The systematic crusade for the introduction of a rational dress for woman, which is being carried on under the auspices of the Dress Committee of the National Council of Women, is a part of a far greater conflict which the best thought of our age has made possible, and which marks the last quarter of the nineteenth century as the dawning time of woman's era.
The contemptuous sneers of conventionalism, the bitter opposition of ancient thought which has antagonized every effort of women who rebelled against having health destroyed, life shortened, and the unborn cursed at the senseless decrees of capricious and inartistic fashion, have also opposed every step taken by woman toward a broader life and a more wholesome freedom. And just here it may be interesting to notice the points of difference between the old and the new conceptions of woman's sphere and woman's rights. For he is a shallow thinker indeed who fails to see that the conflict of woman is one of the most important battles which the modern progressive spirit is waging for justice and that broader freedom which makes for true civilization. During the age of chivalry, and for many succeeding generations, the position of woman was that of a drudge or a pet. She either was subject to her lord and master in all things, or, being held by ties other than those of law, she enjoyed a degree of independence unknown to the wife; but this position was fatal to her moral nature. I do not mean to imply that husbands were brutes, or that women were slaves in the sense that they were slaves at an earlier period in man's history. In many cases they were happy; as, for example, the women in the family of Sir Thomas More. But the position of woman as a class was that of utter dependence on man. Practically, there were but three gates open to her; and yet her slavery was of the most hopeless kind, because man assumed to be her champion and protector. He cajoled her in song and story, and, to a certain extent, brought her under his will by unconscious suggestion. In a word, she came to take ideas from him, to be the echo of his thought, to abhor what he termed unwomanly. Then, again, and perhaps still more fatal to a mind so long trained to be the vassal of another, stood the authority of religion. The inspiration of the Bible was unquestioned in conventional parlance, however much it was disregarded in actual life. The great majority gave unqualified assent to the doctrine of verbal infallibility; and on the subject of woman and her sphere, Paul, reflecting the dominant Greek thought of his time, had spoken in no uncertain terms. Thus conservatism, custom, and religion frowned on woman's freedom, and contested every step taken toward a larger life. The authority of religion, labored argument, and ridicule were thrown before her pathway.
At length the hour came when she began to think more deeply upon her condition, and what it meant to self and to posterity. Great, vague longings rilled her soul. It may have been more the result of her fine intuition than through process of pure reasoning, but at length she came to feel that she must have some other pathway to tread than those then open to her. The convent was repulsive to young life. Wifehood, in many instances of which she was cognizant, represented a condition of moral degradation protected by law. This was to her fine, intuitive nature only little less revolting than the other alternative. She felt that her condition demanded broader freedom, that she might give the world a nobler race of men and women. She was living in a growing world, and she caught the spirit of the new day. The spread of knowledge, the changes of revolutions, and the progress of civilization aided her. She demanded higher education; and in spite of the savage opposition which declared that it would destroy her health and tend to destroy public morals, she succeeded. She demanded positions as teachers. She fought and won the battle for admission to medical and law schools, and she turned ier eyes in other directions. At every step she met opposition, but at every gate she won admittance. Even marvellous as it might seem, the door of the pulpit opened before her.
With the broadening horizon of life came the agitation for a rational dress. As long as woman was a toy and the child of man's caprice, she accepted the dictates of fashion as she accepted the praise or blame of her lord. When, however, she became something of an independent thinker, it occurred to her that, instead of being the slave of the cupidity and caprice of man, and willingly lending herself to a bondage which flagrantly disregarded art, comfort, health, and even life, and which entailed a curse upon the unborn, it was her duty to be true to common sense, even though it aroused anew the scorn of conventionalism. This led to the great struggle for independence when the bloomer came in vogue, -- a garment ill chosen, but at the time when introduced it is doubtful if any radical change in costume would have been more readily tolerated. The seeming defeat of the early movement was simply a repetition of the story of human progress. Before Jesus came the Voice crying in the wilderness; before Luther, John Huss was slain; before the rise of Protestantism in England, Cranmer and Latimer fell. The agitation created by the magnificent protest of American womanhood against the degrading slavery to fashion educated the best brains among the children of that day. The succeeding years of fashionable folly only proved to thoughtful woman the greater necessity of demanding a freedom in dress commensurate with the freedom she had wrested for herself in other directions. She came more and more to see that as long as she remained the willing slave of fashion, she would be at a disadvantage in every vocation in life, and what was more, until she had vindicated her moral courage in regard to a problem which vitally affected her health and that of the unborn, she could not demand the supreme right of wife and mother which the dominant sex had denied her through the ages. Thus, again, the question of a rational dress has come to the front at the very moment when the fashion combines have decreed the return of the disgusting hoop-skirt which deformed women in the '60's.
The present crusade for rational dress is led by Lady Harberton in England, and the Dress Committee of the National Council of Women in America. In behalf of this new crusade such leading thinkers and noble women as Mrs. May Wright Sewell, president of the National Council of Women, Mrs. Rachel Foster Avery, secretary of the National Council, Mrs. Frances E. Russell, Mrs. Annie Jenness Miller, Mrs. Frances M. Steele, Mrs. Frank Stuart Parker, Octavia Bates, and scores of other prominent Americans have enlisted; while in almost every city and town names have been sent in to the Dress Committee carrying pledges of thoughtful women who are ready to adopt a more rational dress than that presented by fashion.
The dress being worn by Mrs. Rachel Foster Avery* of Philadelphia is known as the modified Syrian, and much resembles Miss Lee's street costume given in this paper. This is substantially the dress advocated by Lady Harberton in England, and Mrs. Frances E. Russell, chairman of the Dress Committee of the National Council of Women in America.
[* A photogravure of Mrs. Avery in her Syrian costume appears in the American edition of the Review of Reviews for April. The same issue contains an admirable sketch of Mrs Annie Jenness Miller in her American costume, which is a short skirt reaching slightly below the knee, with leggins of the same material as skirt, It is an excellent costume for those preferring skirts to trousers. Mr. Shaw also giives excellent pictures of Lillian Wright Dean of Indianapolis, and of Mrs. Bertha Morris Smith in the costume which she wore at the Denver meeting of the W. C. T. U. These dresses are modifications of the American costume, and are attractive, although many ladies who have tried both short skirts and the Syrian trousers, greatly prefer the latter as they claim that with the skirt there is an uncomfortable feeling in sitting lest the skirt should work up, while with the Syrian trousers this is not present. Besides for many women, there is a principle involved. They regard the skirt as a badge of servitude, as unfitted for active life, especially for street wear, and in business and professional life. Thev do not believe in a compromise which may degenerate into the adoption of the old dress. The war is on for a healthful freedom and a higher morality, and in the battle they are not in favor of compromise.]
Many ladies have during the past year or two worn gymnasium suits and Syrian costumes during the morning hours in their homes. In this paper I give photogravures of some rational dresses now being worn by some ladies in Boston.* Miss Lee, who is a well-known young artist in this city, has worn her morning costume in her studio and at home for three years. During the past winter she wore the Syrian costume on the street under a cloak which came to the shoe-tops. The bicycle and street costume of Mrs. Flower is used whenever she bicycles and also at times upon the street.
[• The costumes of Miss Laura Lee were designed by herself. She has so accustomed herself to them, and regards them as so immensely superior to the old dress that she is making all her new clothes after these models. The ideal costume favorite, as conforming to the requirements of health and comfort, and being cumbersome than the Syrian, and also dressy. The house, street, and bicycle ccostumes of of Miss Brown and Mrs. Flower are much enjoyed, beiing perfectly comfortable, and in a large degree filling the requirements for a rational dress. Mrs. Flower's house or morning costumes are very similar to Miss Christine Brown's street costume, and are so arranged that she can remove the sash and don a sleeveless Grecian robe in less than a minute should occasion require. The Grecian also makes a graceful evening dress for home.]
It is believed that rational dress clubs will shortly be formed in the various cities and towns of the land, and that in this contest common sense and progress will triumph over health-destroying and inartistic fashion, which the caprice and cupidity of Paris has been in the habit of forcing upon America. The time has come for true Americans to assert their independence. The superb courage and contempt for the folly, extravagance, and waste of Europe which characterized our republic in her early days must be revived.
True, we cannot expect that the element of our society which is afflicted with Anglomania -- the idle rich or the unthinking devotees of frivolity -- will exhibit any of the sturdy moral vigor or common sense which made the infant republic the wonder glory of world; but when did class favor or in any way aid any progressive step taken during our nation's magnificent history? They are, through their selfishness and intellectual inanity, incapable of appreciating the higher qualities of manhood and womanhood, and glory in aping the corrupt dilettanteism of the old world. But to thoughtful American women, who glory in the great Republic, and who are proud of the name American, this movement will appeal with special force. Between the question whether they will continue to be camp followers in the wake of Parisian society or leaders in a movement which appeals to common sense and is in alignment with progress and sturdy morality, I do not believe they will falter. The present movement is of supreme importance to woman in her progress toward a juster estate and a more wholesome freedom. Moreover, the women who are interested in this great reform are in no sense faddists. They are thoughtful and far-visioned. They see the wider bearing and deeper significance of the movement. They know that victory along this line must be accomplished before still grander conquests can be won. Therefore, with them, it is largely a religion. They expect more or less of the ridicule and some of the opposition which has sought to prevent every step taken by women in the magnificent progressive career of recent decades. They expect many women, who are merely echoes of echoes, and others who are the unthinking slaves of conventionalism or the willing bond-maids of fashion, to cry out against the innovation. It will only be a continuation of the protest made by these classes against the higher education for woman and the admission of woman to the medical profession, the pulpit, press, and bar.
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The leggins are of same color. Photographed at the Ritz Studio, Boston.
It seems to me that to the high-minded, clear-brained, and independent spirited American woman there would be something inexpressibly humiliating in her bondage to the fetich of fashion, which during the past thirty years has decreed ail kinds of grotesque styles, many of them absurd, and all inartistic.
In the early '60's woman, regaled in fashionable attire, filled the sidewalk, a vast moving something, without grace, symmetry, or beauty. In the early '70's she masqueraded in the Grecian bend. In the later '70's she was compelled to wear the tie-backs, which hampered every step and rendered free locomotion absolutely impossible. In '86 she wore the pull-backs, and in '91 and '92 the street-cleaners. A few years ago her sleeves were so tight that circulation was seriously retarded; now the sleeves are about twice as large round as her corset-bound waist.
One thing is noticeable as we trace the vagaries of fashion through the past thirty years: Every principle of art and beauty has been systematically outraged; the requirements of health have been persistently ignored; often the very life of the mother and her unborn babe has been jeopardized by the absurd caprice of the Parisian fashionmaker. Moreover, styles which have yielded comfort, and conformed to reason and common sense, have been conspicuous by their absence in magazines devoted to French styles.
For generations the woman of fashion has been a slave to the cupidity of the shrewd and unscrupulous, and the caprice of the shallow and frivolous.
Now the common sense of the leading women in the National Council is displayed in the brave stand taken for freedom. It is an appropriate occasion. We are approaching the meridian of the century of Columbus. We are this year celebrating the discovery of the New World. And now, for the first time in the world's history, woman is accorded the right of demonstrating her marvellous achievements and attainments in the manifold fields of science, literature, art, and utility. This is an epoch-marking year for women, and American women are in the van. How appropriate is the time for casting aside the bondage of fashion and adopting such attire as common sense and the individual judgment may suggest. For shopping and street wear, as well as for the bicycle, the Syrian costume is desirable. For morning wear the Syrian or modified gymnasium costumes are eminently suitable. For evening wear, what is more graceful or appropriate than a Grecian robe? But it is not the purpose of the friends of dress reform to lay down any hard and fast lines as to special styles. They demand freedom in dress in the name of health, comfort, and common sense.
There is at the present time wonderful activity in the brain of the world. It is doubtful if since the Renaissance the thought waves of civilization have been so profoundly agitated as to-day. On every hand is unrest, on every side a reaching outward and upward. The heart hunger of the present is at once the most profoundly pathetic and tremendously inspiring sign of our times. Moreover, men and women everywhere are adjusting anew their mental vision; and what is very significant, woman is recognized in the very van of the new civilization. The splendid victories won in her conflict for a broader life are already bearing rich fruits. The age of woman is dawning, but not until she is free from the fetters of conventionalism and fashion will she rise to the dignity of her true estate. Freedom along these lines must precede a proper recognition of the sanctity of wifehood and that high reverence for motherhood which will mark the next decisive step in humanity's advance.
As long as woman Sacrifices her health, and recklessly curses the unborn by a slavish worship of fashion, she cannot demand and receive that recognition of her sacred rights which she must demand before we have a well-born race welcomed into the world amid pure and loving environment. I repeat, the question of freedom in dress is of far greater significance than appears on the surface. It is a part of one of the most momentous issues which society lias yet to confront -- a question which must be settled before the highest morality will prevail.
Of the ultimate outcome of the present movement I have no doubt, if those women who appreciate its importance will be true to their convictions, and evince that moral courage which has been required by leaders and pioneers in every progressive and reformatory step taken by humanity during her long, halting march from savagery toward an ideal civilization.
The Arena, Fashion, 1893, Edited by B. O. Flower, Volume VIII, Boston, Mass.