Victorian And Jazz Age Dresses: Two Forms Of Liberation Essay

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Post-1860 Victorian and 1920s Jazz Age womens fashions both reflected types of liberation to varying degrees. Despite notions of the Victorian Era in Britain and the United States being repressive and prude, it actually offered consumers in general (particularly women) wider array of choices and modes of personal expression than had been previously seen. However, the Jazz Age offered a more obvious type of liberation in moral and sexual terms, offering a freewheeling contrast to an era that was, on the surface, vastly more morally staid by comparison.

Modernity manifested itself in both, albeit in sharply different ways. Surely, Victorian womens fashions were hardly liberated in the current sense, mainly because of the gender assumptions which guided them. Victorian style after 1860 was predicated partly on contemporary notions of character, which demanded outward displays of propriety and in which gender roles were tightly circumscribed. According to American historian Stanley Coben, womens sphere of activity was the home and family, just as the public realms of business, work, and politics belonged to men.

The home, he writes, gave women a well-established place in that society and assurance that they played a crucial role as wives and mothers, and they were expected to stay within that place. Those roles were rigidly set and women expected to dress according to the standards of taste and proper behavior; in other words, women were expected to dress according to the roles society ascribed them By the 1860s, womens styles were still comparatively demure, since womens dresses commonly covered them from neck to ankle and emphasized their femininity in terms of wifely duties.

Dresses commonly emphasized the female body in ways that spoke of womens roles as child-bearers, though in modest and rather chaste way mainly by emphasizing and exaggerating the size of womens hips, through the use of numerous petticoats. However, by 1860 womens styles were being altered by new manufacturing technology that made womens clothing not only easier to wear but also more varied in appearance, introducing one facet of modernity to Victorian fashion. Steel crinolines (Figures 1 and 2) and aniline dyes caused a minor revolution in womens clothing.

Innovations in steelmaking had led to efficient new means of manufacturing steel wire, which led to lightweight steel crinolines, making dresses more comfortable and varied according to individual taste. The size of the crinolines varied, giving women more choice over how to sculpt their dresses, and indeed many became outrageously wide below the waist; though the customary practice of emphasizing womens hips remained, it was exaggerated beyond what some observers considered tasteful.

Also, the invention of cheap synthetic aniline dyes made possible more elaborate, eclectic color schemes and a wider array of available garment colors (Figure 3). Breward writes that the new, cheap dyes had connotations of heightened fashionability and a sense of modernity. The result of these manufacturing innovations was a degree of choice for consumers previously unseen on either side of the Atlantic, and, women took advantage of these to a noticeable extent. In a very real way, this broader array of choices was interpreted by contemporaries as a form of liberation for women that alarmed many male observers.

Contemporary journalists described the this loud and rampant modernization and national madness resulting from this small form of liberation, and British fashion historian Christopher Breward claims that this style was essentially modern in its extroverted and metropolitan associations. (Left) Figure 1: Steel crinoline and corset. (Right) Figure 2: Victorian-era dress supported by steel crinoline. Both found at http://www. farthingales. on. ca. (Left) Figure 3: Examples of colorful Victorian dresses, circa 1860. Found at http://www.

vam. ac. uk. (Right) Figure 4: Hourglass corset from 1880. Found at http://en. wikipedia. org/wiki/Corset. Though the gaudier fashions seemed to violate Victorian standards of propriety, the social and moral contexts had not embraced modernity in the sense that emerged in the Jazz Age. Women still lacked the political agency and economic clout that twentieth-century women enjoyed, frank expression of female sexuality was still very much taboo, and basic social standards remained in place despite what seemed a minor rebellion.

Indeed, women did not challenge the basic assumptions about feminine appearance that made the crinoline necessary. British historian James Laver writes that the crinoline was a symbol of the supposed unapproachability of women. The expanded skirt seemed to say: You cannot come near enough to me even to kiss my hand. The changes were primarily on the surface, because the basic roles and assumptions had not changed despite the uproar. Laver claims that the steel crinoline must have seemed to women an instrument of liberation because of the comfort it provided.

Unlike heavy petticoats or cumbersome iron crinolines of the past, the lightweight wire contraption let women move their legs more freely and enjoy some degree of comfort while still maintaining proper appearances. Still, hoop skirts of the 1860s and 1870s, which flared out at the waist like bells, became so exaggerated that, Laver maintains that it was impossible for two women to enter the room together. . . . A woman was now a majestic ship, sailing proudly ahead of her male companion.

For all the new choices they had, women still lacked the ability to dress practically. Though the hoop skirts heyday was relatively brief, its demise did not bring any great changes to womens clothing, nor did it challenge prevailing assumptions about dress reinforcing gender roles and assumptions. In time, the crinoline became less circular, moving to the rear by the 1870s and ultimately transforming into the bustle, which let dresses fit the front and hips somewhat closely while forming a great bulge (almost a shelf) at the rear.

This development was no great leap forward for Victorian women, because this style required confining, ferociously tight-laced corsets (Figure 4) which artificially narrowed the waist, emphasizing the hips in a somewhat more painful way than the crinoline skirt. Though bustles vanished after 1900 with the rise in physical activity among women, such as bicycling and hiking, dresses remained as long and confining as ever, attesting to the persistence of Victorian ideals of modesty, propriety, and gender roles confined to motherhood.

While Victorian fashions evolved somewhat but retained their emphasis on presenting a distinctly female but not sexual image, womens fashions of the 1920s presented a more obvious kind of liberation based on newly-revised assumptions about womens roles. Indeed, the social, political, and cultural contexts of the 1920s offered women new and vastly broader horizons, including the right to vote and greater economic and educational opportunities in education and the workplace.

In addition, numerous cultural and intellectual trends had converged by 1920, including challenges to the religious dogmas by which many Victorians on both sides of the Atlantic had lived, and the rise of modern psychology, which removed sexuality from its formerly taboo status and viewed it without moral taint. The result was a society in which once-rigid gender roles were gradually relaxed (though emphatically not eliminated), and liberation for women meant significantly more than simply the ability to choose different clothing styles.

As a result, British and American culture in the 1920s had entered a phase of modernity that embodied moral and sexual freedom; where womens fashions a half-century earlier were liberating because they offered slightly more comfort and choice, Jazz Age fashions facilitated a more extroverted sexual style. While the Victorian Era saw the rise of mass clothing production, the new array of choices did not include challenges to dominant assumptions about womens roles. By the 1920s, however, women were far less confined to roles as demure, compliant wives and mothers.

Where Victorian style emphasized a demure vision of femininity following proscribed roles based on duty, propriety, and motherhood (as seen in dresses that emphasized broad hips and enhanced bosoms but also covered women almost completely), Jazz Age dresses were far from matronly; instead, they emphasized youth, even girlishness. They were generally short, ending anywhere from the knee to midway between the knee and ankle, and generally straight, de-emphasizing both bust and hips, resulting in a straight, somewhat adolescent figure.

British fashion scholar Elizabeth Ewing writes that a perfectly straight figure, without a hint of curve, became the ideal. The waist disappeared and . . . [the] brassiere reversed its role of booster and became a flattener. In addition, Ewing quotes the Duchess of Westminster, who claims that throughout the twenties bosoms and hips were definitely out. A lovely figure meant a perfectly straight figure and the slightest suggestion of a curve was scorned as fat. Granted, the flapper was something of a caricature promoted by the mass media, and scholars tend to be critical of that archetype.

Breward points out that the flapper was more of an icon in the United States than in Britain, where the impact of modernity on anything more than surface appearances was more limited. Nonetheless, even more conventional dresses were markedly shorter, much straighter, and less curve-enhancing (and presumably more comfortable) than Victorian dresses. This fact owes something to womens social conditions; no longer Figures 5 and 6: Examples of 1920s womens dresses. (Left) Found at http://www. museumofcostume. co. uk; (Right) Found at http://www. fashion-era. com. (Left) Figure 7: Picture of Clara Bow in flapper dress, circa 1927.

Found at http://www. ustrek. org. (Right) Figure 8: Magazine illustration of stereotypical flapper. Found at http://www. geocities. com/flapper_culture. confined to a small range of roles, young women, says Ewing, sought to disguise their femininity as fervently as, a generation ago, they had tried to exaggerate it. Social conditions clearly shaped the fashions of both eras. In the Victorian Era, womens roles were circumscribed and generally limited to dutiful marriage and motherhood, and the common styles of womens dresses reflected this, though they offered some degree of liberation in terms of comfort and choice.

In the Jazz Age, women had achieved considerable social gains, and the styles of dress reflected a model of womanhood that was not confined to the home. Both eras manifested aspects of modernity; while the former represented commercial modernity and reflected it in superficial variations in style, the latter represented a wider, freer kind of modernity that showed in the freer fashions. REFLECTIVE DISCUSSION I chose this topic for the essay because I wanted to make comparisons between two distinct periods in Western styles history, and I believe that comparisons would make for a stronger essay.

It fits in with my other learning to date because it combines fashion history with aspects of social and cultural history and includes American history, with which I grew more familiar while writing this essay. I have developed an interest in shared traits in international fashions and hope to explore this further. Also, in the course of completing this assignment, I discovered that the stereotypes often used to characterize each era overlook their true complexity.

Having discovered this, I plan to seek the truth behind historical stereotypes in future research. In this project, I believe my strengths include my prose structure and style, as well as my ability to find sources relevant to the periods the essay covers. Working within the compare-contrast structure I chose, I found it easy to construct my arguments and compare the two periods approaches to female dress. Also, the sources I found were helpful and fairly recent, reflecting the most recent scholarship in both fashion history and social and cultural history.

In terms of flaws, I believe that I could have consulted a wider array of historical sources, though at the same time I think that my arguments and conclusions would have been fundamentally the same. In addition, I may have focused more on the history than on the fashions themselves, especially from an American standpoint. However, I found that Victorian cultural ideals were strongly shared by both the British and Americans. The Victorian era made the most sense to me, largely because it is a familiar period for me and part of my own national and cultural history.

I had previous exposure to it in my previous schooling, but I knew little about how Americans shared these assumptions prior to this assignment. Conversely, I was not very familiar with American cultural history prior to this project, and specifically I knew little how about Americas Jazz Age manifested modernity to a much greater degree that Britain did at the same time. I also knew little about the definition of modernity before this, and I was surprised to find how many changes in American society had evolved and converged in the years after World War I.

In the future, I will likely consult a wider range of historical sources and filter the information more closely in order to produce a clearer, more concise, less general account of the historical periods I plan to study. I will rely less on generalizations and include more specific historical facts and phenomena, which will allow me to make stronger arguments. This approach will help me form a more balanced picture of the periods I plan to study and depict them in a more accurate and sophisticated manner.

For Level 3, I plan to produce more balanced and in-depth scholarship and will adjust my methods according to the guidelines I have explained.


Anonymous, Corset, retrieved 8 June 2006, . Anonymous, The Jazz Age: Flapper Culture & Style, retrieved 8 June 2006, . Anonymous, US Trek, retrieved 8 June 2006, . Boyer P et al, The Enduring Vision, 2nd edn, Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 1998. Breward C, The Culture of Fashion, Manchester University Press, Manchester, 1995.

Coben S, Rebellion against Victorianism, Oxford University Press, New York, 1991. Cosgrave B, Costume & Fashion, Hamlyn, London, 2000. Ewing E, History of 20th Century Fashion, Charles Scribners Sons, New York, 1974. Farthingales Fabrics, Farthingales Fabrics, retrieved 8 June 2006, . Laver J, Costume and Fashion: A Concise History, Thames & Hudson, London, 2002. Museum of Costume, Museum of Costume, Bath, retrieved 8 June 2006, Victoria and Albert Museum, V&A Home Page, retrieved 8 June 2006, .

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