In the vanguard of fashion: short skirts, hoopskirts and bathing suits

 In 1893, women had to petition the authorities if they wanted to wear trousers. The Times reported on a petition by two women farm workers in New York who wanted to wear trousers in their work. The law in that state forbade women wearing men’s clothing in public; the Times argued righteously that if a woman is doing a man’s work she ought to be permitted to wear a man’s clothes: “That is the theory that obtains in the western States,” the editors wrote, “where the written permission of the Governor entitles a woman to wear with impunity a man’s dress outside of cities of 10,000 or over.”[1] The theory that the western states were more advanced in matters of women’s freedoms was tested when Eugenia de Forrest, a stage actress living in San Jose, California, won permission from city government to wear men’s clothes. She appeared in the streets in “double-breasted sackcoat and waistcoat of dark material, trousers of a striped pattern and a derby hat of the latest style,” carrying an ebony cane, according to a Times report. She was tired of skirts and knew “the greater comfort of male attire”[2] from having appeared in male roles on stage.1894 Tailor-made suit

The ambitions of women of Kansas City’s Equal Suffrage Society were less radical. They sought only to raise skirt hemlines a few inches above the city’s notoriously grubby streets, the city council having claimed there was no money for street cleaning. Even this practical measure would require, in the opinion of a Daily Journal reader, “a bit of courage.” But, said the reader, “C.E.P.” “if every member of that organization will wear such a dress whenever she goes on the street, hundreds of women will happily join the reform.” She attributed the fashion for ground-sweeping skirts with trains not to Parisian couture – in fact, she claimed, the trained skirt was prohibited in Paris – but to bohemians and prostitutes.

Meanwhile, American women who “eagerly adopt every fad and fancy of the demi-monde (who set the fashion) are loth to adopt the sensible measures offered to us by good, thoughtful, practical women….” C.E.P. clearly thought of herself as one of those women. She suggested that every “vagrant idle man in the city” should be given brooms, hoes and shovels and put to work before receiving any assistance from the city or Provident Association: “mix in a little work with our charity….,” she urged, and let any man who lets the refuse of his store to be swept into the street – a common practice – be “hung by his heels until he is dead.” [3]

The new dresses were modeled at the next weekly meeting of the Equal Suffrage Society. It was reported in the Journal that the women’sWalking suits 1894 decisions had created “a great deal of comment all over the country, and was generally taken to mean that the last day and hour of the long dress had arrived.” Mrs. J.C. Marine spoke, noting that husbands had approved of the Society’s action as the most “sensible thing” it had ever done. One member reported that her husband had commented that if all the women were “going to wear your dresses up to your knees,” and if “all the members of your society are as small as you are, I think you will be cheating the merchants.”

The meeting was not without conflict, however. Mrs. Marine herself was not wearing one of the shorter dresses, claiming she could not finish the alterations in time, while another woman said she thought that three inches was too short and wanted the matter brought up again for a vote. Another woman who was modeling her shortened dress received an unflattering remark on the quality of her alterations. In the gossipy fashion typical of newspaper stories, she is quoted saying it is “all right for women with little feet to wear short dresses, and begged leave to call attention to the fact that her feet were not small and that moreover she had on overshoes. No one was able to discover that her feet were particularly large, however.” [4]

DoggettDryGoodsThe problem of feet was a new one, since long, ground-sweeping dresses had hidden all but the toes of women’s footwear. Now, with a few inches of hem elevation, the entire shoe became visible, requiring that one wear one’s best rather than most comfortable shoes: “There is not one woman in ten,” commented an unnamed local modiste – seller of women’s fashions – “who is willing to wear her dresses so that her boots show above her instep.” However unwilling they may be, said this professional in women’s wear, they will do it anyway, and it has nothing to do with the suffragists. She pooh-poohed the idea that Kansas City suffragists had taken the lead: “fashion has taken that matter entirely out of their hands…. Long dresses have gone out, figuratively and literally. If you see a dress sweeping the pavement, you may depend upon it that it is one left over from last season.” If dresses are worn shorter it is because “that’s the style and not because any reformer advises the change.” [5]

The controversy over skirt length and Kansas City’s role in the trend toward shorter skirts was not over, however.  When Mrs. Edmund Russell came to town in January to give one of her uplifting presentations, “How to be Graceful,” she maintained that while short street dresses have their “conveniences,” long dresses “are a step in the direction of art. The long dresses that are made now are made very scant, so that when you take hold of the skirt it is very easy to hold it up out of the dirt.”

A distinction between “convenience” and “art” was natural for Henrietta Russell, an exponent of Delsartism, a faddish movement of the Gilded Age middle class which taught cultivated behavior.  Mrs. Russell was a fountain of disdainful opinions on dress lengths: even at three inches above the ground a skirt still accumulates dirt, she said. In Boston, she had been one of the reformers: their dresses had been raised five inches above the ground and still got dirty. In Chicago the “dress reform society” gave the whole idea up, concluding “not to do anything unless they could do something radical.” She suggested that a dress about the length of a Scottish kilt with leggings would be “very sensible” but that dress reform cannot occur through battles with existing fashions. It is popular taste that determines fashion, she declared not the other way round.[6]

The ladies of the Equal Suffrage society were undeterred by such disparaging remarks. By their April meeting, all members were wearing shortened dresses. One of the members told a Journal reporter that “the new dresses in the East are not being made long now, and we feel a little proud at having been three months in advance of the fashions.”[7]  In Kansas City, Kansas, the Equal Suffrage Club was promoting the same reform, and Mrs. Marine came to address the members. She hoped there were no reporters about, she said, as her remarks in Kansas City had caused “much talk.” She said it was time for “sensible women” to stop waiting for fashion to change and begin a crusade against the trailing sweep commonly worn on streets. One member objected that there were more important things to worry about than the length of dresses – she was perhaps thinking of the vote – but others objected that the dress was an important matter. This “appeared to be the emphatic opinion of the meeting,”[8] reported the Journal.

Emphatic opinions were also expressed when, early in the year, the hoop dress or crinoline, with its cage of steel rings creating a widely flaring hem seemed poised to make a fashion comeback. HoopskirtsComing  Once again the question arose of what drove fashion trends. A Times editorial disagreed with the opinion of an unnamed local “observer of the present day tendency of women to independent thought and action” that they will not be forced into the crinoline by foreign fashion edicts or because a wire manufacturer puts them on the market. “If the crinoline is taken up by any of the fashionables abroad it will be in common use in America in a very short period,” wrote the editors: “manufacturers and tradesmen are at the bottom of many of the new fashions. All America will take up the crinoline when it comes… Then Mrs. Lease and Mrs. Diggs [influential leaders of the Populist movement in Kansas] will become converted to it.” [9] 

When a Star reporter inquired at a local department store about the crinoline revival, he was told there were none in stock but “they’re coming…. We have had considerable demand for them. Dressy women have inquired for them.” [10] A shaped poem by Emily Smith appeared in the Times lampooning the hoop skirt, and the possibility of its revival even HoopSkirtPoemintersected with current fascination about the powers of electricity: it was suggested in the Electrical Review, as reported in the Daily Journal, that if the wires of the hoop skirt came near an electric light circuit a charge would be induced around the wearer and the hoop skirt become a “living, seething mass of wriggling, sparkling electricity, and no one dare imagine what might become of the poor unfortunate within.”[11]

Whether it was the resistance of independent-minded women, the improbable threat of electrocution, or the fact that the crinoline was not favored in London or Paris, as reported in a Times reprint from the London Telegraph[12], the vaunted hoop skirt revival of 1893 appears to have been largely stillborn. Nevertheless, woman’s fashions remained elaborate, for those who could afford them. Kansas City papers carried ads for the latest fashions in jackets and capes, WomensStyles silks, dress goods and wash fabrics. City papers ran a Sunday women’s section that focused on seasonal fashions as well as social events. The Times spring fashion section for May 21 is headed by the cut of a woman with corset-shaped hour glass figure, dressed in a flaring,  flounced  dress with a high neckline and leg-of-mutton sleeves. The commentary says the dress expresses the “infectious extravagance of the day” in “silk homespun.”

SummerFashionSummer styles in the Times fashion section described the “revival of sheer lawns and thin, gauzy fabrics” for the 1893 season: “The real, old-fashioned dotted Swiss is here, plain and flowered, and tamboured batiste…” Outfits for the new fashion of garden parties, “following the Parisian idea,” are predicted to require the same “handsome dressing” as the balls of winter. A cut shows a “stunning garden party” dress of fawn crepon: “The skirt is composed of three deep flounces trimmed on the edge with gold and brown galoon…. the yoke is formed of ecru lace over yellow silk. A striking hat of rustic straw, with wing bows of silk and small green velvet rosettes, from between which rise shaded blue corn cockles, completes the costume,” together with the mandatory matching parasol and “excessive sleeves, which are at present the objective point of every toilette.”[13]  Rustic “chip hats” were popular in the summer of 1893, woven of thin lathes of straw or wood from Italy, called “chips,” they had a raised back to accommodate the wearer’s hair style.StunningGardenPartyCostume

A sizable vocabulary existed to describe the components of women’s dress, often with a French flavor:  glace silks, moire, crepon, point d’esprit, Valenciennes, cheviots, pique sprigged, berthes, Marseilles white. 

Perhaps the strongest impetus behind fin de siecle dress reforms was neither suffragist agendas nor the influence of foreign couture but women’s greater physical activity. Sports, including swimming and bicycling, had begun to play an important role in the creation and acceptance of new styles. As the summer of 1893 approached there was interest in fashion trends in ladies’ bathing suits, since bathing at Fairmount Park had become a popular summer entertainment: “There are hundreds of ladies, the best ladies in the city, who now go to the park to bathe regularly,” said the Mail. “Many of them have provided themselves with fancy bathing costumes, as they abominate the plain black ones furnished by the management.” What the young ladies wore was of some interest to the Mail’s representative, who says he took “several snap shots at the bewitching members” of the Young Ladies’ Bathing club, but “the park policemen got them. It was fun for the artist, though, and he is going again.”[14]  The swimsuits were probably designed and sewn by the women themselves, judging from an item in the Star about a contest for original bathing suit designs. The prize winner is described as “easily made,” and the story includes instructions on cutting and sewing. [15]

The Times in July ran a story on women’s beach costumes of the day, reprinted from another paper. The story notes that young ladies have become more particular about their bathing suits than their grandmothers had been, and want to look fashionable: “The society maid of today first dons her lisle-thread vest, then her corset, as no girl with any pretensions to style would think of appearing on the beach without a corset or a tight-fitting underwaist well-boned.” The report describes the girls’ outfits in detail almost equal to that of the report on the Pallas Ball but with a touch more of the sensual: “One daring creature startled the beholders by displaying her 07-02-1893-KCTimes-p16-DaringCreaturelegs bare to the knee, the slippers veering her dainty feet being tied on with ribbons which were gracefully wound around the rosy, beautifully shaped legs.” [16] 

At the first convention of the National Council of Women in 1891, dress reform was high on the agenda. The council’s first president, Frances Willard, called for an end to the physical immobilizing of women by the fashions of the day: “She is a creature born to the beauty and freedom of Diana, but she is swathed by her skirts, splintered by her stays, bandaged by her tight waist, and pinioned by her sleeves until – alas, that I should live to say it! – a trussed turkey or a spitted goose are her most appropriate emblems….”[17]  Leaders must “point their sisters onward along the brightly opening way, not by precept alone, but by method and plan.”  Whether through the leadership of suffragists, the influence of designers, popular taste, or by individual initiative, women began wearing Bloomer-like outfits for bicycle riding in the 1890s, making increasingly obsolete the requirement to petition authorities for the right to wear trousers.

[1] Kansas City Times, August 10, 1893, p. 4.

[2]She Has Discarded Skirts.” Kansas City Times, October 13, 1893, p. 4.

[3] “The Short Street Dress.” Kansas City Daily Journal, January 8, 1893, p. 10.

[4] “Shortened Dresses Out.” Kansas City Daily Journal, January 12, 1893, p. 3.

[5] “In Woman’s World.” Kansas City Daily Journal, April 30, 1893, p. 10.

[6] “Mrs. Russell on Dresses.” Kansas City Sunday Journal, January 22, 1893,p. 6.

[7] “Conformed to the Rule.” Kansas City Daily Journal, April 6, 1893, p. 8.

[8] “Equal Suffragists,” Kansas City Daily Journal, April 25, 1893, p. 5.

[9] Kansas City Times, January 30, 1893, p. 4.

[10] “No Calls for Crinoline.” Kansas City Star, February 13, 1893, np.

[11] “Electrical Notes.” Kansas City Daily Journal, April 2, 1893, p. 4.

[12] “The Crinoline Not Favored Abroad.” Kansas City Times, June 11, 1893, p. 5.

[13] “Summer Wear.” Kansas City Times, June 4, 1893, p. 16.

[14] “Beauty in Bathing.” Kansas City Mail July 22, 1893, p. 1.

[15] “Black Bathing Suit.” nd. Kansas City Star, np.

[16] “Costumes on the Beach.” Kansas City Times, July 2, 1893, p. 16.

[17] Frances E. Russell, “Dress Reform in America.” Arena, Vol. 6, ed. B.O. Flower. Boston: Arena Publishing Co., 1892, p. 339.