the subject of intense debate, fashion both registered
the most pressing issues of the day and provoked them.
In prewar America, the length of a dress, the color of
a man's shirt, the size of a hat, and the height of a
pair of shoes brought to the surface the country's ongoing
concern with womanliness, gentlemanliness, and "Americanness,"
as it focused attention on the health of the nation and
the state of its soul. Far from being a mere flourish
of history, fashion was the most literal expression of
who we were as a nation.
for women in the American 1920s generated heated controversy
and obsessive concern about what the world was coming to,
and dress reformers took aim at fashion from several vantage
dress-reform movements of the nineteenth century failed.
After the moralizing sermons and pamphlets on the unhealthful
wickedness of corsets, after zealous demonstrations against
the skirts that swept the farmyards of America, and after
the careful design and presentation of alternative styles
of clothing, little changed. In the first two decades of
the twentieth century, women still wore corsets, their stirts
still dragged in the filth of the street, and their clothing
still prevented them from moving easily. At the beginning
of the twentieth century, in brief, women's clothing still
identified them as the weaker sex and as the property of
men. But by the end of World War I, all this was beginning
to change. A revolution in dress
seemingly spontaneously, as American women invested their
energies in new forms of work and pleasure, and dressed
to fit the requirements of job or play.
had a stake in the changes that were in the air in the early
part of the century; and almost everybody made suggestions,
ranting for or against the tidal wave of new styles of clothing
and of living. This discourse was multifaceted. Many argued
about women's dress from a moral standpoint, a preoccupation
that surfaces in more anti-fashion discourse. Several other
considerations as well, including medical, economic, and
aesthetic concerns arose as well. The variety of opinions
expressed on these matters seems infinite. Young, old, male,
female, sanctimonious, or irreverent, many Americans felt
the need to announce publicly what they felt women should
or should not be able to wear.