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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 spotting a girl in the cafeteria wearing a three-piece pinstripe suit and tie? Unless it were Halloween, or she were playing a businessman in the school play, you'd probably think it was a pretty odd sight. She would be breaking the social norm of what is acceptable for a girl to wear. The styles we wear define who we are, but have you ever stopped to think about why you're wearing the clothes you wear, and not ruffled, reptile-skin overalls? Although the clothes we wear look different than they did 150 years ago, we still dress like our peers, just like we always have.

Through a play in Worcester, Massachusetts, I found out first-hand what a 19th century American woman was supposed to wear.

"One...two...three..." she counted on stage, "four...five...six..." By the time Lucy Stone's character had finished, she had revealed all seven of the petticoats she wore beneath her skirt. The style of the day was full, and the fuller your skirt, the better. Full skirts were a status symbol, and were essential to any woman's dress.

For my debut as a nineteenth century woman, I donned just one petticoat. It gave my limp skirt an elegant "poof," but it was heavy and hot, and I was relieved to remove the whole cumbersome mess. To imagine wearing six more seemed like sheer torture!

Corsets were even worse! They were usually made of whale bone and fit tightly around a woman's stomach. When tied too tightly, women wound up with broken ribs and breathing problems. I wasn't upset that they didn't have an extra one for me to try on.

Becky strikes her best 19th century pose
To complete my look, I pulled on my skirt and blouse, a bonnet, and gloves. With my gloves and long sleeves, I wasn't showing any skin on my body at all! (Only my face and neck could have shown in public in those days). The bonnet kept my hair covered, and a woman would have worn one wherever she went. 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!

The cast reminds us of trends in fashion from long ago.
When I finally changed back into my soft corduroys and long-sleeved T-shirt, I felt relieved, and a lot less stuffy! To women in 1850, my casual, boyish clothes would have seemed ridiculous, but to me they meant freedom!

So why did women wear these awkward styles? Well, they faced the same expectations to dress in a certain way that we find today. As the women's movement grew, they began to adopt more comfortable styles. They still conformed to the fashions of their day, but their less-restrictive clothing allowed them to work better alongside their husbands and brothers.

So in the next 150 years, will women adopt clothing that continues to offer comfort and flexibility, or will we return to a more rigid and formal look? Whatever happens, I can say for sure 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