March is Women’s History Month, and one of the best ways to observe the changes in women’s roles and social standing throughout American history is to look at the ways women dressed themselves.

From earliest times and throughout most cultures, women traditionally have been responsible for producing clothing for themselves and their families with materials at hand. During early times in America, this generally meant using flax, cotton, wool and leather.

Obviously, one’s economic status was clearly reflected in what a woman wore, so African American slaves and the poorest white women wore simple, utilitarian clothing: a shift that doubled as a nightgown, a skirt — sometimes two skirts — and some sort of shirt or bodice. It’s always risky to generalize, but slave clothes, or the materials to make them, depended on the prosperity and benevolence of slaveowners, while other women usually had greater access to materials and were sometimes able to actually purchase cloth.

On the other hand, more prosperous American women paid less attention to utility and more to style, and throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, women’s fashion often was highly stylized in an effort to exaggerate what was considered the ideal female figure. For decades, women were expected to wear some sort of corset that would minimize their waists and accentuate their hips and chests. There are many tales of corsets being so tight that they damaged their wearers, and — in fact — some women had their lower ribs broken or removed in order to lace their corsets even more tightly. Bustles, hoop skirts and crinolines all were used to decorate the female form.

It would be interesting to know just how much damage was done by women sweeping through rooms with massive skirts, sometimes 6 feet in diameter, knocking over whatever might be in their paths!

Throughout these first two centuries of American life, modesty also was idealized, so that the nation was shocked when women began to raise their skirts around World War I. However, the shorter skirts and loss of corsets allowed women comfort, freedom and the ability to move and work more efficiently. Historians suggest that dress lengths also were affected by prices of fabric, but once all classes of women had experienced the briefer skirts, no one ever looked back.

In 1913, Mary Phelps Jacob invented the first bra with two handkerchiefs and a ribbon, offering women more freedom and comfort.

In the past 50 years, American women have grown more and more eager to express themselves through their clothing color and style. Remember the “shift” of the 1960s that removed all constraint around the waist? It was, indeed, a far cry from the corset of 160 years ago.

Perhaps most importantly, American values have shifted enough to allow more women to dress as they wish without alluding to their character; a sexy dress is just that and not a sexual invitation. This is just another sign of the shifting roles and growing independence of American women throughout history.

Vandy Kemp is a Maryville resident, retired educator and a member of the American Association of University Women.

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