Melyssa Wrisley, “Stella Blum Grant Report: ‘Fashion I Despised’: Charlotte Perkins Gilman and American Dress
Reform, 1880–1920″

The true and reasonable dress means perfect ease and health and beauty of body, with the freedom of motion and increase of power and skill resultant therefrom. 

Charlotte Perkins Gilman quoted by Patrick Madden, “Why Women Do Not Reform Their Dress” in Quotidiana, 2008

Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860-1935) was a white American journalist, author, lecturer, and activist who lived an unconventional life and promoted broad and radical social transformation.

Gilman wished for women to be free to live their lives free of encumbrances, and so in addition to promoting women’s financial, familial, and professional autonomy, she also engaged in clothing reform. In the article that we’re reading, dress historian Melyssa Wrisley combines descriptions of Gilman’s political analyses of women’s clothing with descriptions of her practical relationship with dress. Like other clothing reformers in the late 19th century, Gilman critiqued women’s fashion for being uncomfortable, impractical, and potentially dangerous to women’s health. However, as Wrisley points out, she distanced herself from members of the Women’s Committee on Dress because they did not recognize the underlying social forces that contributed to women’s clothing choices. Ultimately, from Gilman’s perspective, the feminine fashion of her time performed the social function of drawing women into oppressive gender systems. The main purpose of women’s garments, she writes, “is unmistakably to announce her sex” (Wrisley, 104).

Wrisley’s article relies on Gilman’s public writing about clothing reform and rational dress; it also draws extensively on her diaries and letters. Reading Gilman’s personal writing, it’s clear that she took enormous pleasure from her dress—she designed and sewed her own clothing, and purchased luxurious fabrics when she could afford them. Her own style, described by Wrisley as “an acceptable mixture of femininity and reform,” emphasized comfort, exuded confidence, and offered a model of rational dress that helped to expand 19th and early 20th century notions of acceptable femininity.

Notably missing from Wrisley’s discussion of Gilman and dress reform is any analysis of the impact that racism and xenophobia had on Gilman’s projects. Like many other white reformists active in the early part of the twentieth century—including, for instance, Canadian feminist icons like Nellie McClung and Emily Murphy—Gilman was convinced by eugenicist logics, which suggested that characteristics like intelligence were inherited traits. Adapting Darwinist models of evolution, Gilman promoted social Darwinism, or a social evolutionary model, in which some groups were viewed as more fully evolved than others. Placed within the context of turn of the century racial anxieties, social Darwinism proved a dangerous tool for the promotion of racism and white supremacy.

As you read:

  • Keep a running list of the critiques that dress reformers and rational dress proponents lodge toward women’s fashion
  • Drawing on the examples of dress from this week’s lesson, and from the article, reflect on what Gilman means when she says that women must symbolize femininity (see page 103)
  • Consider the role that gender dualism plays in contemporary fashion

Find the Wrisley reading here.

Joan Jacobs Brumberg, “Breast Buds and the Training Bra”

By the early 1950s, “training” or “beginner” bras were available in AAA and AA sizes for girls whose chests were essentially flat. . .The “training” that a training bra was supposed to accomplish was the first step toward motherhood and a sexually alluring figure. . .

Joan Jacobs Brumberg, “Breast Buds and the Training Bra” in The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls 1997, pp.112
The Body Project
The Body Project

We’re reading a short section from Joan Jacob Brumberg’s book, The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls, which was published in 1997. In the section that we’re reading, Brumberg tracks the invention of the brassiere and the training bra. She argues that these artifacts of clothing dramatically impact women’s experiences of their bodies. In the larger book, Brumberg uses girls’ letters, diaries, and other forms of personal writing to find out more about the experience of feminine adolescence in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Using this historical method, she discovers a mid-century cultural obsession with girls’ breast health. Doctors, mothers, girls, and the manufacturers and sellers of foundation garments (which include girdles, bras, training bras) all weighed in on the matter of breast buds and breast development. Brumberg ultimately interprets this concern over girls bodies as being less about their breasts and more about the achievement of socially acceptable womanhood. 

As you read:

  • What is junior figure control? What interests did girls and their mothers have in junior figure control in middle of the 20th century? What interests did the garment industry and physicians have in junior figure control?
  • According to Brumberg, what impact did the shift from making undergarments at home to purchasing mass produced items have on girls and women?
  • Do you agree with Brumberg’s conclusion that training bras contributed to the hyper-sexualization of girls’ bodies?

Find the Brumberg reading here. NOTE that a scanned copy of the print book is available to borrow from the Internet Archive’s National Emergency Library at this link until the end of June 2020; you will need to register for an account on the Internet Archive’s National Emergency Library to borrow the book. We’re reading pp. 108-118.

Alok Menon, “Fashion’s Genderless Future”

It is incorrect that gender neutrality has to mean drab, grey, shapeless athletic wear. Gowns can be gender neutral. Makeup and jewellery are gender netural. Gender neutrality is not the death of fashion, it is the renaissance of fashion.

Alok Menon, “Fashion’s Genderless Future,” The Business of Fashion, 2019
File:Alok Vaid-Menon with Flowers.jpg - Wikimedia Commons
Transfemme Gender-nonconforming Performance artist Alok Vaid-Menon photographed by Eivind Hansen
from Creative Commons

Finally, we’ll end this week with a lecture by performance artist and designer Alok Menon. Menon points out that there is nothing inherently masculine about a tie, and nothing inherently feminine about a skirt. They argue that the time has come to completely de-gender the fashion industry, which means not only to break down the tired distinctions between clothes for men and clothes for women, but to recognize the fundamental role that transgender ideas, aesthetics, and labour have played in the fashion industry.

As you watch:

  • Pay attention to Menon’s critique of the fashion industry. How has this industry exploited and invisibilized trans and queer bodies?
  • How does the gender binary impact our sartorial choices?
  • What does Alok suggest about gender normativity?