Dress Reform from 1850 to 1930 in the United States: The Impact on Health
Dress reform has played an integral part of the women's movement, health reform and political agendas. This paper will explore the time period of 1850 to 1930 in the United States of America concerning dress reform for women. It is important to explore this topic because the eighty year span marks a time of rapid change for women concerning health, leisure, independence, political and gender constraints and liberties. A description of the social forces must be discussed in order to have a distinct grasp of the reform movement. Next, the problems caused by fashion will reveal why there was a strong reform movement for dress and clothing. Examining the feminist and health movements of the time period will demonstrate what created the change in the movement, and the benefits and tribulations associated with the reform.
Wellness was not fashionable in the 1850's. Women associated being ill and weak with class superiority. It was almost as if illness replaced a sense of wealthy leisure because these women did not have to worry that their illness was impeding their ability to have a job or care for a household. This sickness afforded the women the opportunity to use "new" medical treatments and cures. Affording such medical attention was one way of noting the wealth behind the sickly woman .
Sickness not only distinguished people within classes, but it highlighted gender distinctions. Illness was a form of true femininity. The sick, delicate and frail woman was at the pinnacle of femininity because she embraced the weaknesses of the sex . But this sense of illness was not a psychological phenomenon. Given the time period, there was a great amount of disease present. However, through historical analysis, it is obvious that far women complained far more of illness than did men. In a time when a lot of female illness were linked to the uterus, one can begin to understand that the more sick you were, the more womanly it made you as your body was thought to have been constructed around the uterus .
Beyond the class superiority and femininity linked to illness, there lies a concrete explanation for why many women suffered from physical discomfort. The dress that was considered fashionable in the 1850's was more than just physically exhausting, it was detrimental a woman's body. Imagine a woman rising from bed wearing heavy bedclothes of wool or cotton. Underneath she would be wearing a corset for sleep, made of cotton, wool or a mix of heavy linen. After brushing out long hair, which was rarely washed, she would be wrapped in a light cotton garb that would protect her skin from actually touching her formal corset. Often corsets would stretch from the mid-hip region to the breasts. Corsets were constructed of whalebone and metal stays, which shaped the ribs and stomach to form a fashionable waist of approximately eighteen inches. After the corset was tightly laced (which required assistance of at least one other person), then heavy wool or cotton stocking would be pulled on. Stockings were held up ties, girdle-like bloomers or special buttons in the petticoats. At this time, a woman would put on six to eight petticoats . She would put on a special top to keep the corset from touching her dress. At this point, a woman may have worn a large hoop skirt. The large metal device would allow the woman to keep proper social distance from her guests and potential suitors. Often the woman would have to be lowered into the hoop skirt. If the hoop was too heavy, a woman would be placed in the parlor room and she would remain there until after a dinner party or until such a time she could remove the hoop because it could render her immobile. In some rare cases, small rolling wheels were attached at the bottom of hoop skirts to aid women in moving such a contraption. After all of this, then a dress would be placed on a woman. To top it...
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