Even though many sought change, it took many decades for their reform to take hold and of course, like all change there were many set backs along the way. One popular writer of the time quipped that the women of New York City should be paid as street sweepers for each stroll they took. Reform of the era's fashions may have been hard to come by because dress reform was a dangerous topic. The Victorian era was a male dominated culture intent on maintaining the boundaries between the masculine and feminine genders.
The United States in the nineteenth century was a time when abandoning the accepted norms of fashion could provoke violence and ridicule. Even clothing for children was slow to change. Infants were almost habitually dressed in long night gowns and older children in both urban and rural families wore poorly fitted dress like clothes until they could work around either their home or the farm. Of course they then adopted the styles of clothing of their parents. Reform entailed all classes getting a new grasp of fashions.
The Victorian Era
The Victorian Era was a period in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that was largely recognized as a period of rigid and unyielding conservatism. Even though it was celebrated as a time that maintained a high standard of morality, beauty, and social grace, the overall Victorian society actually tended to be rather oppressive -- especially regarding women and their position within the society. This was a time when people owned few clothes.
A typical country woman might own only three or four dresses with one being dedicated to church and social events. Men also were conservative during this period. A husband would usually only own two or three shirts with one or two of summer and winter trousers. Shoes were even very scarce compared with items of clothing and were only common for men that worked outdoors. Women and children would definitely be the last to receive shoes. Thus fashion can be thought of as very limited at this juncture.
During this time, a role of a woman that was considered to be of high social caste and affluence was to be purely ornamental: thus, their clothing reflected their function accordingly. Victorian styled clothing was impractical in function and very excessive in form. As Douglass Russell points out in his text Costume History and Design, "the fashions of this period, like the interiors, were inhibiting and oppressive for the most part." (351)
This statement is especially applicable to women of the Victorian period. Though considered by some to be dull and boring, men's clothing during the same period in history allowed for men to have a full range of motion which entails free movement. Sadly, this was not the case for women's attire.
Upper-class women were expected to dress as elaborately or as richly as the etiquette of their high society dictated and thus proving caste to the remaining factions of society. Though various fashions went in and out of style during this period, typical Victorian dresses consisted of a series of heavily weighted and therefore extremely restrictive undergarments: petticoats, crinoline, and tightly laced corsets which were made from steel and whale bones. Outer garments were worn in layers and were often just as impractical because they also restricted and allowed for a minimal amount of movement.
Hemlines of the time were extremely long which made them very cumbersome to walk in and the large bustles that were at the rear kept women from doing much other than embroidering. This, however, was the purpose for wearing such clothing -- fashion was actually a tool that was intended to be used as a method that helped distinguish the various social and economic classes through the socially accepted fact that the wealthy were not intended to work. Regarding fashion as a symbol of wealth over other mediums, Thorstein Veblen wrote in his novel the Theory of the Leisure Class, "...that our apparel is always in evidence and affords an indication of our pecuniary standing to all observers at first glance." (167)
Due to the notion that a tailor was required to sew the many complex and also very expensive costumes, the middle and lower classes were systematically excluded from participation in high fashion throughout the period. Because women that were tied to the middle and lower economic classes focused their efforts mainly on putting food on their family's tables, they were excluded as the women in the oligarchy or "Leisure Class" often flaunted the fact that they didn't have to work by their outward appearance and dress.
Special care was given to women's dress during this time period particularly because a well dressed woman was an extension of and therefore reflected the role of the husband in society. When a man held a position where he could afford to have his spouse present so richly -- he was clearly demonstrating his elevated status within their society. These types of social graces made it especially important for the women to extend the impression to her peers as well as all others that she not only did not work, but she physically could not work.
Apparel was expected to remain in a constant state of perfect which entailed always being spotless and wrinkle or crease free. These expectations coupled with the fact that the actual clothing made it nearly impossible to move, insured that there were no possible opportunities for the upper caste wife to perform any manual labor. Veblen commented, "...elegant dress serves its purpose of elegance not only in that it is expensive, but also because it is the insignia of leisure. It not only shows that the wearer is able to consume a relatively large volume, but it argues at the same time that she consumes without producing." (171)
Likewise, in order for a woman to represent her husband properly during the Victorian Era, she had to exemplify the highest standards of decency and morality which was a concept that went hand-in-hand with the expectations of fashion. Morality was directly linked to the women's femininity and they were required to dress both beautifully as well as modestly, while always covering their bodies almost entirely.
Of course, this ideal or concept very often proved to be somewhat of a challenge of reformers of the societal dress code more than changing the look of fashion. For example, to raise a hemline would have been considered completely scandalous because societal expectations considered such a radical change to be immoral and indecent if the result would openly show a women's foot or ankle.
After the Civil War and the Corset
By the year 1870, there were several attempts to reform the societal expectations of women's fashions as well as the view of dress. A bit earlier in the century, women such as Elizabeth Smith Miller and Amelia Jenks Bloomer introduced and advocated the Turkish trousers, which were known as "bloomers."
This type of garment was not readily accepted by the majority of society because pants on women were viewed as immodest and certainly unfeminine. It was clear at the time, however, that times had changed and the role of women's fashions also had to undertake a transition in order to meet the needs of the better educated and more economically sound females of the period.
The fact that prior to the changes, women's clothing were not only cumbersome and uncomfortable, they were literally unhealthy and unsanitary. Jenna Weissman Joselit commented on the need for clothing reform in her book a Perfect Fit, "for all its virtues, womanliness came at a price, as any nineteenth-century American women could attest. With its pounds of fabric, 'shin-swaddling flounces,' and tightly laced corsets women's clothing was difficult to wear. Hard to keep clean..." (44) as women in cosmopolitan urban settings such as New York strolled down streets, their skirts literally brought along whatever was on the road before their arrival.
Examples of some of the problems that were inherent with women's clothing can be demonstrated by the fact that waste from horse-drawn carriages littered the streets and would therefore be caught in the long skirts and thus be dragged along in the hemlines. Highly regarded journals such as Scientific American published articles about the filth that could be found on