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Gender in History of American Fashion

The Gender Politics of Fashion

It has always been socially hazardous for the few brave souls willing to don a radically new style. Because of the social and political meanings often associated with traditional styles, and the ever-present popular pressure to conform to dominant trends, mavericks flouting convention have long been targeted as objects of public ridicule for their public displays of unorthodoxy. In 1851, the Bloomer (or "American") Costume first appeared in Amelia Bloomer's newspaper, The Lily. Bloomer was a reformer who ran her paper out of Syracuse, New York, where women had recently gathered for the Seneca Falls Women's Rights Convention in 1848. Another woman named Elizabeth Smith Miller first donned the Costume, but Bloomers came to be known for the woman who most publicly promoted and adopted this potentially liberating style. The Bloomer Costume consisted of ankle-length trousers—either large Turkish style or straight-legged "pantaloons"—worn with a mid-calf-length dress. Few women actually adopted the costume, but it generated a disproportionate amount of public outrage and ridicule. Critics linked the concept of female trousers to the women's rights movement, which they feared and despised. People wrote songs and poems mocking the bloomer style, and cartoonists suggested that women donning the American Costume would also commence smoking cigars and assuming a generally masculine demeanor.

Apparently most Americans felt that bloomers went "too far," thereby demonstrating the potential power conveyed by fashion statements and the extent to which American patriarchy continued to reign supreme. Even a seemingly superficial clothing trend that offered more comfort but less gender distinction was deemed unacceptable, perhaps because of the bloomers' feminist implications. But the unusual level of public contempt also indicated a widespread understanding that fashion statements like the bloomer—if allowed to continue unchecked—might lead to demands for more substantive gender equality, like equal pay and equal rights. To avoid this immediately hostile reaction, some activists like Elizabeth Cady Stanton avoided the style entirely; many suffragettes did not want to alienate conservative women and undecided men. Clearly if peer pressure did not succeed, such pragmatic calculations did, and bloomers remained a phenomenon much talked about but very rarely displayed.

Suffocating Style

Trends have sometimes demonstrated a deep public ambivalence over changing social mores and gender roles. According to historian Jill Fields, the corset revival of the post-World War II era "manifested nostalgia for an imagined prewar past of more starkly defined gender differentiation when women were more clearly subordinated, while also providing a means for modern middle-class women to embody the twentieth-century ideal... of being both respectably nice and desirably naughty."142 Victorian corsets of the nineteenth century had been deemed repressive by feminists and unhygienic by public health proponents. In the early twentieth century, after their nineteenth-century heyday had come and gone, many people simply deemed corsets as downright old-fashioned. The very involved and even dramatic practice of putting on and lacing up a corset has long been considered a ripe subject for popular caricature and ridicule, even as the corset was almost universally employed among middle- and upper-class women. As famously depicted in the cinematic Civil War epic Gone With the Wind, wealthy ladies like Scarlett O'Hara would hold onto the bedpost for dear life while their maids—or slaves—pulled on the corset threads to encase their abdomen in as restrictive a brace as humanly possible. (Scarlett's waist was famously said to be seventeen inches around, though this was almost certainly an exaggeration of the actual waistline for antebellum ladies.)143 With the assistance of coutil (a dense, tightly woven twill cloth) and narrow strips of whalebone inserted into the corset layers in parallel strips, they literally molded the female body to produce a narrow waist, arched back, and rounded hips that were deemed the essence of feminine beauty throughout the Victorian period. The corset has thus provided one of the most vivid historical examples of physical suffering in the interest of beauty.

In the eighteenth century, corsets were known by the English term "stays" for the left and right sides of the garment, which were laced together. During this earlier period, stays functioned to shape a woman's upper body like an inverted cone, and they also enabled an ample amount of cleavage by pushing up the breasts so that they were at least partially visible at the neckline. But by the mid-nineteenth century, they became more tightly laced and were utilized to minimize the waistline as much as possible. Longer stays were in fashion in the early eighteenth century and again in the 1840s; these extended down past the waistline and contained a pocket in the center front for a busk (a two-inch-wide board of ivory or wood, extending the same length as the stays). These longer corsets prevented women from being able to bend at the waist, and forced them to assume an upright posture and bend at the hips and knees, which was considered more elegant. Busks were often intricately carved and presented as gifts in New England, where they were commonly worn.144 Corsets shortened along with the elevation of waistlines, then lengthened again. Throughout these cycles, one constant remained: the corset was employed to physically shape and contour the female body according to the current fashion, regardless of the discomfort involved. Women's sexuality and sexual appeal were incorporated into this trend, which extended beyond superficial clothing styles and into actual body manipulation. By the time of the corset's reincarnation in the late 1940s and 1950s, women hoped—and designers and advertisers promised—that such body manipulation could be successfully employed to convey their idealized dual role as respectable society lady and desirable wife. Fashion thus became the fabled conduit by which women could meet society's expectations and satisfy their own fantasies; these benefits were implicitly deemed worthy of the pain and discomfort involved in achieving them.

In the nineteenth century, corsets connoted slightly different sorts of promises to their female wearers; they offered a certain degree of respectability and social status, as well as a fashionable appearance. They were usually worn over a knee-length chemise or undershirt. The corset dictated a degree of inactivity that was considered a sign of class status, since only bourgeois or upper-class ladies could afford to be freed from conducting hard manual labor. The corset's rigidity was also interpreted as a sign of virtue; although authors Elaine Benson and John Esten have noted that "courtesans [prostitutes] were as tightly corseted as any other woman," nineteenth-century custom nonetheless dictated that "ungirdled women might be wanton or 'loose.'"145 Nineteenth-century society searched for easily identifiable markers of class and virtue, but if anything, the history of the corset demonstrates how unreliable such markers turned out to be. With prostitutes and gentrified ladies both confining themselves to corsets, only outdated social custom and ongoing trends continued to dictate the rationale for such uncomfortable lingerie.

Health advocates then intervened to make their case against the corset trend. Hygienic reformers worried about the corset's dozens of "stays," or metal bones, and in the 1870s they began to design alternate undergarment versions with shoulder straps or yokes to hold up the breast support, instead of the rigid corset. Prominent Boston dressmaker Olivia Flynt advertised a corsetless breast supporter in 1876, which enabled "beauty of form to be preserved without lacing or otherwise injuriously pressing or binding the body."146 Some of the first elastic inserts, designed to ease the pain, appeared in 1885.147 As women's health care and work changed with the turn of the twentieth century, the brassiere gradually supplanted the corset as the preferred undergarment for American women. Regional firms began selling breast supporters by mail order, usually for about $1. The bust supporters were sold by bust measurement, from sizes 30 to 45. One Chicago company, Gage Downs, marketed a "Bicycle Waist" with elastic sides and shoulder straps for athletic women. The brassiere evolved from this phenomenon in 1904, when the American Charles R. De Bevoise Company began marketing its new product. Brassiere was a French word that meant a woman's bodice or a child's undervest. The brassiere looked like a camisole with a few stays to maintain its shape. It enjoyed widespread popularity in the early twentieth century, since it coordinated well with the lightweight bodices and layered skirts of the then-popular Directoire fashion. Thus by the time of the corset's revival in the 1940s and 1950s, the garment was increasingly considered an element of the specialty lingerie market; it signified a certain element of drama and novelty that was reserved for special occasions, rather than everyday wear. But women continued to confine and manipulate their bodies in order to conform to popular concepts of beauty and the ideal female figure, and marketers continued catering to that popular desire.

Revealing Clothing, Advertising, and Weight Loss

Even with the advent of potentially liberating new trends in undergarment manufacture—from the increased use of elastic and other flexible materials to public calls for enhanced mobility in women's wear—public pressure remained to maintain the idealized female figure increasingly publicized in advertisements and magazines. In the early twentieth century, Dr. Jeanne Walter sold "medicated" Para rubber undergarments for $4.50 to $6, with the idea that the rubber would enable women to sweat off the pounds without having to diet or exercise. In the 1920s, the corset was manufactured with an increasing number of elastic and rubber sections until it morphed into the girdle. Throughout the 1920s, the rapidly expanding advertising industry promoted new undergarments by promising "diaphragm control" that would suppress fat in the midriff and back. These same advertisements also promised women that they would look younger by maintaining their figures.148

Pressures to look thin only intensified as fashions grew increasingly revealing over the years. In the early 1930s, the average skirt length was about six inches above the ankle. Skirt hems steadily rose throughout the decade, hitting at just below the knee in 1939. Gown designs donned low fronts and backs, or were entirely backless. Body shaper undergarments evolved out of the girdle and in various styles, in order to accommodate these new gown designs and clothing styles. They remain a facet of the apparel industry; in 1999, staffers from Good Housekeeping tested five different brands that came in sizes from four to twenty. They included the Belly Buster by Bodyslimmers, the Flexees Instant Slimmer, the Playtex 18-Hour Sleek Shapers, the Tummy Terminator, and Vanity Fair Smooth Moves, items that ranged in price from $13 to $22. On average, the body shapers took one to two inches off of the waist and hips; the article and current retail prices thus imply that in American culture, each inch taken off of a woman's measurements is worth about $20. One of the testers' most common complaints was, ironically, that the garments were "too tight—even though they were of course designed to make women appear thinner by compressing their fat under bands of tight elastic.149 The pressure to conform to popular beauty ideals may not have waned, but women now appear to be demanding a bit more comfort in their quest for the thinnest possible appearance.

Bathing Beauties

Similar transitions in swimwear have proven as influential in shaping popular notions of ideal body types. Director Mack Sennett's bathing beauties of the 1910s were covered from head to toe in mop caps, long jersey tunics, stockings, bloomers, and shoes. As more skin was revealed, long legs became a revered body trait. After the androgynously flattened chests of the 1920s lost their appeal, large and shapely busts once again became the standard for bathing beauties—as well as a broader cultural preoccupation.

During the twentieth century, female sexuality became intertwined with both fashion and a sense of explosiveness, even of potential danger. The iconic two-piece bikini swimsuit actually emerged out of wartime, when garment manufacturers during World War II were forced to conserve precious fabric for military use, and so literally cut down the size of their garments. The name for the new suit came from the French Bikini Islands in the Pacific Ocean, where the U.S. conducted nuclear tests from 1946 to 1958. A hydrogen bomb dropped on the island in 1946 was affixed with a photograph of Hollywood "bombshell" (a term that emerged in the 1930s) Rita Hayworth. Four days later, Louis Reard—a French automotive engineer turned enterprising swimsuit designer—named his midriff-baring creation (which was more revealing than the thigh-length shorts and full-coverage tops of the war years) the "bikini" for its "explosive potential."150 Yet by 1949, less than 2,500 bikinis were sold annually in the U.S.151

American society was characteristically ambivalent about this new development; female sexuality, as showcased in ever-more-revealing swimwear, was a subject of perennial male fascination and fear. Even civil defense pamphlets as late as 1972 portrayed "potentially both harmful and helpful" radioactive alpha, beta, and gamma rays as three sexy women in strapless suits with prominent busts. Sexy—and sexually liberated—women were at once alluring and potentially threatening, for they conveyed a sense of power that could upend American patriarchy.

Just as Cold War society sought to "tame" the atom in order to provide safe nuclear energy, so female sexuality might be "contained and domesticated," as historian Elaine Tyler May put it, into "harmless chicks, kittens, and the most famous sexual pet of them all, the Playboy bunny."152 Initially, the bikini did appear to have been tamed, notwithstanding another "bombshell" appearance when French actress Brigitte Bardot notably donned one in the very controversial 1956 film And God Created Woman. The beach-babe look of the early 1960s, featuring stars like Sandra Dee and Annette Funicello, popularized an alluring but still pure and ladylike fashion for the female counterparts of the surfing craze. Even Brian Hyland's saccharine hit song of 1960, "Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini," seemed to poke fun at the ever-shrinking swimwear while sanitizing the phenomenon for mass audiences in the form of catchy pop music. Of course, the bikini kept shrinking and increasingly selling: Americans bought 87,000 of them in 1959. When inventor Louis Reard died in 1984, the bikini made up nearly 20% of all swimsuit sales in the U.S., far outselling every other model on the market.153

Paralleling developments in body-shaping undergarments, the swimsuit industry has profited from designs that play on women's self-consciousness in revealing bikinis by guaranteeing an improve—i.e. slimming—appearance. High-waisted bikinis are marketed to women who don't want to feel as though "their stomachs are hanging out," as one swimwear buyer put it. Several suits feature "tummy control panels" that work similarly to the control-top on panty hose. In 1986, designer Carol Wior introduced a line of "Slimsuits" that especially appealed to young mothers aged 25 to 35, who were anxious about their post-pregnancy figures; but Wior's store surveys also indicated that customers as young as fourteen and as old as 78 were purchasing Slimsuits.154


Fashion has long served as a metaphor for society's cultural values. After the World Trade Center attack of 11 September 2001, the American news media broadcast images of Muslim women enshrouded in the all-enveloping burqas of Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. They seemed to embody the oppression of an extremist theocratic regime that feared change or outside influence so much that it sought to destroy the influence of secular world powers like the United States. Yet the United States itself also had a long and often problematic history when it came to gender relations and women's social status. Oppression can take a variety of forms, from the objectification that stems from scantily clad outfits in magazines and music videos to the literally constricting Victorian corsets of the nineteenth century. Although today's American women tend to enjoy more freedom of choice in their dress than ever before, new styles of clothes, swimwear, and lingerie have also ratcheted up the pressure to conform to popularly marketed standards of beauty.

Body image has long been intertwined not only with the fashion industry, but with cultural standards of beauty. Studies conducted in the early 1990s indicated that up to 10 million girls and women and 1 million boys and men were struggling with eating disorders.155 Between 1988 and 1993, the incidence of the eating disorder bulimia tripled in women ages 10 to 39.156 In a 1996 study that asked women whether they were satisfied with their appearance, 80% responded "no." And a 1991 study of girls in first through third grade found that 42% wanted to be thinner.157 As styles become increasingly revealing, more cultural emphasis is placed on the female body, and women become objectified as purely sexual playthings, rather than human beings. Women sidle up to rap stars and gyrate against them for the sake of appearing in music videos, while being referred to as "b----s" and "h-s" in the song lyrics. Beauty pageant contestants demonstrate their talents and their public speaking abilities before the judges, but they also have to compete in "swimwear" competitions during which they wear nothing but bikinis and parade around the stage, often having covered their rears in hairspray or other adhesive to keep the bikini line from shifting. If such "fashions" teach us anything, they reveal that while styles may have changed, the popular preoccupation with the female body remains a central—and still problematic—facet of American culture.

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