The Rational Dress Movement was a late Victorian era proposal for reforming the dress standards for women. Numerous different reformers proposed changed, stressing the need for more practical and comfortable fashions than were available at the time. These reformers were typically middle-class women, involved in the first wave of feminism in the US and Britain. The movement emerged in the 1850’s along with calls for temperance, suffrage and women’s education. The dress reform requested liberation from the dictates of fashion. It was most successful in changing women’s undergarments but were also influential in simplified clothing for bicycling and swimming. While the moment was less concerned with men’s clothing, it did initiate a widespread adoption of knitted wool.
Fashion during the latter half of the 19th century included large crinolines, awkward bustles and tight-laced corsets with padded busts. The tight-lacing was considered a particularly ‘moral evil’ to the movement promoting promiscuous views of the female body, leading to superficial flirtation into fashion fancies. The Rational Dress Movement also argued against the corsets for the physical damage done to a woman’s body, rearranging internal organs, compromised fertility, and an overall reduction of a woman’s health. The movement was joined by both clergy, on moral grounds, and the medical profession, on general health concerns, eventually convincing women to give up the corset and tight-lacing as a necessity for beauty.
The anti-slavery and temperance movements were highly active in the Rational Dress Movement. Many speakers demanded sensible clothing that would not restrict movement. Although the fashion industry professed corsets maintained an upright posture, necessary for both good physical health and a moral society, Rational Dress advocates contented tight-lacing was not only detrimental to women, but a male conspiracy to keep women subservient similar to methods used in the slave industry. By changing the fashion, Rational Dress speakers claimed women would gain great social mobility, independence from men, and the ability to work for comparable wages.
Even though the Rational Dress Movement began in in the 1850’s, there was little change in the fashion industry regarding tight-lacing until after the turn of the century. Edwardian Era featured the Gibson Girl image as the supreme shape, which was highly corseted and big-bosomed. This ‘perfect’ feminine figure continued to promote the restricted waist while forcing the hips back into a pointed front waistline. The bosom is pushed up and forward, curving the back into an exaggerated ‘S’ shape. Add weighted skirts and high collars and movement for women were highly restricted.
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Corsets and Bustles from 1880-90
An extension of the Rational Dress Movement was the Aesthetic Dress Movement led by Mary Eliza Haweis. In the 1870’s, she sought to celebrate the natural shape of the body, suggesting looser lines of clothing as found in the renaissance era. This historic nostalgia for more forgiving fashions criticized the current trends for their immovable shapes, stating they were unnatural for the body.
The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood joined the cause complaining to the extravagant trimmed clothing of Victorian fashion. The unnatural silhouette of the unyielding corset and hoops is dishonest and ugly. They suggested women adopt a revival of medieval styles, such as puffed Juliette sleeves and trailing skirts. Fabrics should be of natural colors made with vegetable dyes and only ornamented with hand embroidery. Most especially, the clothing should lack a definitive waist accent.
The Rational Dress Movement initially failed to achieve widespread change in women’s fashion. However, by the 1920’s the shift in political, social and cultural roles of women did eventually relax the dress standards. Women found new freedoms with the national suffrage amendment of 1920 and women’s increased public career options during and after World War I. Fashion followed with relaxed undergarment structures.
The new ideal woman allowed for masculine-inspired fashions including simple tailored skirt suits, ties, and starched blouses. By the 1920s, male-style garments were less socially condemned for athletic and casual wear.