Victorian Dress: bodily bounderies, reform, and the bloomer

The Art of Dress in the Victorian and Edwardian Eras

As concepts of beauty change, so does costume. This process is called fashion.

To be in fashion is to participate in and move along with the metamorphosis of culture; cultural changes eventually demand revision in ideas about beauty and ultimately in the clothing forms which both utilize and symbolize them. Costume is the most conspicuous element of our public persona and, in a manner of speaking, is our own portable art gallery.

Queen Victoria

In London early in February 1840, Queen Victoria married her prince, Albert.


Forty-five days later in Cincinnati, Ohio, Angeline Russell was married toJamesJ. Faran. She wore a wedding dress which featured a wide, low neckline with a bertha of silk lace, short sleeves trimmed with silk lace ruffles, a pointed bodice front, and extensive use of piping throughout the bodice.. All these elements echoed the styling of the dress worn by Queen Victoria. Both brides dressed in accordance with the fashionable taste for simplicity enhanced with lace. While the queen displayed a fortune in lace custom-made for her in England, Angeline Faran used a high-quality unbleached silk lace known as blonde. Her wedding dress -looking more like a very fashionable evening gown-anticipated the fashion of the 1840s with its tight sleeves and a bodice of extremely long and slender proportions.


second half of the 1840s, skirts began to blossom over the support of increasing numbers of starched and stiffened petticoats.



About 1856, the whalebone, cane, and horsehair which had been attached to the bottom of petticoats to make the skirt stand out were all replaced by the cage crinoline. This framework, resembling a bird cage, was made up of many concentric rows of thin, flexible, spring steel bands held in place by vertical cloth tapes. Light- weight and strong, it retained its shape no matter how large the skirt became.


The huge skirts, however, were not nearly as amusing to dressmakers since they had to devise ways of narrowing many yards of fabric to tiny waistbands. A ball gown from Boston presents an excellent example of dressmaker ingenuity. The skirt-made of nine full-width panels of silk taffeta-measures 180 inches at the hem and 22 inches at the waistband. The dressmaker solved the problem by folding the top of the skirt into deep triple box pleats.


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American publications: Godeys, Harpers, Petersons were exceedingly influential. Their hand-tinted illustrations presented up-to-the-minute taste which was then described in detail. Women throughout the United States could see and read about the latest developments on the East Coast and in Europe. For example, evening dresses illustrated in Petersons Magazine in 1861 showed a full, puffed, lightweight gauze sleeve under an elaborate cap sleeve of dress fabric. The esthetic purpose of this arrangement was to produce a wide horizontal line at the shoulders which visually balanced the width of the skirt.


After the end of the Civil War, the size of the cage crinoline diminished substantially, and by the conclusion of the 1860s, the fashionable silhouette had changed dramatically The circular volume of the skirt no longer centered on the wearer but sailed out behind her.


The Queen, another English periodical, informed its readers of 1868 that “there shall be an abundance of crinoline, or bustle, or pannier, or tournure (for the bunch at the back goes by a variety of names) just below the waist.” While fashionable women in England and on the Continent adopted the new fashion, Godeys Ladys Book still debated the comfort and economy of the hoop skirt and concluded that “they will be worn more than ever; and larger in size.


By 1870, the large crinoline was passe. Women with a wardrobe of full-cut skirts updated them by removing side panels or by pulling the fullness to the back of the skirt where it was caught up in a pouf over the bustle.

The undisputed capital of the nineteenth-century fashion world was Paris. At midcentury, the center of this world was the French Empress Eugenie, whose taste and whim set fashion. Correspondents for English and American fashion publications reported on elegant society gatherings as well as those society ladies promenading on fashionable boulevards, and each innovation of the important dressmakers was eagerly adopted.


Much of the complexity of fashion from 1870 through 1885 can be reduced to a combination of two elements: a tightly fitted machine-stitched bodice and a tightly fitted skirt shell upon which was tacked a collage of fabrics, trims, and ruffle

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The tightly fitted bodices deserve special attention. They were called the cuirasse bodice because they fit so closely, almost like armor. If the steel-boned corset wasn’t enough, an extra measure of uprightness was insured by attaching boning inside as well. After 1876, the long, fitted, coatlike bodice extended down over the hips and, in turn, skirts became narrow in the extreme

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The English Woman’s Domestic Magazine recommended in 1875 that “the bodice be as long-waisted and as tight fitting as possible, the skirt as scant and the train as full as maybe.”

The Paris correspondent for The Ladies’ Treasure, reported that “skirts are now so tight that our sitting and walking are seriously inconvenienced; and the sleeves of our bodices are so closely fitting to the arms that we can hardly raise them, even to half their usual height…. Unfortunately; also, these very tight dresses are more frequently disadvantageous to the greater portion of the ladies than they are becoming.

John Redfern is usually credited with developing the style in 1885 in its purest form-a straightforward blue serge coat and skirt. According to one anecdote, he created the style for the Princess of Wales-a simple outfit for outdoor duties such as military reviews.


1889 walking suit

After the death of Prince Albert in 1861, Queen Victoria withdrew from public view into years of private mourning, and the very stylish Empress Eugenie lost her pre-eminence with the fall of the French monarchy in 1871. Leadership emerged in new quarters.

Actresses such as Sarah Bernhardt and professional beauties like Lillie Langtry


exerted a tremendous influence on fashion. In the absence of royal tastemakers, important actresses especially dazzled the public with their wardrobes of the most forward-looking clothes-since at that time many of these women wore their own clothing on the stage. Mary Reed Bobbitt noted their influence when she wrote in 1879: “Sarah Bernhardt looked lovely… whatever I see her in, I always make up my mind to try and remember how it was made and to have one like it for myself.”


Her costumes cut in the Directoire and Empire styles influenced fashionable taste. Even Redfern’s restrained walking suits were not immune. Directoire details such as full, wide lapels and coat tails falling from the back of the bodice mark his suits from this date as being in the height of fashion.


In the last twenty years of the nineteenth century fashion looked backward instead of forward. The 1880s witnessed the Pre-Raphaelite style inspired by medieval dress and the Directoire and Empire period influence inspired by Sarah Bernhardt’s costumes in La Tosca. In the 1890s, inspiration came from dress of the Tudor and Cavalier periods. None of these models were actually duplicated, but details were lifted, reworked, and incorporated into late nineteenth-century mainstream dress. For designers in the mid-1890s, however, the past was no mere inspiration.


The Exquisite Slave: The Role of Clothes in the Making of the Victorian Woman

For Thomas Carlyle in Sartor Resartus, clothes were not mere aesthetic ornament, but emblems of society’s hierarchy and symbols of the spirit. “Man’s earthly interests,” he observes, “are hooked and buttoned together and held up by clothes.” Not only could clothing transform a person’s appearance, it could influence the actions and attitudes of both the wearer and the viewer. As Thackeray demonstrates in his Paris Sketch Book of 1840, it is Louis XIV’s dress that transforms a “little lean, shrivelled, paunchy old man, of five feet two” into the magnificent, imposing Sun King.

The rather minimal differences between the physical anatomy of men and women were enormously exaggerated by clothed bodies. Samuel Butler describes two children looking at a picture of Adam and Eve in an illustrated Bible: “Which is Adam and which is Eve?” asks one child. “I don’t know,” answers the other, “but I could tell if they had their clothes on.”



clothing defined the role of each sex

Men were serious (they wore dark colors and little ornamentation), women were frivolous (they wore light pastel colors, ribbons, lace, and bows); men were active (their clothes allowed them movement), women inactive (their clothes inhibited movement); men were strong (their clothes emphasized broad chests and shoulders), women delicate (their clothing accentuated tiny waists, sloping shoulders, and a softly rounded silhouette); men were aggressive (their clothing had sharp definite lines and a clearly defined silhouette), women were submissive (their silhouette was indefinite, their clothing constricting).

Thackeray, in Vanity Fair, emphasized the appeal of a woman willing to bear mental suffering: “I know few things more affecting than that timorous debasement and self-humiliation of a woman. How she owns that it is she and not the man who is guilty: how she takes all the faults on her side: how she courts in a manner punishment for the wrongs she has not committed, and persists in shielding the real culprit.”


The sleeves of the late 1830s and 1840s were set so low over the shoulder and so tightly encased the arm that it was virtually impossible to raise the arm to shoulder height or make an aggressive or threatening gesture. Skirts also inhibited movement. “No one but a woman,” Mrs. Oliphant wrote in her book on Dress, “knows how her dress twists about her knees, doubles her fatigue, and arrests her locomotive powers.”

In the 1850s the floor-long petticoats that were worn to inflate the floor-sweeping skirt made rapid movement of legs difficult. By the mid- 1850s and through most of the 1860s the crinoline, or cage, as it actually was sometimes called, replaced the numerous petticoats. A helpful invention that eliminated the need for numerous heavy petticoats, the crinoline and its complicated paraphernalia also literally transformed women into caged birds surrounded by hoops of steel. The difficulties and inconveniences of moving with a crinoline (its circumference some- times exceeding five yards) were well documented in cartoons and caricatures.


More seriously, the light material of the crinoline posed the very real danger of inflammability. “Take what precautions we may against fire, so long as the hoop is worn, life is never safe,” warned the Illustrated News of the World in 1863; “all are living under a sentence of death which may occur unexpectedly in the most appalling form.” The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine of 1867 reported 3,000 women were burned to death annually and another 20,000 injured because they wore the crinoline.


Mrs. Oliphant, writing in the 1870s, deplores “the painful spectacle of the whole female race more or less tied into narrow bags,” but doubts that women will overturn the tyranny of fashion.

Beyond the incommodious encumbrances of crinolines and trains, the restraining fetters of tight skirts and sleeves, the item of clothing that directly and graphically disciplined women to their submissive-masochist role was the corset.


The wearing of the laced corset was almost universal in England and America throughout the nineteenth century. It was designed to change the configurations of the body to accord more closely with the feminine ideal of the small waist which haunted the period.  It exaggerated the differences in male and female anatomy by constricting the waist and enlarging the hips and bust. It also constricted the diaphragm, forcing women to breathe from the upper part of the chest; from this resulted the peculiarly feminine heaving of bosoms so lovingly described in popular novels. The degree of physical debility caused by the corset depended on the tightness to which it was laced. And this varied throughout the century according to the changing proportions of waist size, sleeves, and skirt that defined the fashionable silhouette.


women may have varied the tightness of lacing depending on the social occasion, their age, and marital status.

From baby stays the young girl progressed to an unboned, tight-fitting corset which did not provide adequate allowance for growth. A correspondent to The Queen describes lacing her daughters into such garments, with slight boning added: “At the age of seven I had them fitted with stays without much bone and a flexible busk, and these were made to meet from top to bottom when laced, and so as not to exercise the least pressure round the chest and beneath the waist, and only a very slight pressure at the waist just enough to show off the figure and give it a roundness.”

‘Domestic Magazine tell of similar or even more extreme experiences. A letter, which started the long discussion of tight-lacing, came from a mother complaining that she had left her “merry, romping girl” in a “large and fashionable boarding school near London” when she went abroad. On her return four years later she saw a “tall pale young lady glide slowly in with measured gait and languidly embrace me”; her absurdly small waist explained her change in demeanor: “She then told me how the most merciless system of tight-lacing was the rule of the establishment, and how she and her forty or fifty fellow-pupils had been daily imprisoned in vices of whalebone drawn tight by the muscular arms of sturdy waiting-maids, till the fashionable standard of tenuity was attained.

“28 Indeed, many doctors and dress reformers insisted that tight-lacing caused deformity and compared the practice with Chinese foot binding.


D. Edgar Flinn, in Our Dress and Our Food in Relation to Health, written in 1886, affirmed that every woman who tight-laced must be regarded as deformed and noted the many illnesses it caused, including a “general sense of languor and fatigue.”34 Ada Ballin, in Health and Beauty in Dress, also noted the weakness caused by tight-lacing and describes the many women going “through life uncomplaining with a sort of dull, negative suffering, the result of low vitality.”


The defenders of tight-lacing, and these included some doctors, frequently used the language of sadomasochism; they too speak of “discipline,” “confinement,” “submission,” and “bondage.” They refer to tight-lacing as “training the figure” and to the young girl as “being subjected to this discipline” or of the discipline being “rigidly inflicted and unflinchingly self-imposed.” An aura of cultism surrounds the “advocates of tight-lacing.” They speak of being “addicted” to the practice, “votaries of the corset,” or “a missionary in the cause of tight-lacing.” “Addiction” to the corset could go to absurd lengths. Several correspondents wrote of sleeping in their tightly laced corset.

Wearing corsets also came to be seen as a moral imperative. The uncorseted woman was in danger of being accused of loose morals. As one defender of tight-lacing said: “The corset is an ever-present monitor indirectly bidding its wearer to exercise self-restraint: it is evidence of a well-disciplined mind and well-regulated feelings.”41 The word “strait- laced” still operates to reflect the relationship between corsets and moral- ity. Mrs. Douglas, in the Gentlewoman’s Book of Dress, though she realized the dangers of tight-lacing, could not bring herself to condemn it. The tight-lacer “is a criminal,” she wrote, “but she wears her vice becomingly…. The tight-lacer is a person who respects herself and is careful in all departments.

In his Theory of the Leisure Class, the late-nineteenth-century sociologist and economist Thorstein Veblen observed that it became women’s function, almost their only function, to “put in evidence her economic unit’s ability to pay.” Her place “has come to be that of a means of conspicuously unproductive expenditure.”  Dress thus advertises the wearer’s ability to command that wealth and leisure so necessary to festoon oneself with clothing made from expensive fabrics, designed with exquisite taste, and requiring long hours of another’s labor to create


1880s and 1890s clothing became plainer and more masculine, and some women loosened their stays to engage in more active pursuits of careers and sports. The forces that led women out of the submissive, masochistic, and narcissistic cul-de-sac of ribbons, bows, and tight laces were as numerous as they were complex and can only be briefly touched upon. The dress-reform movement, which had been at work throughout the century, may have finally had some effect. Although they never advocated the rejection of the corset, such groups as The Rational Dress Society protested against tightly laced corsets, narrow-toed shoes, heavily weighted skirts, and more generally against fashionable dress. The dress of the aesthetic movement helped to provide an acceptable alternative to fashionable dress.


Moreover, the influence of sports in the 1890s was near revolution- ary. Some doctors and health experts had exhorted women to exercise all during the Victorian Era, but that exercise was for the most part limited to dancing, walking, riding in carriages, and lifting light dumb- bells. Horseback riding (sidesaddle) became fashionable in the 1860s; skating and a decorous form of lawn tennis in the 1870s; and walking, hiking, and touring in the eighties. But it was not until the nineties that women engaged in the more vigorous sports; basketball, rounders, cricket, hockey, lacrosse, and track events were a part of the activities of girls’ schools, and swimming, rowing, and sailing were enjoyed when the weather permitted


Even a dilettante interest in these sports required modifications in dress. Skirts were made slightly shorter and less full, sleeves less tight, stays were loosened an inch or two. But it was bicycling that proved to be the most popular and the most liberating sport. It gave women an independence of movement both in the use of their limbs and in the ability to transport themselves over distances. Considerable controversy ensued about the proper garment to wear while cycling. Divided skirts were generally acceptable but they did not really free the feet and legs for pedaling nor avoid the danger of flowing material caught in the spokes of the wheel.


cycling outfit 1894

The “Freedom Suit”: Feminism and Dress Reform in the United States, 1848-1

The dress-reform movement appears in most historical accounts of nineteenth-century feminism as a passing phase of the women’s rights movement-a colorful but brief moment in which Amelia Bloomer, Elizabeth Smith Miller, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and others donned what came to be known as the “bloomer” costume.

A more fundamental challenge to conventional feminine attire emerged from the interaction of three radical movements of the antebellum period: the Oneida Community, the health-reform movement, and the women’s rights movement. The early history of the reform dress illustrates the close social and political connections among these antebellum reforms.

In 1848, John Humphrey Noyes, founder of the Oneida Community, wrote in his first annual report:

Woman’s dress is a standing lie. It proclaims that she is not a two legged animal, but something like a churn standing on castors! When the distinction of the sexes is reduced to the bounds of nature and decency, a dress will be adopted that will be at the same time the most simple and the most beautiful; it will be the same, or nearly the same for both sexes. (cited in Robertson 1970, 294)


Later that year, three of the women of Oneida Community implemented Noyes’s suggestion, cutting their skirts to just below the knee and making trousers out of the discarded material (Robertson 1970; Tillotson 1885).

The tulip tree on the grounds of the Oneida Community Mansion House in 1870. It was recently named a champion tree of New York for its size.

Fanny Kemble, the Shakespearean actress, appeared in a similar costume in Lenox, Massachusetts, in 1849 and, according to Amelia Bloomer’s news- paper, The Lily, was greeted with derisive sneers by the local press

The new costume, modeled after the dress of Moslem women,


met a particularly warm reception among practitioners and advocates of hydropathy or water cure, a health system that combined various forms of water therapy, such as baths, compresses, and wet sheets with an austere diet and temperance in all thing

They championed instead the “three physicians: water, exercise and diet” and preached self-help and preventive medical treatment.

The prescribed role of middle-class women was particularly discordant with water-cure philosophy. Hydropaths challenged the prevailing cult of ladylike delicacy and weakness and urged women to engage in physical labor and exercise in the open air.


dress-reform arguments, fashion plates, and exultant testimonials from women who had adopted the new costume, which they described with various names, such as the “short dress,” “the shorts,” “Turkish dress,” “the Camille costume,” the “American costume,” and, most frequently, “the reform dress”

Elizabeth Smith Miller was responsible for introducing the reform dress to the women’s rights community, and contemporaries generally agree that Miller was the first to wear it all the time (The Lily July 1851; Tillotson 1885). Miller’s own account recalls her resolution, in 1850-51, to adopt an alternative to the long, heavy skirts that “clung in fettering folds about her feet” as she worked in the garden, but she does not mention the source of the style she adopted (Miller n.d., in Smith Family Papers).1 Ida Husted Harper, Susan B. Anthony’s biographer, suggested that the women’s rights people learned about reform dress at water-cure establishments, while Mary Tillotson, a contemporary dress reformer, claimed that Miller saw the costume at Oneida, which was close to her home.


Amelia Bloomer, Stanton’s friend and neighbor, soon decided to “lay aside her fetters and don the freedom suit” and in April 1851 advocated it enthusiastically in her newspaper, The Lily. Women’s rights activists saw conventional women’s dress as a “badge of degradation” and recognized its role in enforcing female passivity. “Depend upon it Lucretia,” wrote Stanton to Lucretia Mott, “that woman can never develop in her present drapery. She is a slave to her rags.


Satirical cartoons and comments abounded, abusive jingles were heard on the street, and on a number of occasions, women wearing reform dress were surrounded by hecklers. The women’s rights activists were somewhat stunned by the hostility, but for a while they stood fast, urging each other to “let the weal and woe of humanity be everything to us but their praise and their blame be of no account” (Stanton in The Lily April 1851, 12). “Having experienced the blessings of freedom,” wrote Bloomer, “we cannot rivet the chains upon ourself again, even to gain the good will, or to avoid the frowns of slavish conservatism” (The Lily July 1852, 11).


After a while, however, the costs of continuing to wear the new costume began to appear greater than the benefits. The women’s rights leaders, according to Stanton,soon found that the physical freedom enjoyed did not compensate for the persistent persecution and petty annoyances suffered at every turn. To be rudely gazed at in public and private, to be the conscious subjects of criticism, and to be followed by crowds of boys in the street, were all, to the last degree, exasperating. (quoted in Stanton and Blatch 1922, 1:172)

Susan B. Anthony recalled with irritation, “The attention of my audience was fixed upon my clothes instead of my words” (quoted in Harper 1899, 1:117), and Amelia Bloomer was forced to admit that “the reform dress is quite obnoxious to the public”

The American public recoiled in terror from the threat to gender distinctions represented by the combination of reform dress and women’s rights. The new costume, particularly its most controversial feature, trousers, stirred up the public’s deepest fears about femininity, masculinity, and the division of labor. The cartoons of John Leech in the London magazine Punch were reprinted widely in the United States and set the tone for the anti-bloomer ridicule. Almost all of these cartoons depicted women dressed in caricatures of the reform costume (usually featuring skirts much shorter than those of the typical reform dress) who were usurping various male prerogatives, from proposing marriage to smoking cigars. The “strong-minded American woman” of the Punch cartoons betrayed in her posture and activity, as well as her dress, a disdain for all the conventions of femininity. Critical comments about the bloomer costume frequently decried the “unsexing” of women

The reform dress became a symbol of everything that was threatening about feminism: women shaping their lives in accordance with their own needs, women declaring independence from male approval, women doing or wearing what had been traditionally reserved for men. “If the Bloomer costume had come from a Paris milliner,” wrote Angelina Grimke, one of the few women’s rights activists to wear the costume after 1854, “it would have been welcomed in Boston, New York and Philadelphia, but as it is the only dress which has ever been adopted from principle, from a desire in woman to fit herself for daily duty- as it is the outbirth of a state of mind which soars above the prevalent idea of the uses of woman, therefore it shocks the taste”


The Dress Reform Association was centered in central New York but drew significant support from the midwest frontier. The Dress Reform Association held annual conventions until 1864 and cheered each other on in the pages of The Sibyl, edited by Lydia Sayer Hasbrouck of Middletown, New York, and later in the Laws ofLife, edited by Harriet Austin of Dansville, New York. Water-cure practitioners figured prominently in the leadership of the association, and its ideology was a mixture of women’s rights and health reform fused by the perfectionist belief in the socially redemptive power of individual righteousness.


Dress reformers saw themselves as participants in a crusade to create an ideal society in which women and men lived in equality with each other, in harmony with nature and blessed by God.


Mary Tillotson organized the American Free Dress League to promote the science costume, but the organization lasted only three years and was plagued by internal dissension



Boundaries and the Victorian Body: Aesthetic Fashion in Gilded Age America

For the male artist/subject, the Victorian female body functioned as a model/object for the discerning and omnipotent male gaze. In popular iconology, too, historians find that the template of the ideal Victorian body followed a gendered separation: the male body (virile, soldierly, patrician, public) complemented the female form, one bounded by tight corseting and domestic confinement.


THE TWO DECADES OF THE AESTHETIC MOVEMENT witnessed the emergence of shifting gender boundaries. Most historians of women’s history have catalogued these shifts for women as the widening of the domestic sphere to include moral and social reform projects, the women’s exercise movement, entrance into higher education, and a tentative excursion into the professions. Studies of more radical feminist, temperance, and suffrage leaders also encase women’s reform ideology within the rubric of a moral domesticity widened to encompass the public sphere.


At this time, some women used their bodies and their dress as public art forms not only to defy the moral implications of domesticity but to assume cultural agency in their society at large.  By creating herself as both performing public self and individual work of art, the aesthetic woman changed traditional concepts of the female as artistic object to the female as artistic subject.

dante gabriel rossetti lady lilith core_0

Dante Gabriel Rossetti Lady Lilith 1866

Influenced by the philosophies of John Ruskin and William Morris, and then by the Henry Cole circle involved with the English exhibition tradition at the South Kensington museums (more specifically, by the exhibits of British handicrafts at the 1876 Centennial Exposition), this impetus for reform was labeled the Aesthetic Movement and heralded by critics in the United States as a new American art “craze. ”

The umbrella philosophy of Aestheticism maintained that the goals of life were “truth” and “beauty,” which should permeate every aspect of daily living, a reversal of earlier Romantic notions of art as a separate, transcendent aesthetic sphere indicative of the influence of the new “art for art’s sake” philosophy of Walter Pater and James McNeill Whistler.

Art education for women, communal workshops and studios, the artistic salons of women such asHelena de Kay, and commercial artistic ventures spearheaded by women exemplify the importance of the Aesthetic Movement for American women, both domestically and professionally

To these taste makers, aesthetic costume was not an anti-fashion statement, as was dress reform at mid-century, but was perceived as an individual expression of art and beauty. Fashion, for instance, was seen as “being . .. as direct an outcome of the love of beauty as schools of sculpture and painting.” Costume was the “legitimate province of the artist,” noted aesthetic critics. “To dress well is to make a picture of one’s self . .. to express beauty in every line of the dress, in the selection of color, and in every detail. . . as if the soul of the individual was revealed.


Self-expression and social drama were part of both the emergence of artistic costume and the transformation of the Victorian parlor into a theatrical environment


Aesthetic dress was compiled from a variety of sources and was not a careful replica of a past model with historically correct data.” Likewise, the aesthetic room might include a Turkish rug, a Japanese vase, a Gothic chair, and a reproduction of a Greek statue. Contemporaries were aware of the eclectic and symbiotic nature of dress and decor.

As appearance became an art form like architecture, clothing became part of the new public theatricality of the rising consumer culture of the 1870s and 1880s.


This acknowledged sense of an individual art form suggests that the adoption of aesthetic styles was a countercultural move, a significant break from the conventional French fashion commonly associated with Victorian culture (and a counter to historians who stress the conformity and anonymity associated with nineteenth-century women’s dress).

The aesthetic dress was derived from the wrapper, an earlier form of garment that was usually worn indoors, also known as the dressing gown or peignoir. The wrapper was a one-piece dress, adjustable and loose down the front, with many variations. By the 1880s, the tea gown emerged as the most closely fitted form of the wrapper. Generally worn in the afternoon, the tea gown was made of formal, elaborate materials and skimmed the uncorseted body. The “Marquise” style of tea gown was featured in Demorest’s, a fashion magazine.


The Mother Hubbard dress was another popular loose garment (“a round-yoke  wrapper”), with a yoke of gathered material that fell to the floor. Because of their lack of corsets, wrappers and tea gowns suggested intimacy and indeed were designated for the rituals of the private domestic world


Traditionally, such loose, one-piece costumes had been associated with the female worlds of sickness, maternity, or old age. By the 1880s, these forms had evolved into fashion statements but only within the confines of the Victorian parlor.

The aesthetic dress was an offshoot of the uncorseted wrapper, often with a puffed shoulder and loose sleeve that made use of elaborate fabrics in aesthetic colors (sage and Venetian green, brick red, blue-green, yellow, and dove gray). Medieval and Renaissance motifs such as a cuff, long train, or high collar marked each garment as individual, a melange of historical detail.  The aesthetic dress was not in any specific category, nor were there patterns available in the fashion press for women to purchase for home sewing. Most dresses at this time were home sewn by housewives or seamstresses from mail-order patterns, for it was not until 1900 that most articles of women’s clothing were on the market ready-to-wear.


The singular characteristic of aesthetic dress was that it was worn in public, in essence bringing an intimate garment into public view under the auspices of artistic innovation.

The Bohemian Club in San Francisco remarked in their 1880s annals on the “slender young Bohemians, clad in economical bathing suits.” The visibility of the homosexual or the “invert” was contiguous with the Aesthetic Movement, as sexologists (led by Karl Ulrichs, a German, who had coined the congenital theory of homosexuality) used sexuality to define male identity. Feminine style, in both fashion and physical movement, was the nineteenth-century caricature of this “invert,” andOscar Wilde, the “Apostle of Aestheticism,” became a celebrity in America during his 1882 lecture tour, due in part to his effeminate persona.



As aesthetic women abandoned the corseted dress for a loose-robed garment, so Wilde moved into marginal (and feminine) modes of fashion, creating himself, like the aesthetic woman who was part of the “assemble of the drawing-room,” as an objet d’art in aesthetic space.

The question of transvestite fashion is, as Marjorie Garber has noted, the essence of theater, role playing, costume, and boundary experimentation, the qualities so evident in the aesthetic celebrity, Wilde. Other eccentric figures associated with Aestheticism, men such as Fred Holland Day, habitually dressed in flowing Turkish robes.5fanny800



In 1882 at the time of Wilde’s visit, the highly praised and best-paid minstrel star was the female impersonator Francis Leon, who boasted that he owned three hundred dresses and a great deal of jewelry.


In vaudeville, female stars appeared as Oscar Wilde (“silk stockings, knee-breeches and a velvet coat”), an indication that the experiments within aesthetic iconography (theater, self-creation, and new personal presentations) were extending into an arena of popular entertainment.5′

Male control over aesthetic fashion extended to the design and production of decorative objects by men themselves. Some men embroidered works for the aesthetic parlor, often creating their own patterns. One critic reported that “wall hangings in bold outline work in crewels on unbleached cotton stuff were designed by Mr. Ames Van Wait and worked for his own home.”

For women by the 1890s, aesthetic fashion was no longer perceived as an unconventional and idiosyncratic art form. Uncorseted garments became main- stream fashion or were reformulated by dress reform groups, which often allied with conservative movements such as the American Woman Suffrage Association and the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. Turn-of-the-century dress reformers had a product to market and used techniques identified with an emerging modern order-political lobbying, bureaucratic networking, and scientific professionalism. The dress reform ideology, unlike aesthetic fashion, lent itself to the consumer culture of women’s ready-to-wear, trade catalogs, and the fashion press, and to social reformers eager to socialize the working class to a respectable bourgeois model. The individual was measured by her “physical, intellectual or moral” qualities, and questions of group advocacy, women’s labor, and suffrage intersected with debate on costume.65 By the 1890s, influenced by the French system of bodily movement invented by Francois Delsarte, modern dance advocates such as Ruth St. Denis adopted for the stage and even commercialized the flowing costume of the 1870s and 1880s.

an aesthetic lifestyle became marginal and suspect by the turn of the century. In London, Oscar Wilde was convicted of sodomy in 1895 and imprisoned, while aesthetes in America became isolated as cult groups in universities and cities. The experimentation with boundaries and gender through aesthetic fashion that existed in the 1870s and 1880s for both men and women was over.

The Aesthetic Movement, which had set a distinct profile on the 1870s and 1880s in America, ceased after two decades, silencing the aesthetic woman’s assault on the Cult of True Womanhood. Gone, too, was the aesthetic ideology that had elevated “beauty” in everyday life, celebrated individual artistic production for both men and women, and extolled women as artist/subjects and men as artistic objects. Silenced as well was a possible alternative to the canons of aesthetic modernism.


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