Friday, March 11, 2011

Fashion: Action and Reaction

I know I’ve written about historical fashion before, but this morning I woke up with a few new insights.  Again, they are my insights and have no basis on anything beyond my own reasoning. So beware!

Thinking about fashion in the last two hundred years I started seeing an action/reaction phenomenon going on...

After the French Revolution, women got rid of their ridiculous high wigs and huge side-hoops and wore simple flowing dresses that allowed women freedom. Revolution? Freedom? It goes together. Now when they danced, they could actually get close to their partners, sliding past, shoulder to shoulder. And bonus, they didn't have to worry about their wigs and head-dresses toppling over.

As the memories of the Revolution faded, in the 1820's and 30's (see below left) fashion became more constrained again with big sleeves, big skirts, and corseted waists. It's as if the only action possible was over-reaction.

By the 1860’s women were encased in a bell. They were unable to go through doors easily, sit in a chair, and were encouraged by the style to be little more than pretty ornaments.

After the war, and during the industrial explosion of the last half of the 19th century, women seemed to gain freedom again with dresses that were flat in front and on the sides. Yet, the grips of fashion wouldn’t let them go, and they were burdened with large, elaborate bustles, holding them back, prohibiting them from gaining full freedom.  Heavy trains impeded their forward progress.

In the 1890’s women escaped the bustles and all forms of hoops (for good!) Once free to move, they . . . moved.  Women rode bicycles, played golf and tennis, and went to work in offices using a new invention called a typewriter. The idea of women gaining the right to vote stirred them into believing they actually could wield some power. Their sleeves grew enormous as if mimicking the idea of a strong woman, flexing her muscles.

For a few decades women’s fashions seemed almost sane—until the teens of the 20th century, when the hobble skirt became the rage. Tight near the ankle, there was only one way to walk in the dress. Slowly, with small steps. Hmm... Was society spooked by the inroads women were making, so it created fashion to hold women back by “hobbling them”? 

But women wouldn't be hobbled and kicked free of such ridiculous fashion. The flapper era of the 1920’s was a full revolution with corsets banished, hemlines raised from ankle to knee, fabrics softened to flowing sheers, and long hair cut into easy-care bobs. What did women do to celebrate their freedom? They went wild, dancing the Charleston, smoking cigarettes, and drinking cocktails!

Here's a link to original footage from the Roaring Twenties: Charleston Video

As women moved into the workplace, the flimsy flapper dresses gave way to practical clothes that were more tailored and menswear inspired. For the first time in history, women discovered the comfort of wearing pants (what took them so long?  Really.) As our men went to war, women filled in the gaps, working in factories and on the farm.

But after World War II and the Korean War, with our boys back home again, it was as if fashion insisted that women look like women again. Corsets returned—in the form of heavily constructed bras and girdles. Hoops were still out, but in their place came layers of petticoats, once again giving women an ornamental look. And as an alternative, there were tight-tight skirts, which were nothing more than modern hobble skirts.

The style didn’t last long, as the late sixties created fashion spurred by social reform. Those were the anti-years. Anti-war, anti-establishment, anti-any constraint at all. Bras were burned, coiffed hair was set free, and the freedom to choose virtually any style teased women with almost too much freedom.

For in the 1980’s, when women were making huge strides in the business world, the hippie dress code didn’t work in the corporate workplace. And so… fashion once again copied menswear with man-sized shoulder pads and silly bows instead of neckties. Having lived through this style, I cringe.  We looked ridiculous in our "power suits", like men-pretenders.

Women eventually realized they didn’t need to try quite so hard, and fashion evolved into what it is today. Which is? I’m not sure. When I try to think of fashion trends right now it’s hard to pinpoint. Hemlines and the width and length of pant legs vary. Shoes span the range from flip-flops to stilettos. Popular colors come and go. Have we finally reached the point where we can wear what we like and what looks good on us, and not have others make the choices for us?

If so, it’s about time. Actually, it is about time. For over two hundred years women have suffered their social gains with stops and starts, advances and regressions, and their fashion has followed suit.

Pun intended.// Nancy


  1. Often though when I see the cover of books, especially historical fiction, I long for the days of woman looking like woman. I would never want to go back to some of the clothes they wore, however the picture of the young lady in the white dress that would be my style. And never would I want to wear corsets like they had or large wigs. Somehow though I think we has woman have lost the beauty of being our feminity. Now it's more jeans and tops, rather than pretty dresses.
    Wonderful post.

  2. I agree with you--I'd like the beauty of the clothes, but not the discomfort. I long for the times when people dressed up. Now, even in church, people are too casual. It bothers me, because we DO act differently depending on the clothes we wear. We carry ourselves differently, and I believe, even think differently.

  3. Your observations are fascinating, Nancy, and I bet that costume historians have probably written on this very thing, i.e., how fashion reflects political realities. That being said, I think that the constraints still exist today, just in a different way. Today's woman has more freedom than ever when it comes to costume, but whatever she chooses she is supposed to put on a size 0 body. So while the choices for clothing may be less constricting, the ridiculous standard remains.

  4. I think of the absurd S-curve corsets that contorted women's bodies. And we all remember Scarlett O'Hara and her 13" waist (she was mad when it was 17" after she had a baby.) Yet think of the voluptuous Rubenesque ideal of the paintings by Peter Paul Rubens in the early 1600's. Not a size 0 in the bunch. Somewhere between the two is a happy medium. But I suppose even that depends on individual definition--of "happy" and "medium".

  5. Hi Nancy:

    Your fashion theory makes perfect sense but then I wonder: Isn’t fashion somewhat like the weather?

    How do you change fashions? Who is in charge of directing the new fashion changes?

    I think the history of who designed the new fashions and who was most influential in getting them adopted would be very interesting.

    If this did happen, it would make a very interesting novel. A designer could see how life was loosening up and decide to pioneer a new clothing line to reflect that freedom. Probably the best opportunity to do this would be the 1920’s.

    It is a wonder. By the way, I really like the Jane Austen time period with dresses that looked pretty but natural.


  6. Your book idea is interesting, Vince. I'm also interested in the Rational Dress Reform Movement that came about in the late 1800's. It tried to get women to dress for function rather than to attract men. It was ridiculed and largely ignored, but the fact there were women who wanted sanity in fashion is fascinating. Hmm. I feel a novel coming on.

  7. Hi Nancy:

    I’d love to read such a novel.

    If you can tie historical social events to changes in fashion, within the framework of a good story, the reader is going to enjoy more interesting ‘history’ than most novels offer.

    This is far more enjoyable than a story that just happens to happen in a given time period. I like stories that could have only happened in the chosen time period.


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