The debate over women’s proper dress became quite heated in Victorian times, especially in Britain and the United States. In that time, the Victorian dress reform became a subject of great concern. The infamous laws against the one-piece bathing suits of the 1920s were the last vestige of that debate.
Women’s dresses had become increasingly cumbersome and downright heavy throughout the first half of the 19th century. By the mid-1800s, a lady-like Victorian dress would include laced petticoats, high stiff collars, embroidered underwear, padding, complicated boned linings and interlinings, frills, bows, ribbons, crinolines, bustles, furbelows and corsets. Some of these were specifically designed to give the female body a distinctive, artificial look. All of this was heavy to carry around. The sheer volume of it all did hamper a woman’s movement, resulting in women avoiding leaving the house as much as they could.
But those people already understood this was a form of control. In fact, in the second half of the century, an ongoing debate about women’s fashion took place.
The ‘rational’ dress agaisnt the ‘lady-like’ dress: the Victorian Dress Reform
Respectability and the way one manifested it were extremely important for Victorians. This was especially true for the new middle-class, the bourgeoisie that had risen from the lower classes during the Industrial Revolution and now aspired to approach the aristocrats and their lifestyle.
To do so, this class imposed on themselves a stringent social code of conduct that emphasised self-help, self-denial and moral discipline. Women’s fashion was an important site where these principles manifested.
The Victorian woman – the True Woman – was understood as the manifestation of everything good about that society. She was supposed to be virtuous, thrift, a sweet mother and supporting wife, the keeper of society’s morals. Over time, she became more the idealised image of those ideals than a real actor in that society. She didn’t need to do anything. She just needed to ‘be’. And therefore, she became increasingly ornamental, with all her frills and embroideries, which she could wear because appearing was more important than doing.
But in the second half of the 1800s, this situation started to be questioned on many grounds. The concept of the ‘rational’ dress challenged the ‘lady-like’ dress. The rational dress allowed more freedom of movement and was ‘healthier’. It was shorter, so it didn’t gather germs on the street. It was lighter, therefore less tiring for women to carry around. It was simpler, which allowed more ease of movement.Legislation and Dress Reform (Enter the New Woman #AtoZChallenge 2022) The debate over women's proper dress became quite heated in Victorian times. Women's 'rational dresses' caused much anxiety and concern #WomenFashion Click To Tweet
The ‘contraptions’ that women wore also began to raise concerns about women’s health, though sometimes, the reasoning behind it may sound surprising to us.
For example, Darwinists argued that the wasp-waisted women would eventually generate a debilitated race. The constriction of the stomach, in their opinion, was harmful to the woman and especially to the baby she carried, who would be born weaker than those of lower-class women who didn’t lash their corsets as tightly. Darwinists were really concerned that the lower classes would one day take control of the entire society because of this.
Toward the end of the century, different groups of dress reformers, like the Rainy Daisies, emerged. They were always very careful to keep reform and lady-like respectability together but did succeed in changing a lot about how a woman would dress while still keeping their respectability.
The 1920s fashion revolution and the laws against modern bath-suits
Women’s dresses of the 1900s and 1910s were indeed more rational than the fashion of the previous decades. WWI greatly advance the idea that women should move more freely and even do something rather than just look the part. The New Woman that emerged from WWI had indeed conquered much of what the New Women of the later Victorian times had started to appropriate.
This was already shocking enough for most of society, but the 1920s went even further.
Let’s think about it: in the 1920s, women were still alive who had worn corsets and bustles and crinolines and frills and layers of petticoats, women who were required to look beautiful – and therefore sickly – rather than engage in any activity. These women now saw their nieces going around with their legs and arms naked, with just a frock to cover them, with their hair bobbed and wearing make-up.
Is it any surprise that this caused alarm and a fear that the end of humanity was at hand?
The 1920s put great social pressure on young women trying to control their shocking behaviour, generally with scant results. In some places, laws were passed to help the pressure. The one-piece bathing suit ordinances were part of this trend.
Women’s bathing suits up to the 1920s would include some form of trousers covered by a dress that reached the knees and was sometimes weighted with lead to keep the skirts from floating upward in the water. They would wear stockings and even shoes.
At the beginning of the 1900s, women started to question why they couldn’t wear one-piece bathing suits like men, and some started doing just that.
By the 1920s, when going to the beach became a favourite activity for young people, women’s bathing suits had become a variation of men’s one-piece suits that left legs and arms naked.
Municipalities maintained that women’s attire was a matter of public decency and went as far as arresting and fining women who dared to wear the indecent one-piece suit in public.
Now, it is true that imprisonment was very rare, and these women mostly got away with a fine, often on the spot, but this reveals what kind of anxiety women’s more liberating attires created in society at large and how that society was still partially unable to accept it.
Eabinovitch-Foz, Einan. Dressed for Freedom : The Fashionable Politics of American Feminism. University of Illinois Press, Champaign, Illinois, United States of America, 2021
The Debate Over Women’s Clothing: ‘Rational’ or Lady-like Dress by Justina Rodrigues
Vintage Evryday – Did You Know: In the 1920s, Police Could Arrest Women for Exposing Their Legs in One Piece Bathing Suits?