Dress Reform

Rational Dress

Victorian dress reform was an objective of the Victorian dress reform movement (also known as the rational dress movement’) of the middle and late Victorian era, comprising various reformers who proposed, designed, and wore clothing considered more practical and comfortable than the fashions of the time.

Dress reformists were largely middle class women involved in the first wave of feminism in the United States and in Britain, from the 1850s through the 1890s. The movement emerged in the Progressive Era along with calls for temperance, women’s education, suffrage and moral purity. Dress reform called for emancipation from the “dictates of fashion”, expressed a desire to “cover the limbs as well as the torso adequately,” and promoted rational dress. The movement had its greatest success in the reform of women’s undergarments, which could be modified without exposing the wearer to social ridicule. Dress reformers were also influential in persuading women to adopt simplified garments for athletic activities such as bicycling or swimming. The movement was much less concerned with men’s clothing, although it initiated the widespread adoption of knitted wool union suits or long johns.

Artistic Dress


Among the earliest aesthetic dress reformers were those associated with the English Pre-Raphaelite painters. As the Pre-Raphaelites and their devotees gained recognition in the 1860s and 1870s, the public had opportunity to see historic and aesthetic dress in paintings and on women who attended exhibitions at the Royal Academy and the Grosvenor Gallery in London. Many of the fabrics for artistic dress were supplied by Liberty’s, the shop on Regent Street which had been established in 1875 by Arthur Lasenby Liberty as the East India Shop. Specializing in the silks most suitable to clinging robes and draperies worn by the artistic community, Liberty’s introduced delicate pastel tints which they called ‘Art Colors’ to dye imported silks.

In 1884 Arthur Lasenby Liberty asked reformer Edward Godwin to direct the dress department in the Liberty store, making artistic dresses readily available. In its catalogs the Liberty Company offered artistic dresses which were modified to follow the conventions of modern life, but shared design elements with classical Greek clothing as reinterpreted during the Empire and Renaissance periods. The Liberty gowns were given appropriate names such as “Jacqueline”, a velvet and silk crepe gown fashioned after a French fifteenth-century gown for indoor use, or “Josephine”, an Empire-style (high-waisted) evening dress and they worked well with Liberty’s soft and very drapable fabrics. Liberty gowns were well publicized and available in their own Paris shop and other stores throughout Europe as well as New York.


Reform vs Artistic Dress

There was, however, a distinct different between rational and artistic dress reform.

Since the heyday of Artistic Dress corresponds roughly to that of Reform Dress, and both called for the abandonment of the corset, the two movements are often conflated or Artistic Dress is viewed as merely a more visually appealing style of Reform Dress.  Reading Artistic Dress as a subcategory of Reform Dress is certainly a legitimate approach to the topic.  The shared objection to fashion and the similarity of the rhetoric defaming the corset link the two movements.   Additionally, some Artistic Dress designers defined their work as a beautification of Reform Dress, which they described as “homely” and charged that the dresses “neglected entirely the consideration of beauty.”  (Barrows, Artistic Dress)

Criticisms of tight lacing

Gaches-Sarraute in her (not fashionable) reform corset from about 1892. It was in fashion from 1900 to 1913, but only after many years of hard work.
Gaches-Sarraute in her (not fashionable) reform corset from about 1892. It was in fashion from 1900 to 1913, but only after many years of hard work.

See also: Corsets

Source: Fashions in the 1850s through 1880s accented large crinolines, cumbersome bustles and padded busts with tiny waists laced into ‘steam-moulded corsetry’. ‘Tight-lacing’ formed two sides of the argument around dress reform: for dress reformists, corsets were a dangerous moral ‘evil’, promoting promiscuous views of female bodies and superficial dalliance into fashion whims. The obvious health risks, including damaged and rearranged internal organs, compromised fertility; weakness and general depletion of health were also blamed on excessive corsetry. Eventually, the reformers’ critique of the corset joined a throng of voices clamoring against tightlacing, which became gradually more common and extreme as the 19th century progressed. Preachers inveighed against tight lacing, doctors counseled patients against it and journalists wrote articles condemning the vanity and frivolity of women who would sacrifice their health for the sake of fashion. Whereas for many corseting was accepted as necessary for beauty, health, and an upright military-style posture, dress reformists viewed tightlacing as vain and, especially at the height of the era of Victorian morality, a sign of moral indecency.

American women active in the anti-slavery and temperance movements, with experience in public speaking and political agitation demanded sensible clothing that would not restrict their movement. While support for fashionable dress contested that corsets maintained an upright, ‘good figure’, as a necessary physical structure for moral and well-ordered society, these dress reformists contested that women’s fashions were not only physically detrimental, but “the results of male conspiracy to make women subservient by cultivating them in slave psychology.”  A change in fashions could change the whole position of women, allowing for greater social mobility, independence from men and marriage, the ability to work for wages, as well as physical movement and comfort.1

Despite these protests, little changed in restrictive fashion and undergarments by 1900. The Edwardian Era featured a decadence of fashion following the ideal shape of the Gibson Girl, a corseted, big-bossomed ideal of femininity and sophistication. Corset styles had altered slightly from the shorter-waisted, bustled 1880s vogue, but they still constricted the waist, forced the hips back with a pointed front waistline, thrust the bosom forward and curved the back into an exaggerated ‘S’ shape. Skirts weighed from the hips, high collars chaffed the neck, and the whole costume prevented natural movement, harmed internal organs and threatened childbearing potential. Invariably, the ideal image of feminine attractiveness that a Victorian woman saw around her (in fashion plates, advertisements, etc.) was of a wasp-waisted, firmly-corseted lady.

‘Emancipation Waists’ and undergarment reform

‘The Emancipation Waist.’ Excerpt from ‘Catalog of Dress Reform and Other Sanitary Under-Garments For Ladies and Children’ George Frost and Co., Boston Mass June 1, 1876.
‘The Emancipation Waist.’ Excerpt from ‘Catalog of Dress Reform and Other Sanitary Under-Garments For Ladies and Children’ George Frost and Co., Boston Mass June 1, 1876


Dress reformers promoted the emancipation waist, or liberty bodice, as a replacement for the corset. The emancipation bodice was a tight sleeveless vest, buttoning up the front, with rows of buttons along the bottom to which could be attached petticoats and a skirt. The entire torso would support the weight of the petticoats and skirt, not just the waist (since the undesirability of hanging the entire weight of full skirts and petticoats from a constricted waist — rather than hanging the garments from the shoulders — was another point often discussed by dress reformers).  The bodices had to be fitted by a dressmaker; patterns could be ordered through the mail. Physician Alice Bunker Stockham railed against the corset and said of the pregnancy corset, “The Best pregnancy corset is no corset at all.” The “emancipation union under flannel” was first sold in America in 1868. It combined a waist (shirt) and drawers (leggings) in the form we now know as the union suit. While first designed for women, the union suit was also adopted by men. Indeed, it is still sold and worn today, by both men and women, as winter underclothing.

In 1878, a German professor named Gustav Jaeger published a book claiming that only clothing made of animal hair, such as wool, promoted health. A British accountant named Lewis Tomalin translated the book, then opened a shop selling Dr Jaeger’s Sanitary Woollen System, including knitted wool union suits. These were soon called “Jaegers”; they were widely popular.

It is not clear how many women, in either the Americas or on the Continent, wore these so-called “reform” bodices. However, contemporary portrait photography, fashion literature, and surviving examples of the undergarments themselves, all suggest that the corset was almost universal as daily wear by women and young ladies (and numerous fashionable men) throughout much of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

The bloomer suit

Most famous product of the dress reform era is the bloomers suit. In 1851, aNew England temperance activist named Elizabeth Smith Miller (Libby Miller) adopted what she considered a more rational costume: loose trousers gathered at the ankles, like the trousers worn by Middle Eastern and Central Asian women, topped by a short dress or skirt and vest. She displayed her new clothing to temperance activist and suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who found it sensible and becoming, and adopted it immediately. In this garb, she visited yet another activist, Amelia Bloomer, the editor of the temperance magazine The Lily. Bloomer not only wore the costume, she promoted it enthusiastically in her magazine. More women wore the fashion and were promptly dubbed “Bloomers”. The Bloomers put up a valiant fight for a few years, but were subjected to ridicule in the press  and harassment on the street. The more conservative of society protested that women had ‘lost the mystery and attractiveness as they discarded their flowing robes.”
Amelia Bloomer herself dropped the fashion in 1859, saying that a new invention, the crinoline, was a sufficient reform that she could return to conventional dress. The bloomer costume died — temporarily. It was to return much later (in a different form), as a women’s athletic costume in the 1890s and early 1900s.
See also: Reform Dress Movement


Show 1 footnote

  1.  “Women’s Clothes and Women’s Right,” Robert E. Riegel, American Quarterly, 15 (1963)

Anthony Comstock

Anthony Comstock (March 7, 1844 – September 21, 1915) was a United States Postal Inspector and politician dedicated to ideas of Victorian morality.
Anthony Comstock (March 7, 1844 – September 21, 1915) was a United States Postal Inspector and politician dedicated to ideas of Victorian morality.

birth place: New Canaan, Connecticut, United States

death place: Summit, New Jersey, United States

organization: United States Postal Inspection Service

known for: Creation of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice and the
Comstock Act

occupation: United States Postal Inspector

Comstock appears in The Gilded Hour as a minor character in courtroom scenes.

Comstock was a self-proclaimed ‘Weeder in the Garden of the Lord’ who sought to impose his understanding of law and sin on the general public and the man behind the Comstock Act.

As the secretary of the New York Society for the Prevention of Vice, Comstock conducted raids on anyone or anything he suspected of breaking obscenity laws, including doctors, who were forbidden by the Act to provide patients with information about contraception or birth control. He was a major force in the criminalization of all kinds of contraception. He even went so far as to do undercover investigations of brothels, and to report what he saw there in detail (see Prostitution).

In addition to objections to almost every expression of human sexuality, he pursued and prosecuted lottery ticket sales, gambling, writers such as George Bernard Shaw, and rubber goods importers, who he deemed a threat to the morals of the nation.

He drove more than one person to suicide, and bragged about it.

Comstock’s efforts to instill morality on the country lead him to a persecution of D.M. Bennett, editor of Truth Seeker, the most influential publication of its time dedicated to “science, morals, free thought, free discussions, liberalism, sexual equality, labor reform progression, free education, and whatever tends to elevate and emancipate the human race.” He succeeded in getting Bennett convicted and sent to federal prison, where his health was ruined. He died a short while after his release.

D. M. Bennett

DeRobigne Mortimer Bennett (December 23, 1818 – December 6, 1882) was the founder and publisher of Truth Seeker, a radical freethought and reform American periodical. Bennett was a devout member of the Shakers for 13 years before evolving into a “freethinker”, founding the Truth Seeker newspaper in 1873. In 1878, Bennett wrote that “Jesuism”, rather than Pauline Christianity, was the gospel taught by Peter, John and James.

On 1 September 1873, D.M. and M.W. Bennett released the first tabloid edition of the Truth Seeker.  It was “Opposed to: priestcraft, ecclesiasticism, dogmas, creeds, false theology, superstition, bigotry, ignorance, monopolies, aristocracies, privileged classes, tyranny, oppression, and everything that degrades or burdens mankind,,,

Read more in Wikipedia

Selected Sources

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  • Bates, Anna Louise. Weeder in the Garden of the Lord : Anthony Comstock’s Life and Career. Lanham, Md: University Press of America, 1995. Print.
  • Beisel, Nicola Kay. Imperiled Innocents: Anthony Comstock and Family Reproduction in Victorian America. Princeton University Press, 1998. Print.
  • Bennett, De Robigne Mortimer. “Anthony Comstock: His Career of Cruelty and Crime.” (1878): n. pag. Print.
  • Blanchard, Margaret A, and John E Semonche. “Anthony Comstock and His Adversaries: The Mixed Legacy of This Battle for Free Speech.” Communication Law and Policy 11 (2006): 317–366. Print.
  • Broun, Heywood. Anthony Comstock, Roundsman of the Lord. Trade ed.. New York: A& CBoni, 1927. Print.
  • Comstock, Anthony. Frauds Exposed: Or, How the People Are Deceived and Robbed, and Youth Corrupted. J. H. Brown, 1880. Web.
  • —. New York Society for the Prevention of Vice Annual Report. N.p., 1883. Print.
  • —. The Ninth Annual Report of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. New York: N.p., 1883. Print.
  • Garlson, Allan C. “Comstockery, Contraception, and the Family The Remarkable Achievements of an Anti-Vice Crusader.” Howard Center for Family, Religion & Society n. pag. Print.
  • Heywood, Ezra Heywood. Free Speech Report of Ezra H. Heywood’s Defense : Before the United States Court in Boston, April 10, 11 and 12, 1883 : Together with Judge Nelson’s Charge to the Jury, Notes of Anthony Comstock’s Career of Cruelty and Crime, Tragic and Comic Incidents in the Malicious, Savage Persecution, Suffered by Moral Scientists Devoted to Social Evolution and Other Interesting Matter. Princeton, Mass: Co-Operative PubCo, 1883. Print. Making of Modern Law : Trials, 1600-1926.
  • LaMay, Craig L. “America’s Censor: Anthony Comstock and Free Speech.” Communication Law and Policy 19 (1997): 1. Print.
  • “Sharp Practice by Mr. Comstock.: He Procures Another Indictment Against Mrs. Chase It Is Set Aside.” New York Times 11 July 1878: 3. Print.
  • West, Mark I. “The Role of Sexual Repression in Anthony Comstock’s Campaign to Censor Children’s Dime Novels.” Journal of American Culture 22.4 (1999): 45–49. Web.
  • Wood, Janice Ruth. The Struggle for Free Speech in the United States, 1872-1915: Edward Bliss Foote, Edward Bond Foote, and Anti-Comstock Operations. Routledge, 2011. Print.