Shortly after my visit to the MFA, I had an assignment for school. When I found the book Dressed for the Occasion: What Americans wore 1620-1970 by Brandon Marie Miller, I knew it was the book for me and my assignment. Don’t judge this book by its call number. Yes, it’s a children’s book, but it has a lot of great information. Not only about general trends, but also about society.
In the chapter on early 18th century fashion, Miller includes a quote from Dr. Benjamin Rush* who said, “I…ascribe the invention of ridiculous and expensive fashions in female dress entirely to the gentlemen…to divert the ladies from improving their minds…and to secure more arbitrary and unlimited authority over them”. Later, the text includes quote from a magazine writer: “we can expect but small achievement from women, so long as it is the labor of their lives to carry about their own clothing” (Miller 30). I would also include keeping their heads up to that sentence. Just look at those ‘dos!
While I sometimes complain about the tightness of clothing or the highness of my heels, at least I don’t have to wear a corset. I also don’t have to wear a twenty pounds worth of crinolines and petticoats, not to mention bustles or panniers (depending on your era), which basically restricts all forms of movement, as a sign of wealth. Before the invention of the spring bustle, women could not sit down comfortably. Sometimes they couldn’t even fit through doors because their panniers were so wide. And remember how Jo March had to stand against the wall because she scorched the back of her dress? Well she was lucky, some woman actually burned to death when their dresses caught on fire.
While I admit, I love the look of bustles and corsets (I did not want to get out of the Southern Belle costume at a Dollywood old-time photograph booth), I had never really thought of the consequences. Not only are there physical problems with corsets (organs getting all smushed around or ribs curving in and puncturing lungs*), but the inability to move or do anything must have been excruciating. No wonder women in the past had hysterics or constantly complained of their nerves. Boredom, continual conversations about delicate natures and daintiness, combined with the lack (or inability) of exercise would convince anyone to take to their beds.
Will we eventually move past the double standard? Will there eventually be a Spanx for men? A regular addition to the male wardrobe? There are support briefs, but I highly doubt they will catch on. At one point in time men stuffed their calves to “make a leg” but as far as I’m aware, that kind of universal self-consciousness has disappeared, at least in men’s fashion.
I leave you with this quote from Godey’s*, “in skirts only can they maintain… in the eyes of men their womanliness.”
*I will admit this is not great academic writing. Honestly, while I appreciate good nonfiction writing, I don’t have the time to find the sources from which these quotes come. For my purposes, these quotes within a quote will suffice. If you are interested, I will give you further reading.