A darker side of fashion in Louisa May Alcott’s time

With regards to our discussion of Eight Cousins, a reader asked some questions about fashion in reference to chapter 5, “A Belt and a Box.”

The question was, “Do you know of any information about what Louisa and her mother taught about fashionable clothing? Do you know if she was reading doctors or feminists who were revealing the deleterious nature of fashion?” (thanks to Sarah).

Did Louisa read up on fashion? Apparently …

I belong to the Louisa May Alcott Society and posted the question to members. Melissa M. Pennell, Ph.D., professor of English at UMass Lowell responded with the following:

“There was lots being discussed about women and dress reform in New England – you might like to consult some of the writing done by Mary Livermore and Elizabeth Stuart Phelps*, as well as Amelia Bloomer. LMA and her mother were certainly aware of the work of these writers.  There are also a number of items that appear in the “medical” and advice literature of the time.”

From left to right, Mary Lvermore, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps and Amelia Bloomer

I haven’t had the opportunity to look up the opinions of these writers on fashion, perhaps some of you have. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Interesting tidbit

*Elizabeth Stuart Phelps was an author, writing for children as well as adults. I found this line from an online biography rather interesting (bold emphasis is mine):

“Phelps also wrote the four-volume Gypsy Brenton series, her best-known juvenile work. One commentary notes that Gypsy, a more tomboyish figure than the characters in the Tiny series, “set the pattern for the engaging tomboy heroine [later popularized by Alcott’s Little WomenSusan Coolidge’s What Katy Did, and subsequent characters such as Carol Ryrie Brink’s Caddie Woodlawn and Wilder’s Laura Ingalls] and demonstrated the popularity of the tomboy’s story.” (click here to read the entire bio).

Here are a couple of the books:

Gypsy Breynton by Elizabeth Stuart Phelps
Gypsy’s Cousin Joy by Elizabeth Stuart Phelps

Outright dangers

Sarah, the poser of the question, posted something on her blog,  Frigate to Utopia, developing the comment she made earlier about the role of Seventh Day Adventist Ellen White. There are wonderful pictures and descriptions of fashions of the time, I highly recommend you read this post! Talk about suffering for beauty – strikes me as rather sadistic on the part of men (and masochistic for women) to adhere to these fashion trends. The corset was pretty dangerous but I wonder – is the 5″ heel any less dangerous?

Hidden Dangers

On another fashion tangent, one of my favorite blogs, the Two Nerdy History Girls blog, ran a post about a hidden danger that rose up due to the mass-production of clothing. Here’s a teaser:

Godey's Fashions for January, 1866

By the middle of the 19th c., more and more clothing was being mass-produced rather than individually hand-sewn for the wearer, with technological advances such as sewing machines and high-speed textile looms bringing the industrial revolution to fashion . . . In 1856, an eighteen-year-old chemistry student named William Henry Perkin (1838-1907) accidentally created the first aniline dye, a vivid purple dubbed mauveine, and from this sprang a whole spectrum of colors . . . There was only one catch: that lovely, brilliant shade of Perkin green (one of the most popular of the new colors) contained arsenic . . .

Click here to read the entire post.


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16 thoughts on “A darker side of fashion in Louisa May Alcott’s time

  1. SilverSeason says:

    The entire issue of women’s fashions relates to their independence and how women are perceived in the society. Some comments, in no particular order.

    1. Some histories of the bicycle say that the popularity of the bicycle, after the development of the “safety” bike (no longer with the big front wheel), led to the development of women’s clothing that permitted more freedom of action. Actually that would be true of any sport.

    2. Utopian communities usually advocated for simpler, less confining dress. This link http://dressreform.tripod.com/inspirations.html illustrates the history of the bloomer. Scroll down to the pictures of the women at Oneida Community in New York State. The caption says early 19th century, but this is actually in the 1850s to 1870s, LMA’s time.

    3. Several years ago they did a series on public television called 1900 House, in which a family lived in a 1900 house, carefully following their lifestyle, including clothing. The adult woman complained of serious shortness of breath due to the corset she had to wear.

    This issue has not gone away. Consider the importance of the veil in in some islamic cultures today.

    • milonoah says:

      I remember that series, 1900 house – its predecessor, Frontier House was incredibly addictive! :-)

      That’s really interesting about the bicycle, I didn’t know that.

      Great link, thanks for that.

  2. newprairiestore says:

    I don’t think I would like the corset…the fashions of the past were indeed not made for comfort. Glad that we have more freedom nowadays, lol.

  3. Sarah says:

    Thanks for the mention! (Interesting to hear about Phelps and the “tomboy heroine”, too.) I think you may find this article interesting, telling how some leading feminists and anti-feminists both rejected reform dress, for different reasons. It’s easy (for me, at least) to see that dress as the oppression of a patriarchal society, but it was also tied into Victorian morals. Apparently, “the high-minded seriousness so characteristic of most Victorians equated ‘cumbersome’ dress, the corsets and tightlacing in particular, with the middle-class ethics of self-control and discipline.” http://www.loyno.edu/~history/journal/1989-0/rodrigues.htm

    This page also has some great quotes on dress reform. I especially love the variation on Hamlet’s soliloquy. http://dressreform.tripod.com/quotes.html

    And thank you for mentioning high-heels. Discussions like these should lead us, not so much to an interest in fashion, as rational thought about how fashion may still be a cruel and debilitating mistress today.

    • susanwbailey says:

      Fortunately today you can “walk away” from high heels (sorry, couldn’t resist! :-)) High heels can wreck your feet and your back (mine are already wrecked but not because of high heels). I actually get nervous when I see fashion models on the runway with heels so high fearing they’re going to fall off! I love your analogy of the “cruel and debilitating mistress.” :-)

      Thanks for the great links, looking forward to reading them.

  4. Thanks for all the interesting information. Louisa was ten when the family moved to Fruitlands, and partly in the interest of equality between women and men, but certainly with the recognition that some of women’s fashions held dangers for mind and body, all dressed in linen tunics and loose pants. Louisa must have appreciated the freedom this gave her to run and climb trees (while Anna was likely just embarrassed) and it probably started some of her thinking about the restrictions of women’s clothing, which was developed by the thoughts of suffragist friends. (and a Mr. Dio, who came to Concord to teach gymnastics to girls who wore tunics and pantaloons).

    • milonoah says:

      I never thought of it that way. It seems like there is so much negative press about Fruitlands that I forget there were positives too. And of course a lively tomboy like Louisa would love the freedom of those clothes (and you’re right, Anna would not be a happy camper :-)). It must have been hard for Louisa to repress her physical abilities with fussy and restrictive women’s clothing (although she actually loved the appearance of fashionable clothes, loved window shopping in Boston and described fashion great detail – a funny paradox). She of course had to repress her very personality to at least fit in somewhat with society. Rather like trapping lighting in a bottle.

    • salena says:

      man you should do my report.

  5. Mel C says:

    Love it when you point us to more history related blogs! Thanks!

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