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.
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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.
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To top it all off, she may have worn heavy wigs and hats. In all, a woman’s outfit alone could have weighed anywhere from ten to thirty-five pounds. On can hardly imagine the body heat that was retained by such a costume. Doctors noted the rashes and chaffs received by the skin becoming moist and having the clothes rub and puncture the moist dermis. Women would wear tightly laced leather boots and given the poor sewage systems in major urban areas, their boots would become wet with the city muck water that laid in the mud caked city street. Once the boot was wet, it would dry and become tight on the foot.
Also, given the food, animal waste, and industry by product that polluted the city streets, the long skirt and petticoats that skirted the ground (dress was always below the ankle), the clothing would sweep up the waste into the dress hem and in between the multitude of petticoats. These outfits would carry the filth, germs and disease with women. Besides becoming vehicles for germs and sewage, women’s clothing harmed the internal organs of the body. Such tightly laced corsets would impede breathing as they forced the ribs against the lungs.
There are actual cases of ribs being broken by tight corsets (or by a whalebone or metal stay snapping), which caused internal organs to be punctured. Often these women would internally bleed to death. Corsets caused internal organs to be displaced. It is estimated that the corset could apply between 30-80 pounds of pressure.
Often the kidneys, liver and uterus were displaced. Autopsies revealed women to have enlarged spleens or ones that had atrophied. The great pressure placed upon the hips by the weight of the dress and petticoats made it difficult for women to walk for long periods of time. “Fainting coaches” became popular in parlor rooms as women would faint by attempting to stand too quickly, sit too rapidly or too walk for a length. The constricted lungs and stomach allowed for little movement and decreased proper blood flow through the body. Due to the nature of the dress, it was difficult for women to use restroom facilities.
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Using the bathroom often meant having to become undressed, which could be a lengthy endeavor. Often women would resist the urge to using restroom facilities. This caused problems ranging from bladder to urinary tract infections. If women were menstruating, they may have gone some length of time before changing menstrual rags or wrappings.
This promoted bacterial growth around and in the vagina. Lastly, another major health problem was that of the digestive system. Women could eat very little given the small area to which their stomach was reduced. Women often had gastrointestinal problems as other organs pressed upon their intestines. Constipation, diarrhea, and severe gas pains all resulted. The clothing and lifestyle of these women was not just detrimental to themselves, but to their potential offspring as well.
It is theorized that women placed undo pressure on their reproductive organs, which made conception difficult and could make breastfeeding impossible. Because sickness in women was often linked to the uterus, upper crust society women could afford to have surgeries or invasive exams on their reproductive organs. Such efforts usually resulted in greater harm to these organs. There became a public outcry about the number of foreign-born immigrants in the country. It appeared as though lower class, working, slave and domestic women were bearing more children.
Some people said that rich, white women were practicing “race suicide.” And though the eugenics movement caused an increase in class distinctions and perpetuated the image of the “ideal” American, it also helped make a cause for dress reform on behalf of women’s reproductive health. Health reformers of the time worked diligently at attempting to change clothing styles for women. Advocates of the water cure, female physicians and an overall concerned medical community made such a push. Hydropathist’s (water cure practitioners and theorists) would argue that the medical community made women too reliant on medicines and unnecessary medical treatments. The water cure promoted the “three physicians of water exercise and diet.” Between 1850 and 1853 the Water Cure Journal, which began publication in 1850, would allot a majority of the journal to discussion on dress reform and personal testimonies from women that had experienced the benefits of reforming their dress.
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Physicians (four to five percent of which were women by the end of the 1800’s) and nurses alike also published articles and research finding on the detrimental effects of fashion. One example includes a series of lectures presented in Boston in the spring of 1874. The theme of the lectures was, “dress, as it effects the health of women.” Four female medical physicians presented the lectures, as did a finale lecture on considerations of beauty, economy and fitness. Unfortunately, most people that wrote only did so amongst each other within their specific journals dedicated to the assigned disciplines. Historians note that had such research and lectures been printed in popular magazines of the time, that health reformers might have played a greater role in dress transformation.
Styles began to rapidly change and as they did so all of the health problems associated with the dress of the 1850’s began to disappear. The two greatest achievements of the dress reform movement were that women were relived from the physical confinement of their clothing and they were able to participate in more leisure activities with greater comfort. As example, in 1863, Lum an Chapman patented what is hailed as the first American breast supporter. There were 616 patents awarded in the United States between 1863 and 1940.
During this time period, the inventors alluded to relieve of corsets. In 1929, a breast protector was patented over concern for women’s breasts in athletic and physical activity. Inventors made special brassieres for swimming, acrobatics and other physical activity. It became acceptable for women to wear undergarments against the skin, and to shed their corsets. Brassieres began to be mass-produced in 1893, which begins the time of a noted difference in women’s health problems related to clothing design.
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The 1850′ to 1930’s was a period of remarkable transition in the style of women’s clothing. The fashion evolution marked better health and an increase in leisure activities for women. Change in perception concerning the fashionableness of sickness and the femininity of restrictive clothing was coupled with extended legal rights for women and an increase in their occupational options. Appreciation for the modification goes to feminists, health reformers, dress reformers, advocates for leisure and to some extend the eugenicists. It is noted that dress reform did not offer a pure solution to the plights of women.
Rather, the change of clothing illustrates the changing social and political climates of the time period. References:.