“Bad taste, bad hygiene, and bad morals:” dress reform movements and women’s fight for greater independence during the late 1800s.


The Victorian Age is debated as a time of brilliant growth, beauty, and prosperity for people living in England. While this era is described as a glory age for England, it was also an age of great inequality. There were significant advancements in learning and new societal freedom, like the widespread availability of education and abundance of jobs. However, freedom was not experienced equally by everyone in the public. One of the main things women sought to change was freedom in their wardrobe. It was nearly impossible to progress in society under the rigid restrictions women’s clothes put on them. Women’s bodies were supposed to be hidden and modest, representing the future that lay ahead. As an integral part of their identity, women’s wardrobes became a source of increased scrutiny. Fashion was one of the first notable factors that changed the way women participated in overall outside life. In this research project, I will cover two dress reform movements that relate to the change in women’s fashion and why fashion was an important catalyst to gaining women’s independence. These two movements are the Aesthetic Movement, which emerged in the latter years of the Victorian Era, and the Rational Dress Movement, which picked up the Aesthetic Movement’s mission in achieving change in women’s wardrobes. Both movements follow the struggles that women had to face to achieve just a fraction of the amount of freedom that others had through their fashion. While other movements like the suffrage and temperance movement coincided with these fashion movements, the change in clothes was an undervalued factor that helped women gain further independence. The change in women’s clothes and fashion movements was a major catalyst in the fight for bodily autonomy and the breakdown of the public and private spheres. Without the fashion movements in the 1800s and women speaking up when they did, other freedoms for women might not have been realized. The evolution of women’s fashion changed the course for women in the new century

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This paper was published in UTC Scholar.

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