Rational Dress Reform Fashion History
The very first dress
reformers in fashion history worth a mention were the female political idealists of the French Revolution. Their idea of
women wearing trousers was echoed in America. There a native Red Indian
women in trousers was an acceptable sight. Also the realities of building a new
country went hand in hand with equality for both sexes. The reform was talked of
long before it was internationally promoted by Amelia Bloomer.
Right - Picture of Mrs Bloomer in full bloomer dress.
In the early
Victorian era, the American Mrs. Amelia Jenks Bloomer (1818-1894), caused quite a stir when
she wrote an article for her feminist publication 'The Lily'. She tried to
promote the idea of women abandoning their petticoats for a bi-furcated
garment later known as the bloomer fashion. She
suggested that woman would find trousers like those worn by Turkish women easier
to wear than their voluminous heavy skirts.
Left & right - Mrs. Bloomer wearing her suggested alternative
The baggy bloomer trousers
she liked reached to the ankle, were frill cuffed and worn with a simple knee length skirt and bodice.
thought it a sensible and hygienic
option to the boned fashion bodices and long weighty skirts of the time.
baggy trouser outfit was worn by a minority, including the Rational Dress Reform
never gained popularity until after Mrs. Bloomer's death. Mrs. Bloomer abandoned trousers
in 1857 when she admitted she found the cage crinoline comfortable compared to the weight of
A year after her death in 1895 some women accepted a form of the
style. The trousers
now called bloomers, were adopted as suitable cycling wear for ladies.
Left article picture for safe cycling in 'The Girl's Own paper' of
1880. The reader was advised that for tricycle dress there must be no trailing
garments to get entangled in the cycle cog wheels. Little wonder then that
bloomers became a practical and acceptable alternative to a dress such as this.
By 1897 this magazine was illustrating the cover with women on bikes and
wearing full bloomers. Mrs Bloomer would no doubt have been thrilled.
The Rational Dress Society formed in 1881 in London approved of Mrs. Bloomer's ideas on practical
fashions. The society was formed by Viscountess Harberton and Mrs. King. They drew
attention to restrictive
corsetry and the immobility caused by fashions of
the day. The Rational Dress Society also sold boneless stays and promoted fashions that did not deform
Rational Dress Society thought
no woman should have to wear more than seven pounds of underwear. This may still
seem like a great deal of clothing to modern women, but the underwear was made
from bulky gathered cotton or even wool flannel and both materials were heavier than shorter
silk or modern
synthetic garments. The figure actually
halved what had been worn by most women in 1850 when ladies often wore up to 14
pounds weight of undergarments. Every layer made their movements more and more restricted.
that women could participate in the craze for healthy cycling Lady
Harberton suggested a dual garment which initially was a divided skirt worn
under a long coat. The idea appealed to many as sensible and practical. Those
favouring the style drew attention to its value. Accident reports of cyclists
who had been encumbered by the fashion for wearing standard skirt styles often appeared in the press. Rational
dress as a fashion was finally adopted in 1895 by a handful of privileged women.
It was not universally worn and virtually no cycling costume is found in museums. A
rare example of fashionable cycling dress from the Victorian era is held at the Platt Hall Gallery of English Costume in Manchester.
Only limited numbers ever wore the full rational dress Lady Harberton wore. Female
cyclists still risked ridicule and many preferred to wear breeches beneath a
skirt and plenty more simply wore just the skirt. Lady Harberton herself was
refused admittance for refreshments at the coffee room at the Hautboy Hotel. A
lawsuit and heated debate followed which gave a more public airing to the idea
of women wearing appropriate clothes for safe movement in activities.
Right - Two female cyclists wearing tailor made
jackets and bloomers.
Rational dress with a skirt was thought quite sensible wear compared to other styles of
the era. The tailor made suit was a simple style that filtered down from the
upper classes to the working classes.
Tailor made costumes were easily mass
produced, were warm, strong and hard wearing. They were an ideal garment for the
new woman who wanted to be taken more seriously, have better education and gain
the vote. They suited women who were opting to work in department stores or as
office workers as stenographers (typists) and as telephonists.
Right - A typical tailor made garment of the late
Victorian era very similar in line to the cycling costume shown left and
from 1987 magazine cover La Nouvelle Mode.
Another outfit that was popular with enlightened women was the
image of the Gibson Girl.
The Gibson Girl was created by the artist Charles Dana
Gibson. The ensemble consisted of a white high necked shirt blouse and a flared
skirt. It was practical to wear and is illustrated in Edwardian
fashions. It set a skirt and tailored shirt style that has remained
in various forms ever since.
In 1884 Dr. Gustav
Jaeger, a German professor of Zoology and Physiology at the University of Stuttgart developed 'scientific' theories about
the use of hygienic dress and of wearing wool, next to the body.
He published his essays on health culture as Dr.
Jaeger's Sanitary Woollen System. He wanted everyone to use wool fibres throughout the house right down to the bed sheets.
He thought pure animal fibres would prevent the retention of noxious exhalations of the body.
Dr. Jaeger left and right his Jaeger advertisement for sanitary woollen
The ideas were promoted as scientific even though they were far from being
scientific. Science was equated with being modern and therefore a rational argument hence the name we associate with dress reformers. Surprisingly
his ideas were accepted by enough people to be swayed by the inaccurate scientific argument
to wear undergarments made of wool. Soon after other manufacturers produced ranges of similar undergarments, but made them more
The name Jaeger was sold to an Englishman Lewis Tomalin. His shops bearing
the name survived and flourished to become respected retail outlets of both men
and ladies clothing made from fine fabrics.
Gradually social taboos about the restrictive rules of wearing clothing were being eroded and the
real reform came after the First World War when simpler garments became
acceptable and filtered into sportswear. Early 20th century fashions
for sports clothing for
both sexes often seems clumsy and restricting to our eyes, but to generations previously
hampered by trained skirts, corsets or tight armholes it was more practical and gave
some freedom of movement.
Sports dress can be read about in Swimwear,
Sports Fashion Until 1960
and Fitness Fashion.
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