Fashion (American History Through Literature)
Distinguished from dress or costume by its demand for novelty, fashion was of course constantly changing throughout the antebellum period. The highly ornamented dresses of the 1820s, for example, with their enormous sleeves and ankle-length hemlines were replaced by the simpler line of floor-length dress fashionable in the 1830s. But it was more than hemlines and sleeve styles that were changing. Indeed, the ante-bellum period represents dramatic shifts in the very meaning of fashion and its relationship to other cultural phenomena.
STYLES OF FASHION
Although the specifics of what was fashionable changed from year to year and season to season, scholars typically date the beginning of Victorian fashion as the early 1820s, when women abandoned the previous "empire" or "classical" mode of dress that featured a high waistline and straight skirt. That overall vertical silhouette was dramatically altered with the introduction of Victorian fashion. Indeed, as Valerie Steele has described, Victorian fashion presents the female body as "essentially formed by two coneshe long full, structured skirt and the tailored, boned bodicentersecting at a narrow and constricted waist" (pp. 512).
While this overall Victorian silhouette survived until about 1910, scholars have suggested three distinct periods within Victorian fashion. The 1820s were a time of intense ornamentation. Sleeves were large, and elaborate accessories were popular, including plumed hats, ribbons, ruffles, and fancy jewelry. By the mid-1830s a new more subdued or demure style emerged, which some scholars have characterized as sentimental. Sleeves were tighter, decoration much simpler, and bonnets replaced the elaborate hats of the previous decade. Because the emphasis was on inconspicuous dress and overall self-effacement, the sentimental style appeared in some ways to be antifashion, and indeed it became increasingly popular to critique the power and popularity of fashion itself.
That apparent resistance to fashion gradually eroded by 1850, which marks the beginning of the age of the crinoline, or hoop skirt. Women were increasingly encouraged to find an individual style rather than blindly following the particular conventions of the moment, and fashion was increasingly seen as an acceptable form of performance in the 1850s and 1860s, creating a renewed interest in elaborate dress. Rich fabrics, bright colors, wide sleeves, and elaborate ruffles and flounces were all popular in the 1850s and 1860s. This tendency toward more elaborate dress was certainly aided by the introduction of the sewing machine, which became widely available in the late 1850s.
But as the name "age of crinoline" suggests, these two decades are best remembered for the size of the skirts. To reach the desired circumference (approaching fifteen feet in some cases), women turned to as many as seven separate petticoats. In addition to these petticoats women bore the weight of the skirts themselves, which could include more than twenty-five yards of material. The first crinolines, created with a gauzelike fabric stiffened with starch, actually relieved some of the weight of these enormous skirts. Introduced shortly after the crinoline was the hoop, a cage made of steel wires that eliminated the need for multiple petticoats. These elaborate hoop skirts remained popular throughout much of the 1860s.
In general, fashion was strongly associated with middle-class women's dress, but men's fashion underwent significant change during the antebellum period. In particular, scholars note the dramatically decreased use of bright colors and elaborate decoration in men's fashions, particularly in clothing designated for work, which was increasingly distinguished from men's evening wear. By the mid-nineteenth century the plain, dark business suit dominated middle-class men's fashions. Various commentators have suggested that such changes reflect a dramatic shift in fashion's emphasis. While in previous centuries fashion highlighted the contrast between classes, nineteenth-century fashion emphasized a contrast between men and women.
While men's clothing changed at a far less rapid pace than did women's, contemporary commentators were nonetheless aware of changing fashions for men. The columnist Fanny Fern (Sara Payson Willis Parton, 1811872) was particularly critical of many trends. In one 1851 column titled "Thoughts on Dress," for instance, she poked fun at two men at a church service. One was struggling "to get his head in a comfortable position to look over the top of his dickey and see the singers, without cutting his ears off" (p. 217). The other created a "most extraordinary noiseuch a creaking"imply by loosening his very tightly buttoned vest (p. 217). In another essay, "In the Dumps," Fern again criticized the constricted nature of men's clothing: "Why can't they leave off those detestable stiff collars, stocks, and things, that make them all look like choked chickens, and which hide so many handsomely-turned throats" (p. 287).
Just as men's fashions became increasingly differentiated from women's, so too did the methods of transmitting fashion diverge. Because ready-made clothing for men developed much earlier than standardized dress for women, men's fashions were transmitted largely through tailors and trade journals, such as Mirror of Fashion.
Women's fashions, however, were spread directly to individual middle-class women through the fashion magazines that developed during this period. Eighteenth-century and early-nineteenth-century magazines had occasionally commented on fashion, but it wasn't until editors and publishers were able to include elaborate illustrations that true fashion magazines flourished.
And flourish they did. In 1827, following the example of late-eighteenth-century ladies's magazines in France and England, Philadelphia's Album and Ladies's Weekly Gazette was the first American magazine to include an illustration of contemporary fashion. Soon afterward came Godey's Lady's Book, which was founded in 1830 and became the nation's most popular magazine. Although it had an intellectual and literary focus, its illustrations, especially its fashion plates, which were hand-colored steel engravings, were key to the magazine's success. In some years Louis Godey printed as many as twenty fashion plates in each issue, typically featuring pictures of small groups of women in the latest fashions with their dresses hand-painted in watercolors. Children's fashions were also occasionally included. Although these "embellishments," as they were often called, were expensive, many other magazines followed Godey's success, making fashion plates one of the most popular elements of antebellum magazines. Descriptions of current dress styles, historical essays about fashion, and patterns for fashionable clothing and accessories were also regular features not only in the Lady's Book but also in such periodicals as Ladies's Companion, Peterson's Magazine, and later, Demorest's Monthly Magazine and Harper's Bazar (as it was originally spelled). These magazines, some of which boasted national circulations, were particularly influential in bringing fashion to nonurban areas. Although they frequently adapted the displayed styles to suit their own circumstances, most women throughout the United States had access to fashion.
Although such magazines promoted themselves as the best source of the latest fashions, these same magazines virtually always discouraged excessive attention to fashion. When fashionable dress was used to reflect a woman's morality or her aesthetic sense, in other words, it was praised. When used to deceive others or to mask an inferior sense of morality, however, fashion was condemned. One of the greatest dangers posed by fashion, according to Godey's Lady's Book, was that it diverted attention away from moral and spiritual self-improvement. As one editorial explained, "Oh! It is grievous to see a being standing upon the threshold of an immortal existence, created for glorious purposes, and with faculties to fulfill them, discussing the merits of a ribbon, or the form of a bow, or the width of a frill, as earnestly as if the happiness of her race, or her soul's salvation depended upon her decision" (January 1839, p. 8).
ANTIFASHION AND DRESS REFORM
These concerns about fashion were much more pronounced in other periodicals and other media. Indeed, fashion was regularly attacked in sermons, medical journals, popular magazines, even fiction, and it was associated with virtually every imaginable offencehysical injury, mental illness, lack of patriotism, immoral behavior, and reckless spending, to name just a few. Although the antifashion reformers included women's rights activists, not all such reformers took a proto-feminist position, and many of those people arguing against fashion's popularity relied on quite restricted notions of feminine modesty and virtue.
While most opponents of fashion were content to voice their opposition, dress reformers not only changed their own style of dress but also encouraged others to do the same. Robert Owen's socialist community in New Harmony, Indiana, was one early attempt at radical dress reform. Owen believed that uniform clothing for all would support his goal of an egalitarian community, and the women of New Harmony were encouraged, though evidently not required, to wear an outfit similar to the men's, consisting of pantaloons and a coat. Somewhat similar styles were adopted at several religious communities, including the Oneida community led by John Humphrey Noyes and Michigan's Beaver Island group of Strangite Mormons. Leaders in the water-cure movement also advocated women's wearing of trousers and created the National Dress Reform Association in 1856.
The most important attempt at dress reformnd the most covered by the contemporary pressnvolves the actions of a small group of feministslizabeth Smith Miller, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Amelia Jenks Bloomerho walked through Seneca Falls, New York, in 1851 wearing short skirts and pantaloons. The occasion was covered in several newspapers, and hostile cartoons and essays soon spread throughout the popular press. Called at various times "Turkish Trousers" and the "freedom dress," the outfit quickly became known as "bloomers." Although a number of feminist leaders defended the outfit, most soon abandoned it, realizing that it was detracting from their overall political objectives.
FUNCTIONS OF FASHION
The public's heated response to these attempts at dress reform suggest that fashion is not simply about basic essentials of comfort or protection from sun or cold. On the contrary, fashion inevitably carries social and political meanings.
Following the influential work of turn-of-the-century philosophers, most notably Thorstein Veblen, fashion has long been linked with the development of a bourgeois capitalist society. The spread of fashion beyond the aristocracy in the late eighteenth century, then, was the result of the middle class's growing power and its desire both to imitate the aristocracy and to distinguish itself from the lower classes. According to Veblen's Theory of the Leisure Class (1899), elaborate fashionable dress was a sign of a woman's leisure, which in turn reflected the economic power of her husband or father. One of the essential functions of fashion, then, is to indicate one's class position.
But as the examples from antebellum America make clear, fashion was not limited to middle- and upper-class women. Diaries from U.S. women in fact demonstrate that working-class women observed and participated in fashion. While they might not have been able to hire a seamstress, as did their middle-class counterparts, they could make their own dresses, often with cheaper fabrics but in styles similar to the latest fashions displayed in women's magazines. In this way fashion could be used to promote social mobility or to mask one's social class.
In addition to class, fashion has been linked with issues of sexuality. For many years antebellum fashion was assumed to be a systemic part of patriarchy that kept women oppressed. The Victorians's long dresses, for example, have been interpreted as evidence of a heightened discomfort with the female body and female sexuality. The corset, likewise, is often associated with keeping women passive and confined.
More recently, however, historians have questioned these assumptions. Refuting the idea that any one type of clothing is universally seen as natural, comfortable, or erotic, Anne Hollander has shown how both shapeless and tight-fitting clothing, long and short skirts, have all been understood as reflectingather than concealinghe wearer's sexuality. Valerie Steele has likewise challenged the stereotype of Victorian fashion as inherently prudish, arguing that expression of eroticism was an essential feature of Victorian fashion. Indeed, the barely exposed toe, the tight waists, and the low necklines popular were all markers of sexuality in Victorian fashion.
While economic theories of fashion generally portray women as competing with one another for fashionable status, more recent interpretations have begun to explore how fashion can also serve to connect women with one another. The popular fashion plates, for instance, frequently depict women in intimate settings with one another. Much like twentieth- and twenty-first century women who take pleasure in shopping together, these images suggest that fashion can be important components of women's shared culture.
FASHION AND LITERATURE
Because it sometimes suggests an absolute obedience to a superficial standard of beauty rather than an inherent appreciation of aesthetics, fashion has long been portrayed as antithetical to literature. Certainly a number of antebellum writers defined their goals in stark contrast to the practices of fashionable life. In the opening chapter of Walden (1854), for instance, Henry David Thoreau (1817862) expresses his complete disdain for fashion. Eager for his readers to transform themselves rather than their clothing, Thoreau bemoans Americans's blind obedience to Fashion, who "spins and weaves and cuts with full authority." As Thoreau explains, "The head monkey at Paris puts on a traveller's cap, and all the monkeys in America do the same" (p. 25).
But Thoreau's opposition of fashion with spiritual transformation masks the complex relationship between fashion and literature in the antebellum period. Many writers were aware of the symbolic power of dress, as suggested, for example, by Nathaniel Hawthorne's portrayal of Hester's beautifully embroidered A in The Scarlet Letter (1850) or Harriet Beecher Stowe's attention to Marie St. Clare's silk dresses, lace, and jewelry in Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852). Moreover, many of the period's best-known writers, such as Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne, published their work in magazines literally alongside fashion plates. Fashion was also influenced by literature. Capitola Black, the heroine in E. D. E. N. Southworth's The Hidden Hand (1859), for example, inspired the "Capitola" hat.
The response of women writers to fashion was particularly diverse. On the one hand is a writer like Ann S. Stephens, a popular novelist and editor who worked for more than fifty years in fashionable magazines such as Peterson's Magazine, Ladies's Companion, and her own Mrs. Stephens's Illustrated New Monthly. Refusing to accept the idea that fashion was antithetical to art and literature, these magazines repeatedly defined literature and fashion as similar enterprises. As early as 1834, for example, the Ladies's Companion published an essay titled "The Dress of Ladies," in which the author compares the "pains, which a lady takes in adorning her person" to the poet's "genius, invention, and taste" (August 1834, p. 193). A later editorial likewise promised readers to "talk over our favorite authors, painters, sculptors, milliners and dressmakers" (January 1838, p. 146). This strong link between fashion and art is also demonstrated by the facts of Stephens's career. Best known for her serial novels that were issued in Peterson's from 1848 until her death in 1886, Stephens not only wrote novels attentive to details of fashionable clothing, but she also enjoyed a reputation as a fashionable celebrity.
Other women writers, however, were much more critical of contemporary fashion. In addition to poking fun at men's fashions, for instance, Fanny Fern frequently mocked the ridiculous excesses of fashion, from $40 handkerchiefs to waist laces so tight that a woman "breathes only by rare accident" (pp. 267, 341). In A New Homeho'll Follow? (1839), Caroline Kirkland likewise exposes the worthlessness of paper-soled shoes on the muddy Michigan frontier. In addition to these more comical concerns about fashion, many women writers focused attention on the fashionable belle who spent all of her time and energy maintaining her looks. Emphasizing the corrupt basis of fashionable life, these writers used this familiar figure as a foil to their virtuous heroines. Near the opening of Susan Warner's (1819885) The Wide, Wide World (1850), for instance, the heroine Ellen meets Mrs. Dunscombe, who will be escorting Ellen as she leaves her mother to live with her aunt. While much of the novel is devoted to Ellen's searching for appropriate mentors, Mrs. Dunscombe is quickly identified as incapable of serving in this capacity. A "lady of the first family and fashion," Mrs. Dunscombe has virtually no sympathy for Ellen and instead complains of Ellen's dress. Mrs. Duncombe's daughter Margaret likewise criticizes Ellen for looking as if she had "come out of the woods," with an unfashionable bonnet and no gloves (pp. 58, 66). While the novel does not completely condemn attention to clothingndeed one of the novel's most memorable scenes involves an elaborate shopping expeditiont does suggest, as do many other novels of the period, that excessive attention to one's appearance is a mark of inadequate moral development.
One of the most elaborate literary explorations of contemporary fashion was Anna Cora Mowatt's (1819870) satiric play Fashion, which was first performed in New York in 1845. Like many sentimental novels of the antebellum period, Mowatt presents the fashionable belle Seraphina Tiffany as a foil to the more virtuous Gertrude. But Seraphina's greatest offensesnd those of her equally fashionable motherre not so much their clothing as their behavior. Filled with foolish ideas of what fashionable life entails, Mrs. Tiffany speaks bad French, praises people who are late, plans balls even though her husband is near bankruptcy, and ultimately is fooled by someone pretending to be a count. As the hero, appropriately named Adam Trueman, declares, not only does fashion require people to "expend all their rapture upon the works of their tailors and dressmakers," it also demands far more dangerous goals. As Trueman explains, fashion is an "agreement between certain persons to live without using their souls! to substitute etiquette for virtueecorum for purityanners for morals! to affect a shame for the works of their Creator!" (p. 39). Suggesting the extent to which concerns about fashion extended far beyond simple choices of clothing, Mowatt's play attests to the rich cultural meanings of socially accepted behaviors and dress.
See also Feminism; Godey's Lady's Book; Periodicals; Seneca Falls Convention; Sentimentalism; Sexuality and the Body; Theater; Utopian Communities
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