The New Woman was to bring change in all aspects of women’s lives, but the place where she started was, maybe surprisingly, fashion.
One of the first instances of change was the Rainy Day Club, a club of businesswomen in New York who started to advocate shorter, more comfortable skirts.
The New Woman is recognisable for her look because look and fashion were fields where women had some control over and where they already could attain more freedom. Not surprisingly, fashion was always ground for discussion and criticism when it came to the New Woman.
One of the first things to be addressed wasn’t the corset, as we might be led to think. It was skirt hemlines.
Skirts in the 1800s were long enough to brush the floor. They were unsanitary because they picked up little vermins and debris from the street and carried them inside the homes. In wet Weather, they soaked, becoming very heavy. And these dresses were already quite a handful to wear, to begin with! Petticoats hung heavily on the waist, and cage crinolines might be difficult to handle on windy days. Trains and bustles added their own weight and were awkwardly balanced.
Her very dress limit women’s mobility significantly.
As the New Woman started to emerge, this was one of the first things she would address.Daisies (Enter the New Woman #AtoZChallenge 2022) The Rainy Day Club was a club of businesswomen in 1890s New York who started to advocate shorter, more comfortable skirts. Click To Tweet
The Rainy Day Club
More and more women joined the workforce and became professional and businesswomen in the latter part of the 1800s. Finding a solution to the ‘dress problem’ became paramount for them.
In 1896, a group of businesswomen from New York founded the Rainy Day Club. Members of the club included all upper-class women who ran some kind of business. They were lawyers, doctors, literary and businesswomen. Although some of them were middle-aged, most of the members were under thirty and clearly represented that generation of New Women who entered the workforce.
These women – who defined themselves as businesswomen, not women of leisure – wanted an outfit that allowed them to comfortably walk in the street, work in offices and take part in meetings with ease of movement.
Their manifesto declared that ‘the dress of today is an absurdity for business women’, and ‘it is impossible for a woman to keep neat and clean even in dry weather’. Their goal was ‘to secure health and comfort by sanitary methods of dress and at the same time to encourage the use of costumes that are genuinely artistic, graceful and modest.’
Taking inspiration from the cycling custom, which was shorter to allow pedalling, they proposed their own ‘rainy-day costume’ that included a short skirt, jacket and a high boot.’ Their ultimate goal was to induce women to shed the old fashion and embrace a new, more comfortable kind of attire.
The club initially received a lot of coverage by the press, who dabbed its members Rainy Daisies, a nickname the club embraced. As with all attempts of ‘dress reform’, they received a lot of criticism. But they had a few advantages they did exploit.
First of all, they were all upper-class women and professionals, so they could afford to experiment with fashion with more freedom than any other class of women could have done. They were also very careful to try and change women’s dress keeping beauty and elegance at the forefront. In the past, women who tried to change how they dressed were accused of wanting to be more masculine, which made them – according to criticism – uglier. The Rainy Daisies always had an eye to make their looks elegant and feminine precisely to avoid this form of criticism.
The Rainy Daisies never achieved the same popularity and dissemination as the contemporary Gibson Girl, but they did shake things up by advocating more freedom through sartorial evolution.
Eabinovitch-Foz, Einan. Dressed for Freedom : The Fashionable Politics of American Feminism. University of Illinois Press, Champaign, Illinois, United States of America, 2021
Hisour – Hi So You Are – Late Victorian fashion of women 1890s