Date of Degree

9-2018

Document Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Ph.D.

Program

History

Advisor

Joshua Brown

Advisor

Carol Berkin

Committee Members

Kathleen McCarthy

Zara Anishanslin

Einav Rabinovitch-Fox

Subject Categories

Social History | United States History | Women's History

Keywords

Dress Reform, Fashion History, Women's Rights, Suffrage, Visual Culture, Health Reform

Abstract

In 1851 a group of woman’s reformers adopted a radical garment called the bloomer costume and thus launched a dress reform movement. During this era women typically wore corsets and layers of underclothes beneath dresses with tight bodices and voluminous skirts. In contrast, the bloomer costume included a loose dress, shortened to the knee, and harem style trousers. Underclothes, including corsets, were discouraged. The purpose of adopting such clothing was twofold; social reformers believed that women were in need of comfortable garments and they also hoped that by rejecting fashion woman’s rights activists could cast off the stereotype that women were frivolous. The bloomer costume, however, met with only limited success. Critics accused dress reformers of adopting male characteristics and ridicule by the popular press and the public deterred many women from adopting the bloomer costume. By 1855 the majority of woman’s rights advocates had abandoned the bloomer costume because they feared that it was detracting from more important social reforms. As a result, historians have dismissed the bloomer costume a nineteenth-century eccentricity and the broader dress reform movement as a failure because it did not enact permanent change to women’s fashion. This dissertation challenges the assumption that the dress reform movement failed by asking how different groups adapted the philosophies of dress reform throughout the nineteenth-century. “Throwing off ‘the Draggling Dresses’: Women and Dress Reform, 1820-1900” argues that when dress reform was linked to the woman’s rights movement it was considered radical and dismissed, but when it was associated with function, and even fashion, modified clothing was accepted. This shows that it was not dress reform clothing that was viewed as a threat to society, but the behavior associated with modified garments.

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