Women fight for their rights – and their fashions?

Women fight for their rights – and their fashions?

I’ve been thinking a lot about ladies recently. Besides being an absolutely delightful one myself, I spend a lot of time around powerful, accomplished, intelligent women who work hard every day to make life better for those around them. On a much larger scale, it is impossible to deny that American women are once again in the spotlight, receiving national attention as we define women’s rights, roles, and personal agency moving into the 21st century.

American women were doing much the same 100 years ago as the world moved into the 20th century. Questions about women’s rights, roles, and personal agency needed to be answered for a rapidly changing world. The answers to those questions revealed themselves in a variety of ways – in the passage of the 18th and 20th Amendments, which started Prohibition and granted women the right to vote, respectively, and in the swift and major changes in women’s apparel from the 1890s to the 1920s. While changes in fashion might seem frivolous next to major political change, women’s clothing and activities have always closely reflected that society’s attitudes towards women.

Women’s leisure clothing saw the largest innovations and changes as women gained more agency within American society. The industrialization which occurred widely after the Civil War led to a major lifestyle shift that saw the rise of a new middle class, one which had the money and the time to pursue leisure activities. Sports like golf and tennis became popular, as did riding bicycles. Swimming and bathing, once considered activities for children, found new life as adults began to frequent rivers, beaches, and public pools. And since women were participating in these activities as well, their wardrobes needed to grow to accommodate the new styles of clothing.

Female swimmers and cyclists of the 1890s were stymied by the restrictive clothing of the time. Women’s fashionable clothing included tight corsets, multiple petticoats, and shaping bustles, all covered by fitted dresses that included vast flounces of lace and ribbons. Long skirts easily became caught in bicycle gears, and young women who frequented the beach often stayed away from the water because their elaborate bathing costumes were not actually meant to get wet! These restrictive fashions started to change in the late 1890s. By this time, women’s issues were starting to take hold in mainstream politics, and many women responded to their new freedoms by making functional changes in their wardrobe. Skirts started to shorten, partially to allow women to more safely and efficiently ride bicycles. Washington County women were not immune to these larger fashion changes. Local women were kept abreast of the latest fashions via Judic Chollet’s syndicated newspaper column, and local stores were quick to advertise new fashion innovations. Chiefly among Chollet’s rather pragmatic (but likely extremely controversial) opinions was the thought that women’s swimwear should be more functional. Many of her 1895 columns discuss the need for more practical and usable athletic apparel.

As American society progressed into the early 1910s, changes to swimwear were subtle but hard-won. It is around this point in time that local newspapers start to publish articles where the function of leisure apparel is promoted over form. Skirts continued to inch up, and many American women adopted the French model of swimwear: a plain cotton “two-piece” that featured a short-sleeved romper style garment with bloomers, over which was a matching, detachable, calf-length skirt. Some daring women forewent the skirt entirely, simply wearing wider bloomers. These fashions could regularly be found gracing the banks of the Potomac, Antietam, and Conococheague, as swimming was one of the only methods of beating the area’s sticky summer heat. Women made major waves with new swimsuits – it was big news in 1914 when Atlantic City bathers were spotted wearing tights instead of skirts! However, women making large changes to their swimwear were often fined or even arrested for public exposure and indecency. But at this point, American women were ready for a fight. Countless women flaunted local laws and paid the price until the fashion became so popular that lawmakers had to cave to their public demands. The length of bathing suit skirts might have been a frivolous battle, but it was a major symbolic victory for American women. American culture was starting to include their needs.

The years of World War I placed the fight for suffrage on the back burner, but were utterly crucial in helping women to gain more agency in their daily lives. For the first time, women were joining the work force en masse and working jobs vacated by men called into service. The wartime years greatly boosted the confidence of American women, who realized that they were able to perform the same duties as their male counterparts. Clothing styles became even more functional, with many factory workers even adopting the same uniforms as their male colleagues. Leisure pursuits like swimming were not as actively pursued, since it detracted from the war effort. Many women emerged from the war years ready to continue their active role in society and unwilling to meekly return to the domestic arts of the home.

After World War I, American women made great strides in politics and public policy. Women had spearheaded the Prohibition Movement, and considered the passing of the 18th Amendment a major victory. Another major victory was the passage of the 20th Amendment in 1920, which granted women voting rights. These major victories for women in politics led the way for women to play a defining role in American culture during the 1920s. The flapper remains the iconic image of women during the time period, and with their bobbed hair, short skirts, and slim figures, were the ultimate celebration of a strong female voice. Women’s fashions now married form and function, the perfect style for the 1920s active women. The rapid pace of political change was reflected as well in the major updates to bathing suit style. Women’s bathing suits omitted sleeves, skirts, and bloomers as sleek, sleeveless, short bathing suits became the style. Female swimmers could now experience the same range of motion as their male counterparts, and no longer had to worry about drowning in swathes of silk, taffeta, or lace. The idea of the American ‘bathing beauty’ is born during this time period, and local Hagerstown theatres like the Colonial and Nixon’s Academy started offering swimsuit contests along with other attractions.

The next major innovation in swimwear came along with the Women’s Rights Movement in the 1960s and 70s. Spandex first became commercially available in the 1960s, quickly replacing the traditional wool bathing suit. And with stretchy Spandex came the first bikinis and stomach-baring two-piece bathing suits. The phrase ‘Clothes make the man,’ might be more common, but when it comes to women’s history in America, clothing very often makes the woman as well.

Anna C.
Anna C.
Anna Cueto is the Curator of the Washington County Historical Society. She oversees the daily operations and exhibit development of the Miller House Museum, and assists with museum programming and events development and marketing. Anna has a Bachelor's of Arts in History from McDaniel College and a Master's of Library and Information Science in Archives and Information Science from the University of Pittsburgh.

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