Little more than a century ago, women risked serious health consequences due to their confining attire. Children could not play without spoiling their clothes. Men faced a loss of status if their suits did not conform to societal norms. The comfort and ease of movement currently enjoyed in Western society came about due to the efforts of social reformers such as Frances Willard, president of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union.
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The evolution of dress from the early part of the 19th century through the Victorian era exemplifies society's changing fashion whims. While early 19th century women enjoyed simple gowns and relatively loose constraints, those of later decades endured tight corsets and dresses that dragged the ground. Hoop skirts, a popular undergarment of the period, often doomed the wearer to death when they caught fire, due to the difficulty of smothering flames. These gave way to bustles, thick rolls of fabric that held the back of a skirt away from a woman's body.
Women compartmentalised their attire to suit specific occasions. They donned simple day dresses for use in the home when no visitors would call. Women replaced day dresses with reception dresses if they expected guests. Reception dresses retained the simple lines but added minor ornamentation.
By midafternoon, a 19th century woman changed into her afternoon dress, adorned with lace, ruffles and possibly beading. If they planned to visit, a special visiting dress could convey subdued elegance. They might accessorise a visiting dress with gloves, jacket and a parasol. Formal dresses, with opulent ornamentation, served as fashion statements for dinner or dancing. The elegance of the dress increased with the importance of the occasion.
A man's clothing proclaimed his status, wealth and even good manners. As Charles Dickens once put it, " Dignity, and even holiness, too, sometimes, are more questions of coat and waistcoat than some people imagine."
Men's styles changed from the brightly coloured frock coats and silk stockings of the 18th century to sombre suits of black and grey by the mid-1800s. The Inverness cape, a sleeveless garment resembling a coat, gained popularity. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle dressed his famous sleuth, Sherlock Holmes, in an Inverness cape.
As stories of the Wild West garnered a diverse readership, western sportswear came into fashion, along with modern jackets and trousers.
Until the late 18th century, children's clothing reflected their adult counterparts. Reformers questioned the morality of treating children as miniature adults. Children's play clothes emerged from this debate. In the 1830s, boys wore "skeleton suits" consisting of a simple coat or jacket buttoned to the trousers. Girls wore dresses with empire waists, or raised waistlines, without corsets.
The trend toward children's rights and their freedom of movement did not endure. When the Industrial Revolution swollen middle-class ranks, children became advertisements for their parents' status. Girls wore numerous petticoats and corsets, while boys donned military uniforms. Despite the cries of social reformers, ostentatious children's costumes prevailed until the early 20th century.
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- Northern Illinois University; Dress Reform in the 19th Century; Homework Packet 1: Dress Reform for Health and Hygiene
- University of Texas at Austin: Brief Timeline of 19th Century Dress
- University of Texas at Austin: Illustrated Glossary of Victorian Sartorial Terms
- University of South Florida; Lit2Go; Oliver Twist; Chapter 37; Charles Dickens
- Costumes.org; The Costumer's Manifesto-Costumes.org; Tara Maginnis, Ph.D.; Copyright 1996-2008
- Kent State University Museum; Centuries of Childhood; September 27, 2000-September 30, 2001; Anne Bissonnette, Curator