Defying Labels: New Roles, New Clothes
THE CHANGING ROLE OF WOMENS CLothes
FROM 1860 to 1950
War and technology foster change! As in our own time — with the lasting social impact of World War II and the changes brought by the digital revolution– the impact of the Civil War and the proliferation of safe rail travel brought a period of change and empowerment for women during the mid-19th century. With the far-reaching impact of the Civil War, women were propelled into new roles outside the home, best typified by Clara Barton and her position as a nurse and founder of the American Red Cross.
By the 1880s, the invention of the telephone allowed women to be in contact and meet, leading to a period of a significant social and cultural organization that served as a precursor to levels of full employment and that would only be achieved later. The 1880s and after were also a period of general social revolution– such changes as the introduction of indoor plumbing, electrification, and streetcar transportation benefitted society in general and made women’s lives and their ability to move outside the home far easier. Women’s educational opportunities increased and the significant roles that women played and political organizers, as well as sweeping social changes, brought about by World War I led full suffrage in 1920. Following this, the 1920s and 1930s were a period of greater personal exploration and expression of women.
During this time, women’s clothing changes from ornamental gowns with 18-inch waistlines to outfits that were better tailored for more active life, garments that were designed for new activities and clothing that expressed a wider range of women’s personalities. In a chicken and egg relationship, new roles required new clothes and new clothes allowed new roles. Utilizing the clothing of three women, Helen Gould, Anna Gould, Duchess of Talleyrand, and Edith Kingdon Gould, we explore the changes in women’s clothing from the 1880s into the 1950s.
Because Jay Gould was not “received” in the Astor/Vanderbilt dominated Gilded Age society, his daughters and daughter-in-law did not follow the typical patterns of purchasing clothing from Worth in Paris that were almost social law among prominent women in New York. As a result, the clothing selected by these women includes a far greater range of seamstresses that worked in New York in the 19th century, French fashion giant was known by the French but not the Americans as well as little studied examples of the 20th century American makers directly copying French couturiers at a time when American couture was reaching its ascendancy shortly before World War II.
While not always strictly fashionable, their clothes were more wearable, more expressive, and more varied than might have been typical at a time for socially prominent women. Many of the attitudes these women expressed towards their wardrobe are commonly taken for granted today. Each outfit is paired with a different and often evolving role that each woman played.