5. Clothing : A Social History
Clothing And Notions Of Beauty
(i) The end of sumptuary laws did not mean that everyone in European societies could now dress in the same way, differences between the social strata remained. The poor could not dress like the rich, nor eat the same food. But laws no longer barred people's right to dress in the way they wished. Differences in earning, rather than sumptuary laws, now defined what the rich and poor could wear. The notion of what was beautiful or ugly, proper or improper, decent or vulgar differed.
(ii) Styles of clothing emphasised differences between men and women. Women in Victorian England were groomed from childhood to be docile and dutiful, submissive and obedient. The ideal women was one who could bear pain and suffering. While men were expected to be serious, strong, independent and aggressive, women were seen as frivolous, delicate, passive and docile. Norms of clothing reflected these ideals. From childhood, girls were tightly laced up and dressed in stays. The effort was to restrict the growth of their bodies, contain them within small moulds. When slightly older, girls had to wear tight fitting corsets. Tightly laced, small-waisted women were admired as attractive, elegant and graceful. Clothing thus played a part in creating the image of frail, submissive Victorian women.
A. How Did Women React to These Norms?
(i) Many women believed in the ideals of womanhood. The ideals were in the air they breathed, the literature they read, the education they had received at school and at home.
(ii) But not everyone accepted these values. By the 1830s, women in England began agitating for democratic rights. As the suffrage movement developed, many began campaigning for dress reform. Women's magazines described how tight dresses and corsets caused deformities and illness among young girls. Doctors reported that many women were regularly complaining of acute weakness, felt languid, and fainted frequently. Corsets then became necessary to hold up the weakened spine.
(iii) In America, a similar movement developed amongst the white settlers on the east coast. Traditional feminine clothes were criticised on a variety of grounds. Reform of the dress, it was said, would change the position of women. If clothes were comfortable and convenient, then women could work, earn their living and become independent. In the 18705, the National Woman Suffrage Association headed by Mrs. Stanton, and the American Woman Suffrage Association dominated by Lucy Stone both campaigned for dress reform. The argument was: simplify dress, shorten skirts, and abandon corsets. On both sides of the Atlantic, there was now a movement for rational dress reform.
(iv) The reformers did not immediately succeed in changing social-values. They had to face ridicule and hostility. Conservatives everywhere opposed change. Faced with persistent attacks, many women reformers changed back into traditional clothes to confirm to conventions.
(v) By the end of the nineteenth century, however, change was clearly in the air. "Ideals of beauty and styles of clothing were both transformed under a variety of pressures. People began accepting the ideas of reformers they had earlier ridiculed. With new times came new values .