Fashion & Freedom

Women’s Emancipation and Dress

exhibition poster

On the 6th February 1918 the Representation of the People Act gained royal assent in the United Kingdom. This permitted a proportion of women over the age of 30 to vote for the first time. Although women did not gain equal voting rights with men until 1928, it was felt that our 2017/18 fashion exhibition should mark this important centenary with an exploration of women’s lives and their dress from the Victorian age through to the modern era.

Fashion and Freedom examines female clothing from the 1840s to the 1980s from the standpoint of the progression of female emancipation, with pieces displayed in the context of women’s social, political and cultural experiences. Day wear, sports clothing, underwear and evening wear items are all included. Although discussion is not limited to the realms of the physical, from a purely visual point of view the garments displayed reveal how women’s bodies were initially restricted by their clothing. As the exhibition progresses we can see that, gradually over time, they began to be freed from the fetters of long, cumbersome skirts, tight, restrictive bodices, corsets and headwear; all of which may have hampered their ability to participate fully in society.

Did a woman’s clothing reflect her position in society at any given time in history? There is certainly some evidence to suggest that it did. However, we must temper this with a warning not to impose our modern ideas on the lives of the women of the past. Changes in fashion did not always follow a simple, linear progression, and it is important not to make sweeping generalisations about women’s dress. Some women managed to become increasingly active in spite of their dress and it is easy to oversimplify a very complicated history of social interaction, fashion and personal taste. Many may have been completely fulfilled and contented with their position in society. They may have felt that their clothing choices gave them power, status and control in their lives rather than being some limiting factor or a patriarchal imposition from a male-dominated world. Clothing, after all, was only one element of discomfort in lives that were blighted by all manner of hardships which we, with our painkilling drugs, modern dentistry and comfortable, warm, clean environments, can never fully comprehend.  

The background history explored here includes the reality of the often very limited lives of women of the Victorian era and the gathering forces of the women’s movement alongside calls for dress reform in the later 19th century. The increasing participation of women in sports and other outdoor recreation, and later the greater freedoms afforded to women during the two world wars, are also discussed. The context of the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s and ‘70s is included; an era which also saw sexual liberation and the advent of effective birth control. All this may help us to understand some of the reasons why women’s fashions took particular turns at different periods during our history..


A Limited Sphere

Purple shot silk day dress, 1845 - 1850

Purple shot silk day dress, 1845 - 1850

The 1840s was a period of extreme social, cultural, political and economic limitation for women. Middle class women, who wore the types of clothing seen displayed, were all but excluded from participation in public life. Their sphere of influence was limited to the home yet even there women were expected to live lives of inactivity and leisure as servants carried out much of the work. The subordination of women was nothing new but the march of industrialisation had caused male and female roles to be more strongly delineated as the public and private worlds of work and home became separated along strict lines. Woman was characterised as a sensitive, gentle and supportive soul - ‘The Angel of the House’ - whose limited physical and mental capacities meant that she was not capable of entering the public sphere other than in carefully prescribed and controlled ways. Women’s education focused only on domestic duties and their situation was enshrined in laws which stated that married women had no rights over their own property, earnings or children and must obey their husbands in all things.

Given this backdrop, it is unsurprising that women’s clothing of the 1840s seemed designed to encase the body in a way which both hid and hindered them from active participation in the world at large. This period saw a fashion for sombre colours and heavy fabrics of silk and wool. Shoes and boots tended to be made from impractical materials. Here we even see a pair of shoes decorated with delicate lengths of plaited straw. Dresses had boned bodices which in turn covered tightly laced corsets and the cut of sleeves restricted arm movement above shoulder level. Wide, heavy, full-length skirts incorporated many yards of material; carefully pleated to waistbands and held out in a bell shape by up to six stiffened petticoats, at least one of which was horsehair. Women would not have left the house without gloves and a bonnet. At this time bonnets completely encased the head and had a deep brim which effectively blinkered them and gave them a muted, demure look. Women’s fashions were designed to help them to become ornamental rather than practical beings; their heavy, restrictive garments hampering their movement and keeping them contained.

A Slow Awakening

Black wool two piece woman’s bathing costume, 1868 - 1875

Black wool two piece woman’s bathing costume, 1868 - 1875

Despite the extremely limited sphere of influence and activity for women there was a slow-growing awareness of the double standards that existed between the sexes. Middle class women were beginning to get more involved in public life as agents for social improvement. From the mid-19th century organised philanthropy gave them opportunities to have a greater role in the public sphere, and from the 1850s Langham Place in London became the cradle of the women’s movement as a few pioneering women and their male supporters began to organise themselves into more serious pressure groups. New schools such as the North London Collegiate School and Cheltenham Ladies’ College were opened in 1850 and 1858 respectively, and began to address the need for girls to be better educated. Writers who were in favour of women’s emancipation began to publish works. The eminent philosopher John Stuart Mill, with the help of his friend Harriet Taylor, published Enfranchisement of Women in 1851. This was an important early text calling for equality. Support for the rights of women was galvanised behind various causes throughout the second half of the 19th century, and the need for women to have the vote emerged as the central rallying cry. Women were slowly becoming more visible in public life, although this should be set against a backdrop of continued male-dominated conservative attitudes which sought to prevent them from ‘meddling’ in the higher affairs of state and professional life.

Women’s dress, although still extremely restrictive and cumbersome during this period, did slowly begin to reflect these small advances. To our eyes the crinolines of the 1850s and ‘60s were totally impractical, but compared with the heavy, hot and itchy petticoats that came before them, they were a real improvement. The result of technological innovations; sprung steel or cane crinolines, and the bustles which followed, were much lighter and allowed for greater freedom of movement, even if their size did cause other problems. Though some women already followed active pursuits, gradually clothing designed for moderate activity, including some sports, became more common. ‘Walking Dress’, though it had existed for many years, gained greater favour. The fashionable silhouette, style and details were rarely sacrificed, but it was now made in practical, washable materials. The slightly shorter skirts meant that it was possible to stride more effectively without dragging hems through the dirt. Women also wore garments designed specifically for bathing from around 1860, though such outfits were not practical for serious swimming.  

Gaining Ground

Brown wool tweed cycling bloomers, c.1890 - 1910 From the Hopkins Collection

Brown wool tweed cycling bloomers, c.1890 - 1910 From the Hopkins Collection

Women of the late 19th and early 20th century were far more visible in society than their mothers and grandmothers had ever been. They indulged in greater physical activity and more of them than ever before were working, at least until marriage. Though poorer women had always worked, younger middle class women were now beginning to take up jobs in the growing service sector, with clerical and secretarial work the most likely. The 1870 ‘Married Women’s Property Act’ meant that working married women could finally keep money that they earned. The ‘New Woman’ as she was called, was now wearing clothing which suited her more practical lifestyle. The ‘Tailor-Made’ costume, or two-piece skirt suit became popular from the 1890s. It became ubiquitous, along with the blouse that went with it. Those who could not afford a complete suit simply wore a blouse and skirt; a uniform for the working woman.

As well as beginning to invade the world of work, far more women were also taking up energetic sporting activities. They were involved in many different pursuits such as golf, swimming and tennis, each with their own special garments. Cycling was one of the most liberating of these. Bicycles became easier to ride and cheaper to buy from the 1890s and they were very popular with women who enthusiastically embraced the freedom and flexibility they offered. Needless to say, a whole range of cycling-friendly garments quickly emerged. For the first time since Amelia Bloomer’s failed attempts in the 1850s, women were donning bifurcated garments. These included cycling bloomers, knickerbockers and divided skirts, and for cycling attire at least, there was greater acceptance.

Another strand of dress history with strong links to the story of women’s emancipation is that of the Dress Reform Movement. From as early as the 1850s members of the medical profession and others had drawn attention to the dangers of tight-lacing and the unhealthy and impractical nature of women’s dress. The Pre-Raphaelites, and later the Arts and Crafts Movement, also felt that clothing should be more ‘artistic’ in style. They championed loose and flowing Medieval-inspired ‘Aesthetic’ dress for women which was meant to be worn without corsets. The Rational Dress Society was founded in 1881 and had a strong feminist ethos. They devised practical garments such as divided skirts, loose trousers and hygienic, supportive underwear without boning. Though there was little impact on mainstream adult fashion, sportswear and children’s wear benefitted greatly from this new healthier approach.

Women and War

Pink silk velvet evening gown, 1922 - 1924

Pink silk velvet evening gown, 1922 - 1924

The fight for the vote and women’s rights in general had become increasingly bitter during the years leading up to the start of the First World War in 1914. However, as soon as Britain went to war, the WSPU, the most vocal element of the women’s suffrage movement, switched their attention to the war effort. Instead of fighting the government, women were now encouraged to assist the state and offer practical support on the Home Front. As well as taking on traditionally female work such as nursing, large numbers of women stepped into previously male-dominated roles in areas such as farming, factory work, postal services and transport. For many women this offered new freedoms. Broader work opportunities provided the chance to earn independently and some experienced a great sense of fulfilment and autonomy. Women finally gained the vote at the end of the war in 1918, and at the time this was partly attributed to their hard work and sacrifices during the war years. With the return of men from the front, many women were once more forced out of traditionally male jobs. Nevertheless, the genie was out of the bottle. Women had had a taste of the freedoms and responsibilities afforded by greater involvement in society and the working world, and this, coupled with reaction to the horrors of the slaughter of the Great War, had changed social attitudes forever.

During the First World War dress was, as always, a barometer for the changing role of women. Even before the conflict women’s fashions had become freer and more eclectic as waistlines rose and tight-waisted corsets fell from favour. However, when war came it had the effect of reinforcing male and female stereotypes, and women’s dress, though increasingly practical, became more overtly feminine. Skirts did shorten to above the ankle but the volume of fabric increased in a style that was referred to as the ‘War Crinonline’. Though many were forced to economise on clothing, frivolity in dress amongst wealthy women was partly due to the fact that high fashion was not greatly affected by the war, with Paris continuing to lead the fashion world. Waistlines did become much looser however, allowing the greater ease of movement necessary for war work. By the end of the war, a narrower line had returned and this was to continue with the tubular styles of the 1920s – the era of the dropped waist, the disappearance of the bust from fashion and much shorter skirts. These new styles were an indication of freer attitudes, though ideas of sexual freedom for women have been exaggerated as there was still a lack of access to effective birth control.   

Towards Liberation and Equality

Mustard yellow rayon evening gown, 1949 - 1955

Mustard yellow rayon evening gown, 1949 - 1955

In 1928 the long fight for female suffrage finally ended when women gained equal voting rights with men. However, the loss of that single galvanizing cause – the vote – had led to a fracturing of the women’s movement. Ideas relating to women’s role within society were still hopelessly conflicted. In reality many women’s lives still conformed to traditional female roles, but their worlds were soon to be turned upside down once more when the Second World War broke out in 1939. To an even greater degree than before, women ably stepped into the breach and took on jobs that would normally have been done by men. Women’s dress became practical and utilitarian. The simple skirt suit prevailed for day wear, though evening dress was more decorative. Austerity and clothes rationing meant that ‘Make Do and Mend’ became a fitting motto for the times. Accessories were often the only affordable way for women to follow fashion, and make-up, which had become far more acceptable from the 1920s, was an important aspect of dressing and personal appearance during wartime.   

However, once the war was over, the late 1940s and 50s saw a strong reinforcement of gender stereotypes. Women’s clothing reflected this and Christian Dior’s ‘New Look’ popularised fashions for tiny corseted waists and wide skirts supported by numerous petticoats. This reaction was not to last more than a decade however, and the 1960s brought new developments in women’s lives with the introduction of the contraceptive pill in 1961, the Married Women’s Property Act revision in 1964 and the 1967 Abortion Act. Clothes again followed suit as dress simplified and ultra-modern styles, including mini-skirts, were developed by a younger generation hungry for change. A wave of feminism was to characterise the 1970s before individualism and an emphasis on women’s sexuality took hold in the 1980s. The Women’s Liberation Movement had grown into an international mass movement by the mid-1970s. Activists demanded that women should have equal pay, equal educational and job opportunities. The 1970 Equal Pay Act came into force in 1975, the same year that the Sex Discrimination Act was passed. Although these acts signalled progress, the issues they aimed to address are still affecting women’s lives today. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the 1970s was the decade when trousers for women became far more generally fashionable. Although part of some women’s wardrobes since the 1930s, trousers had gained ground by the ‘60s, but were not seen as broadly acceptable, particularly in the workplace, until the 1970s.        

Click here for the online exhibition catalogue

Suffragettes & Fashion

For information on suffragettes and fashion, and details of local suffragette activity, visit our Votes for Women online exhibition