History of Fashion Clothing and Society Term Paper

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Changing World of American Women's Fashion

This dissertation aims to discuss one aspect of the various women's reform movements from the 19th and early 20th centuries. Ironically, the aspect of the movements that will be regarded here was such an important part of the many changes our society underwent during those times, yet it is consistently overlooked and even taken for granted by the majority of us. The topic at hand is the role of women's fashions throughout American history.

It is hard to imagine the many turning points in the history of women's fashions because our modern day understanding is based on a highly technologically advanced shopping experience that offers thousands of choices that can be had instantly through either the Internet, televisions shows like QVC, an ample supply of malls, retailers and specialty shops such as Deb of Victoria's secret. The choices we have today from Wal-Mart and Kmart seem to always have been an option because there is rarely a need to look back at the historical changes in fashions and the inherent meanings and associations that are assumed because of certain fashions.

Fashion clearly played a major role for women in the late 19th and early 20th century. The women's movements of the time were driven by a new class of women with all new levels of expectations and needs. This was true because there was an increase of women born into middle and upper class families after the Civil War as well as the early stages of the industrial revolution.

The women of the time enjoyed new found advantages such as the fact that they had unprecedented availability to higher education and historians have demonstrated that more than forty percent of college graduates in 1900 were female. With this new found educational and economic advantage came alternatives like choosing not to marry and have children so as to excel in wage earning careers in the fields of teaching, social work and even office clerk. Women's fashions had to evolve to keep with these trends.

However, it was not only the middle and upper classes that were in need of a fashion make over. The nation was also in the midst of a period where immigration and migration raised the nation's census by the millions. To fit in, these immigrants looked to fashion to help them blend in with the natives. In their favor was the invention of the sewing machine and new materials and compounds that made high fashion affordable for the lower classes and immigrants.

With that being said, this Culminating Project on 'The Changing World of American Women's Fashions' aims to demonstrate my acquired academic abilities as well as to meet the requirement of submitting an acceptable Culminating Project to make me eligible to graduate with a baccalaureate degree. This project provides the concrete example of my ability to collect and evaluate first and secondary resources to develop and support my thesis, and to demonstrate a proficiency using the MLA guidelines for research and documentation.



Whether sophisticated or simple, clothing speaks volumes about both an individual and society in general. Modern fashion has many outlets today such as malls, retailers and specialty shops, and although present day fashion allows artistic freedom and individuality, historically, dress was a direct indication of one's social and financial class. American fashions were mainly dictated by European styles, therefore much of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries incorporated a rigid Victorian-Era style which was the standard among the upper class, particularly in cosmopolitan cities such as New York. Due to the ornate and laborious qualities of these garments, fashion was restricted to the elite within society-- those with both the leisure and financial means.

Dress, therefore, was an outward indication of ones wealth and social standing. However, fashion suggested more than economic advantage. Changes within society, both big and small, were often directly reflected in attire. This change was especially apparent as America underwent many social and political transformations between the mid-1800's and the 1920's. The invention of the sewing machine allowed the general public access to fashion as they could make their own clothing. It also contributed to the "Ready to Wear" industry which forever changed the face of clothing in America and established New York City as the country's fashion capitol. In particular, Women's clothing underwent drastic and historically unprecedented changes within a relatively short amount of time.

Fashion moved from an exclusively upper class luxury to including the middle class. This newfound accessibility to fashion had far reaching implications in society, including helping immigrants to assimilate. By the late 1800's, as women entered the workforce, participated in sports, and lobbied for suffrage, it was obvious that an improvement in impractical dress was essential. As such, the style and comfort of their attire eventually changed to better accommodate their lifestyles.

For the most part, these changes in dress were small and may even appear insignificant: a hemline raised an inch or a layer of petticoat removed. Indeed, these improvements were truly remarkable strides for women, especially when considering they were accomplished within a restrictive and intolerant environment. The changes and improvements made during the time period of 1870-1920 provided the foundation for the total social upheaval that would take place in America during the Twenties.

Women's lives

To understand women's fashion throughout history, one must first grasp the situation that women faced in the late eighteenth through the early twenty centuries. Early America presented women with a life of work as unpaid wives that were required, in some cases by law, to be alongside or behind their husbands running the home, farm or plantation. There were no modern appliances so a chore we take fro granted such as cooking for an entire household could tie up a great deal of free time. Fashion was a nonentity as clothing was created though the tedious tasks of spinning yarn, weaving clothing, sewing by hand and constant mending of the family's garments.

Once the Revolution came and went and America moved into the early 19th century, there was an even higher expectation for educating a family's children and that responsibility also fell on the mothers. It was expected that any widow or a woman with a husband who was off to war would manage all aspects of the household or farm. Other women were indentured servants or simply slaves. The laws were completely against women so any unmarried woman or divorcee without real property would be forced to work for others.

Of course, when women took on wage work during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, their familial roles did not change or simply go away. Women had to work both at home while not getting paid and outside of the home. In other words, women still had to fulfill their traditional roles before and after work. Basically, wage work did not produce independence for women because their roles at home were not abolished. Their responsibility in the family actually increased and fashion was not a practice option at this point.

It was not unusual however for women to own their own businesses. Often, women held positions as apothecaries, barbers, blacksmiths, sextons, printers or tavern keepers. Another lucrative profession at the time was that of the midwife. As the 1840' rolled in, the Industrial Revolution took hold and created a need for new labor.

This again led many women to turn to wage work outside the home. Historians have estimated that around 1840, almost ten percent of women in the United States held jobs outside of the home and by the 1850's this total ha been estimated to be closer to fifteen percent as factory owners hired women and children. but, because this is a paper on fashion, as noted, this was a time of lack for the majority of women.


The topic of women's fashion is really a discussion about reform in the mid to late nineteenth century. Fashion is by far one of the most controversial issues of the period. Consider that as late as the 1880's, women were typically required to wear five or six petticoats underneath a dress. The length of those dresses as will be discussed throughout this work actually required instructions on how to lift when climbing stairs or walking on a muddy street in a graceful manner.

Women during this period wore corsets that were not only uncomfortable, but they were actually unhealthy. Fashion entailed day dresses with long sleeves and high necks and evening dresses could at least be sleeveless or cut low in the bodice. Accessories were rarely meant to promote beauty and sexuality. It was a man's world

There was no mistaking the fact that women were in need of serious reform in regard to fashion. The sewing machine was still years away and only wealthy Americans could afford to have professionals tailor to suit. It was not until after the Civil War that all levels of the social classes could afford multiple clothes. But this… [END OF PREVIEW]

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History of Fashion Clothing and Society.  (2005, March 21).  Retrieved December 13, 2019, from https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/history-fashion-clothing-society/3627

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