Feminist Critique of the Dress Reform Movement of the Mid-Eighteen Hundreds

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The Dress Reform Movement of the Mid-Eighteen Hundreds
Women’s History in America

In the middle of the nineteenth century in the United States, there were many movements working to improve society. The temperance movement aimed to remove the use and abuse of alcohol in America. The abolition movement called for the immediate end to slavery. The women’s movement had a mission to change women’s role in society by such means as giving them the right to vote and own their own property. Health reformers of the time advocated self-healing and the use of natural remedies like homeopathies and water treatments. There were also religious reform movements, many of which started their own communities to exemplify a more perfect society, which called for an assortment of social changes. In the midst of all of these was the women’s dress reform movement. In this era, American women wore long, full dresses, which included a tight corset made of whalebone, and high heels. This costume held many issues for women in their daily lives; they could not freely walk up and down stairs or climb hills without holding up their skirts, they had to wade through muddy streets with many layers of cloth which became extremely heavy with grime, and they could not breathe properly or fully because of the extreme tightness called for by the fashion of having a “wasp waist”. Elizabeth Cady Stanton complained, “why ‘the drapery’ is quite too much -- one might as well work with a ball and chain. Is being born a woman so criminal an offense, that we must be doomed to this everlasting bondage? (Stanton, "Our Costume").” And Theodosia Gilbert wrote that these costumes robbed women of the natural “poetry of motion” and grace which their bodies were born with (Gilbert, "An Eye Sore"). There were a great number of accused problems with the dresses of the time, yet, as Elizabeth Smith Miller wrote, “the mass of women [clung] to them, even at the sacrifice of comfort, cleanliness, and health (Miller, "Reflections on Woman's Dress, and the Record of a Personal Experience").” The dress reform movement of the 1850s did not succeed for three reasons. Firstly, women of the time bowed down to the wishes of society and beauty ideals too readily and did not take responsibility for matters that should have been in their own hands. Secondly, the reformers were not organized into one group—three collectives wanted the dress reform for their own reasons and none of them were single-issue groups. Thirdly, dress reform was a symbol (though not purposely) of the entire women’s movement, and could not succeed until the greater cause began to succeed.

One reason dress reformers did not succeed was because they gave too much power to society in the transformation of their own clothes. The mid eighteen hundreds was a time when women made all of their own clothing at home, yet the women of the dress reform movement waited for permission to change their own sewing patterns. As Gerrit Smith pleaded to Stanton, “[women] claim that the fullest measure of rights and independence and dignity shall be accorded to them, and yet they refuse to place themselves in circumstances corresponding with their claim (Smith, “Letter to Elizabeth C. Stanton”).” The movement was literally in their own hands, and still they worked to appeal to the masses for the change and continued to dress themselves like dolls. They refused to make the change themselves at home. Women might even have succeeded in joining together to slowly shorten the hemlines of their dresses, without men ever noticing the change, as this is how fashion movements typically happen—over a length of time, easily, and with no argument. But these reformers gave the dress of the time and public opinion too much power. How is it that women were so concerned with society’s approval, especially the very founders of the women’s movement? The women who did make the switch to the “bloomer costume” had no stamina and gave up quickly because...
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