilinear silhouette of early 1900s fashion towards a longer, leaner line” (Mendes, 32). While in the first few years of the century women would wear corsets “to coerce bodies into desired and apparently desirable S-bend curves with minute waists and low, protuberant monobosoms balanced by rounded posteriors” by the end of the decade Poiret had popularized the style of the Delphos gown, as influenced by the pre-Raphaelite artistic movement of the late nineteenth century (Mendes, 13).

Delphos Gown

The Delphos gown was first used in a theatre, its look was “based on the classical Greek chiton…the gown fell in a glistening column from the shoulders to the ground” marking the first flapper-like dress, not yet available in-stores, but hugely impactful in the direction fashion would take after 1910 (Mendes, 24). The Delphos gown originated in fashion circles, leaving a ripple-like effect in the direction of fashion towards a less constrained more natural bodice as encouraged by the artists of the pre-Raphaelite movement. What was of greater importance was that fashion circles appealed to greater masses of women—through the use of magazines and film—leaving stronger impressions that encouraged a recession from the corset and encouraged greater freedom as expressed through clothing. By the 1910s, “though a full body remained fashionable, the exaggerated curves had vanished and the effect was pillar-like” (Mendes, 36).

The years of 1910-1915: During the first half of the second decade three main features ruled fashion changes; urbanization, the ‘uniform effect’, and a continued artistic movement. The “growth of ready-to-wear in early twentieth century depended largely on the unregulated ‘sweated industries’” which largely employed women in large cities (Mendes, 19). The results of sweat industries, discussed under the topic of urbanization, caused direct exposure to fashionable clothing, along with exposure to different interpretation of fashion trends. Whereas in the early years of the century fashion looks had been “disseminated through postcards and cigarette cards”, such as the style of the Gibson girl, living in an urban city allowed women to see fashion on the street first-hand (Mendes, 20).

Uniform Work Dress

An important trend began after 1914 when mass produced clothing  created a ‘uniform’ effect where it seemed as though each woman dressed after a single model.This is probably because “the cinema became an especially powerful style leader…[where celebrities] inspired millions of women to copy their clothes, hair and cosmetics, as well as their mannerisms. Fan magazines, first launched in 1911, revealed the beauty routines and wardrobes of the stars” allowing masses of women to copy single ‘uniform’ trends crossing class boundaries (Mendes, 61). As a result “many old signs of rank disappeared, the uniform was born [and] indeed uniforms were the first type of mass produced clothing” especially at the beginning of the Great War (Wilson, 35). During this time women adopted a style more like Poiret had proposed in the first decade with high-waisted ‘empire’ line gowns were “column like and attention centered upon skirts that were draped and gently  gathered into fluid lines” (Mendes, 34).  Following the pre-Raphaelite movement inspiration “derived from Greek art which valued the form of Venus de Medicis and the Venus de Milo—[these] two models that highly contrasted the Victorian corseted form” but consistently pushed the boundaries of fashion during this era (Wilson, 210). The most important effect was the artistic redefinition of ‘beauty’ as expressed through dress was that the old constraints of dress were no longer reasonable, beautiful, or fashionable. A woman might not listen to her feminist friends dress recommendations, but she would certainly not dare dress unfashionably in public.

The years of 1915-1920: Dress reform in the progressive movement is concluded in the years of 1915 to 1920, a critical set of years influenced by World War I, an increase of women in the workforce, and a new artistic influence. While “the silhouette remained column-like, with the vertical emphasis…[in] 1915 a number of designers introduced military references into their collections notably for day wear. Sensible tailored jackets and suits, with gently waisted silhouettes, became increasingly important components of women’s wardrobes” (Mendes, 50). By “1916 the exigencies of war were affecting even the most affluent”, men who had left to fight the war left  “a shortage of domestic labor [which] meant that clothing that required elaborate cleaning, ironing and fitting soon became impractical and designs began to be modified to accommodate wartime shortages and more modest lifestyles” (Mendes, 51). Designer’s military references in wardrobe

Military Dress

meant borrowing from men’s fashion as a new social statement. The frequency with which “women incorporated items from men’s clothing into their costumes, the fact that the borrowed items did not lose their masculine connotations, and the way in which this type of clothing behaviors transcended social class lines suggests that these items constituted a symbolic statement concerning their status and the debates concerning women’s status that raged through the nineteenth century” (Crane, 339). Now with greater female presence in the workforce and confidence that women could perform the jobs men had left to them, fashionable clothing became political allowing items like the suit jacket to become a “symbol of the emancipated woman” (Crane, 337). It is important to note women wore these ‘uniform’ fashions beforethe political statement came attached to the clothing. It was perhaps because “twentieth century fashion was…more and more uniform” that women found themselves more similar to one another, more confident of their sex, and confident of their capabilities (Wilson, 40). After the First World War, “the alternative style with its ties, men’s hats, men’s jackets, and vests was no longer such a dramatic contrast to the dominant style. The dominant feminine ideal of the nineteenth century, the voluptuous matron, had been replaced by the flapper” (Crane, 349). What is significant of these seemingly radical movements towards the feminization of men’s fashion is that there was a “lack of social ostracism attacked to this mode of dress”  allowing more women to adopt these styles than ever before (Crane, 339). At this time the pre-Raphaelite movement had been replaced by anew Modernist artistic movement which “turned away from the illusion of naturalism and realism, and stated that a painting was just that: a flat representation, not a three-dimensional reflection of the real…in the 1920s fashionable dress simply imitated this angular, two-dimensional style” and thus the boyish, skinny, flappers ruled the 1920s with their lanky bodies (Wilson, 62).

First Signs of Flappers

The task of analyzing dress reform throughout the Progressive Era ultimately proves more complex than one might imagine. As this essay mentions in the beginning, it is precisely because dress reflects a culture that it is so difficult to outline influences for why dress changed in the first place, and why it changed in the way it did. Throughout the three main factors have been at the front of analysis—artistic influences, scientific discoveries, and urbanization—as the main variables affecting change in social dress during the progressive era, but it is un-doubtable that other factors not discussed swayed the course of fashion during this period. Though every aspect affecting dress reform throughout the progressive era could not be discussed, there is one feature that has gone unmentioned but is common in all three factors discussed throughout this essay that is pivotal to dress reform, that is the support of men. If there is one common feature behind these three movements, it is that there were men supporting each movement.  It was male artists and designers like Paul Poiret

Poiret's legacy- flappers

 who rallied behind the artistic movements that changed the definition of beauty. It was predominantly male scientists and doctors who published their findings on the negative health affects of the corset and encouraged physical activity and dress reform. It was men who worked in capitalist companies in urban cities who encouraged women’s factory work and women’s increased social responsibility in the public sphere. It goes without saying that men too were involved in political movements that would ultimately grant women’s rights, showing us that though feminist movements of reform may have been incredibly important, it would not have been possible without men’s support in various fields rallying for change throughout this era. It is easy to believe that the feminist movement would be in charge of dress reform during the progressive era, and that all men would be staunchly against reform, but it takes analysis to find that many men were behind projects that helped free women, whether intentionally or not.

            “By the end of the first decade of the twentieth century the world may be said to have entered on a new era, an era of hustle and excitement, when every year practically brought forth some new cause for amazement or an eight-day wonder (Hall, 99). The rapid social change that occurred in the first twenty years of the twentieth century appear as though these movements were put on ‘fast forward’ causing a surprising transformation especially when compared to the little change that occurred throughout the 19th century. As it turns out, the curious set of features that allowed for rapid transformation during the early twentieth century were really due to the foundations that had been sprinkled throughout the century before. If it had not been for these failed attempts of the nineteenth century, the progressive era would not have had the starting points it did to move forward. As it turns out the parallel relationship between women’s liberation and their dress during the progressive era truly is more ‘parallel’ than ‘intersectional’ than I would have believed. It seems as though the feminist movement that occurred during the progressive era happened in the midst of many other social changes that were taking place, luckily this environment seems to have fostered enough support for the success of the suffragist movement. We know today more parallels than intersections in feminism and fashion, as have been established in this work. This, however, does not mean that feminists and suffragettes were uninvolved in dress reform but rather that they might not have been the main factor for change in dress.

The lasting footprint of the progressive era is tremendous. As years progressed, even past the 1920s, women consistently obtained greater independence in choosing what she would wear, when they could wear it, and in front of whom. The power woman gained in taking on these very mundane decisions is fundamental to their liberation in the rest of the century. Not only did women gain more control over their bodies by having several dress options of what to wear on the table, this very decision allowed them to decide what was ‘appropriate’ not based on social standards but personal values that women could build for the first time in history.

6 thoughts on “Women’s Liberation through Dress

  1. Hi Natalia,

    I’m a fashion student studying in Singapore and I’m currently working on my BA(HONS) final year thesis and my topic is the link between fashion and politics. How social, cultural and political events impacted the fashion world that made us the way we are today. I was just doing my research online and I found your blog and read your essay and realized that your essay was of much help to mine. So I’ve decided to leave a message here to ask if you’re able to help me out on where did you get your quotes from and I wanted to know if this is the final essay that you submitted?

    Thank you so much in advance!
    Hope to receive your reply soon.

  2. Such a great article! Can I quote some of your informations for my essay about the liberation of the body through the centuries?

  3. Hi, I’m doing a WR 122 final reasearch project on how the fashion can be used as a political statment your article has some great information! I was wondering which sources you used? I’m having trouble locating them just by the last names. I’d love to look at them for some background research and evidence for my paper. Thanks!

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