This week’s sixth assignment is all about the use and power of images. To that end, I have chosen to examine the absurdity of ladies’ apparel in the mid-nineteenth century. I have chosen to narrow the focus to elite, Western (United States, which drew heavily from French and English fashion) women’s clothing. There are numerous historical images both celebrating and ridiculing fashion in the Crinoline era, an era where fashion and technology collided. Even a (seemingly) trivial subject like fashion can tell us a great deal about the society that produced it. What was the society’s technical level? How was clothing used to distinguish between nations, ethnic groups, and economic/social status? How was clothing used to define the body politic? How repressive/permissive was the society? How did the restrictive nature of clothing affect people and lead to the creation of rules of etiquette? How is the fashion represented visually? Since there is a considerable amount of satire surrounding crinoline hoop skirts, how did the society feel about their clothing? And yes, while its technically possible to wear a dress that could encompass a small planet, what are the practical considerations involved? What about mobility or doing small everyday tasks?
How far would you go for fashion?
The crinoline period in historical fashion occurred between 1845 through 1865-70. It period was an age of increasing domesticity, middle-class values, and conservative morality. This was reflected in the restrictive nature of upper and middle class ladies’ fashions. In 1830, Louis A Godey published a magazine called Godey’s Lady’s Book, which contained fashion plates, advice, engravings, poetry, and articles geared towards women, and became an early standard-bearer for the Victorian Age. The fashion plates featured in women’s magazines depict demure, modest, well-kept young ladies in domestic situations and homogeneous group settings. Women’s silhouettes, beginning in the 1840s and continuing through the 1860s, became more feminized and flattering to the figure. Bodices were close-fitting with round to slightly tapered waistlines at the center front. Shirts were floor length and pleated into the waistband over glue-stiffened petticoats in the 1840s, By the 1850s, a minimum of 10 yards of fabric were used in skirts and petticoats but could be increased to as much as 20-25 yards depending on the width of the skirt. Multiple, heavy petticoats were used for support until the introduction of steel cage crinolines. Skirts, then could reach enormous proportions, became bell or domed shaped and reduced the weight and number of petticoats needed for support. However, the unwieldy nature of the steel crinolines and their tendency for them to flip-up indecently increased the popularity and wide-spread use of pantalettes, long underpants trimmed with lacy frills.
This same period was also an era of greater mechanical and scientific advancement. The Industrial Revolution began several decades prior in the textile industry. Before the I.R., most of the cloth-weaving, spinning of yarns, and making of clothing was done inside the home or on small-scale production loom. With the invention of power looms, spinning frames, Spinning Jennys, and the cotton gin, suddenly, fabric was available in larger quantities and inexpensive. Elias Howe and Isaac Merritt Singer both invented functioning mechanical sewing machines and fought bitterly over the patent rights to manufacture their products. The sewing machine-made clothing construction easier and led to ready-to-wear apparel. Before this wondrous machine, all seams in every garment were meticulously hand-stitched together requiring many people and man-hours to produce an article of clothing. By the 1850s, Henry Bessemer patented his process for making steel in larger quantities and therefore reduced the price of steel. In 1856, steel was introduced into women’s fashion through the “cage” crinoline, which allowed for the fashionably wide shirts of the 1850-60s. Steel was also introduced as a cheap alternative to whalebone in corsets. With the advent of the mechanical sewing machine and cheaper steel, women’s clothing was revolutionized. Suddenly, women’s clothing was not restricted by gravity and the number of petticoats a body could support but could (and did) reach absurd proportions.
Imagine trying to do simple tasks like riding a bus/train/taxi/car wearing easily 30 to 50 lbs. of fabric and steel with circumference of 6-8 feet. Could you manage that without indecently showing an ankle? Or how about sitting? Could you do that without tipping your skirt up? The satire to the right shows the various pitfalls that could occur while wearing crinolines: women could trip and fall to the ground, exposing their lower bodies. their skirts were so wide, they could knock people down/off stairs and chairs; women’s skirts could easily catch fire if they got too close to flame; be used as umbrellas; and if a person was being attacked by lions or a mob of women, the steel cage makes an excellent barrier to danger!
As the old saying goes, all good things must come to an end. So must the end come for the wide bell skirts. The skirts were completely impractical and most of the steel (at least in elite Southern women’s crinolines) wound up being melted down to make cannons balls and weapons during the American Civil War. The high fashion that squeezed female bodies, restricted movement, and limited healthy activities and exercise led to increased in female health problems. The Women’s Dress Society and Reform Movementwas formed in 1881 in England. The movement sought to emulate Amelia Bloomer (1818-1894), an early leader in the Women’s suffragist movement and a proponent of eliminating restrictive and deformative clothing for women. Bloomer advocated a bifurcated, ankle-length, baggy trouser outfit that was nicknamed “bloomers” by her critics. This baggy trouser was adopted by the Rational Dress Reform Movement but did not become popular until after Amelia Bloomer’s death and only then because of the popularity of the bicycle. Bloomers were a safer alternative to wearing long skirts when cycling. The increased popularity for sports and exercise in the 1870s and 1880s, helped change the restrictive nature of women’s clothing.