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The History of Fashion



Ties That Bind

Can you imagine going through your daily routine in one of these outfits?
Can you imagine going through your daily routine in one of these outfits?

Baby-doll t-shirts and boot-cut jeans (or are they hipster flare?) for girls, baggy pants and a baseball hat for boys, are pretty much the uniform these days. Throw them on with your hooded fleece and favorite shoes, (Sketchers, Docs, flip-flops or Adidas) and you're good to go. But have you ever stopped to think about why you're wearing those clothes, and not ruffled, reptile-skin overalls? The styles we buy into are definitions of who we are, telling the world that we are men or women, preppy or hippie, young or old. We take our clothing cues from our friends, our magazines, and our role models, wanting to associate ourselves with the people we admire.

We usually follow the rules. Can you imagine spotting a girl in the cafeteria wearing a three-piece pinstripe suit and power tie? Unless it was Halloween, or unless she was playing a businessman in the school play, you would probably think it was a pretty odd sight. She would be breaking the social norm of what is acceptable for a girl to wear.

Becky strikes her best 19th century pose
As I've trekked through the beginnings of United States History, it's been fascinating to note that the pressure we face today to wear the same styles as our peers is not a new phenomenon at all. Although contemporary clothing differs drastically in appearance from the clothing worn 150 years ago, our motives for choosing to wear a particular style of clothing remain constant. It seems to me that the more styles change, the more the reasons we wear what we do stay the same.

Attending a play at the Women 2000 conference in Worcester, Massachusetts, I discovered first hand the styles a 19th century American woman was slave to. While today we talk about the unrealistic expectations women face to be incredibly skinny, or golden with tan, women in the 1850s were expected to have a certain look, which was equally unrealistic. This look was achieved through all sorts of artificial (and unhealthy) ways.

"One...two...three..." she counted off on stage, "four...five...six..." By the time Lucy Stone's character had finished, she had revealed all seven of the petticoats worn beneath her floor-length navy blue skirt. The style of the day was full, and the fuller your skirt, the better. In order to create that bell-shaped bottom, women would pile on the petticoats. The more a woman wore, the wealthier she looked. Just like today's name brand clothes, the full skirt was a status symbol, essential to a woman's daily dress.

Although they look like simple, ruffled white skirts, petticoats are actually heavy, not to mention hot. For my debut as a nineteenth century women's rights activist, I donned just one petticoat underneath my grey skirt and blouse, and sailed in style around the theater for an hour or so. While it definitely made me feel formal and dressed up, giving my otherwise limp skirt an elegant "poof," I breathed a sigh of relief to finally remove the whole cumbersome mess. I certainly couldn't get comfortable in one petticoat, let alone layers of petticoats! The idea of wearing six more seemed like sheer torture!

The rules of style didn't stop there however. Women in the 1850s were faced with an even more confining article of clothing: the corset. Usually made with a whalebone frame covered by fabric, a corset fit around a woman's stomach, and was adjustable with laces in the back. Its purpose was to squeeze in a woman's waist, creating the desired hourglass figure no matter what the woman's body type really was. When tied too tightly women often wound up with broken ribs and breathing problems, since their bodies were being squeezed in an entirely unnatural way.

The cast reminds us of trends in fashion from long ago
Unfortunately, there were no extra corsets available for me to try on at the theater. Instead, I just sucked in my stomach, trying to imagine the tightness of a strong band clamped around my midsection. As a child, when it hurt to comb out the tangles in my long hair, my mom used to kid me to "suffer for beauty." That was a joke but this was the real thing! Women in the 1850s underwent pain for the sake of appearance! The corset was a truly torturous device meant to shape women in an appealing way for men to look at. Although it might have been a really neat experience to try on a corset once, I must admit I was happy to become a 19th century woman without one.

To make my transformation into history complete, I pulled on my grey skirt and blouse, a pink bonnet and cream-colored gloves. The shirt was tricky to get on because it fastened with more than twenty tiny hook-and-eye closures in the front. Long sleeves ended in ruffles at my wrists, and once my gloves were on, I had successfully covered my entire body from the neck down. (In those days, social norms prevented women from showing any area of skin other than the face and neck in public). If I'd had long hair, it would have been necessary to tie it up into a bun before fixing my bonnet, but with my short hair, there was no need. The bonnet kept my head and hair covered, and a woman would have worn one whenever she went out in those days. With a purse and a handkerchief tucked neatly inside, I was ready for an evening at the theater, or to do battle for the rights of women everywhere!

After the play was over, (the cast almost persuaded me to go on stage as an extra, but most of my costume was borrowed from other cast members, and I wouldn't have appeared authentic without their props) I slipped backstage to change back into my soft corduroys and long-sleeved T-shirt. I felt a bit relieved, and a lot less stuffy - able to run or bend or sit on the floor if I wanted to. To the delegates at the first national women's convention in 1850, my casual, boyish clothes would have seemed ridiculous, but in the year 2000 they give me the freedom to comfortably do anything a man can do without the burden of those confining layers of constrictive clothing.

So why did women, even those actively fighting for change in the women's rights movement, wear these awkward styles? Well, they faced strong expectations to dress in a certain way, pressures that persist in our society today. It would have been unacceptable to dress in any other way. As the women's movement gained momentum however, and more and more women banded together, they began to adopt more and more comfortable styles of daily dress. They still conformed to the rules and styles of their day, but less-restrictive clothing allowed them to work on an increasingly level playing field with their husbands and brothers.

What's in store for women's clothing 150 years from now? Will women continue to adopt clothing styles that offer comfort and flexibility, or will fashion return to a more rigid and formal look? Whatever happens, all I can say for sure is that today's clothes will soon be ancient history.


Please email me at: rebecca@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Rebecca - Get out of the kitchen! It's time for equal rights! Or is it?
Teddy - Astronauts, judges, senators, truck drivers, TV producers - women rock!
Kevin - It's my last name and I'll keep it if I want to!
Daphne - Stirring the cauldron of equality
Team - Depression, anxiety and irritability: the low down on being too thin