the most vocal of the would-be dress reformers argued moralistically,
those persons who considered women's health central to the
fashion debates of the 1920s were by no means restrained.
By the turn of the century, "dress-protestants"
came into their own. Harnessing science and the new "antisepticonsciousness"
to the cause of clothing reform, they attempted to make newly
fashion-conscious women equally aware of the health threats
that accessorized their couture. The items that topped their
reform agenda were shoes, underwear, and again, skirt lengths.
were quick to warn about germs and dirt particles that lodged
in the hemlines of long skirts. "The streets of our great
cities are not kept as clean as they should be, and probably
will not be kept scrupulously clean until automobiles have
entirely replaced horse-drawn vehicles," observed Scientific
American, a "weekly journal of practical information,
art, science, mechanics, chemistry and manufactures."
Women swept the streets with their skirts, taking with them
"abominable filth...which is by courtesy called 'dust.'"3
1895, a group of women constituting themselves the Rainy Day
Club, took to the sidewalks of New York to demonstrate against
the "hobbling, crippling impediment of dry goods dragging"
at their feet, which, when wet and dirty, made
them catch cold. Clad in a special "rainy
day" costume of their own devising--a full skirt
some four inches off the
ground, complemented by a "pert, little short-tailed"
jacket and a jaunty Alpine hat--the Rainy Daisies, as they were
quite a stir. "Just four inches from the floor!" reported
the Times with considerable excitement. "But it startled the
whole country. Women had participated in the fight for suffrage
and the abolition of slavery. True, a few dress reformers had declared
that women should wear bloomers, but they were dismissed as fanatics
and there the matter dropped, but for a group to come out in positive
approval of short skirts--and four inches from the floor--had never
skirts naturally increased the visibility of women's shoes. Thus,
fashion advisors in the 1920s, unlike those of previous decades,
emphasized the importance of footwear to a woman's total "look."
The added fashion significance of women's shoes was obviously a
boon to the shoe manufacturing industry. The growth in numbers of
available shoe styles during the decade is apparent from even a
cursory comparison of advertisements and photographs between the
late 1910s and late 1920s.
these trendier shoes in two primary ways: first, they tried to persuade
shoe manufacturers and distributors to create shoes that were designed
on the principle of health rather than stylishness; second, they
taught young women about the harmful effects of style shoes. The
adviser's manual for the Girl Reserve Movement of the YWCA, for
example, outlined several activities designed to encourage girls
to make "correct
shoe" choices, that is, to choose only shoes that provided
a good "five-room apartment" for their toes.
YWCA, however, attributed the expanding variety of shoes
to their vigorous "shoe
campaign" against the so-called style shoe, the
high-heeled, narrow-toed footwear that enhanced the fashionably
slim female silhouette of the 1920s. The organization
that morality-based complaints surfaced so consistently in most
discussions of fashions for women in the 1920s, it is perhaps
not surprising that one YWCA staff member, Dr. Sara Brown, associated
style shoes not only with damage to the wearer's feet but also
with damage to her character. She admonished:
wearing of tight shoes for appearance sake is harmful in many
ways. Not only the physical but the mental and spiritual side
of the individual suffers. One cannot thoroughly enjoy a sermon
at church on Sunday in tight shoes. Children are unable to pay
the proper respect to their elders by getting up and giving them
their seat when their feet are cramped... Never wear ill-fitting
shoes. They inhibit gentleness.4
physician, Florence A. Sherman, focused primarily on the
harm caused by wearing shoes with high heels and narrow,
pointed toes. She warned against all kinds of foot ailments,
of course, but she also claimed that high heels altered
one's center of gravity. Besides poor
posture, Sherman explained, to compensate for the destabilizing
effects of high heels, the body could also develop "a
train of misplacements and congestions such as pro-lapus
of the stomach and bowels, constipation, indigestion, misplaced
uterus, menstrual pain. We might add to this list accidents,
decreased working capacity, deranged nerves, lack of exercise…nor
should we forget that the story of bad feet writes itself
in wrinkles and a look of old age."5
other "scientists," however, found high heels
to be a benefit,
for your health.
public had awakened to the importance of properly fitting
shoes. Within a few years, though, it had all faded away.
Women refused to give up their high heels, lamented Dr.
Dudley J. Morton, author of a popular 1939 advice book,
Oh, Doctor! My Feet!. Doctors, scientists, and
shoe salesmen might fret about the situation, but as Morton
acknowledged: "High heels cannot be legislated our
of existence any more than bobbed hair, cosmetics or liquor
best, the "normally vain" woman was prepared to
compromise, reserving high heels for dress and sensible
shoes for everyday wear or, as a writer for the New
York Times Sunday
Magazine put it, for those occasions when she was
either out for a five-mile walk or "dead sure no one
to choose between being stylish or being sensible, the American
women eventually opted for fashion.
the Rainy Daisies and the Y.W.C.A. focused the nation's attention
on skirt lengths and shoes, most advocates of what was variously
called "correct," "rational," or "improved"
dress reserved their greatest disdain for the corset. "The
corset-curse among women is more insidious than the drink-curse
among men," hotly declared dress reformer Helen Ecob, author
of the popular advice book The Well-Dressed Woman: A Study
in the Practical Application to Dress of the Laws of Health, Art
and Morals.7 Not only
did the corset reinforce a woman's allegedly natural inclinations
toward helplessness, many argued, it also made her ill.
"corset-curse" was not new. Since the 19th century,
virtually everything that ailed womankind was attributed to the
corset's tight stays, from poor posture and "feeble muscular
power" to pelvic disturbances and the "fretfulness,
ill-temper and peevishness that darkens many households."8
Dress reformers liked to punctuate their lectures and publications
with frightening illustrations of distorted body parts-oversize
livers, protruding stomachs, squished rib cages, and swaying spines-as
well as with "data" drawn from the frontiers of modern
medical science. One such "pioneer" was Dr. Robert L.
Dickinson, whose newly invented "manometer" measured
the amount of pressure that a corset exerted on a woman's upper
body. Using a scale and a glass tube filled with mercury, the
Brooklyn doctor ascertained that the weight of even the loosest
corset approximated that of a twenty-five-pound sack of flour.
Such constant pressure on the vital organs, Dickinson and his
fellow physicians deduced, was harmful in the extreme, making
for shallow breathing, a rapid heartbeat, constipation, irritability,
factors came about to bring the demise of the corset. In the early
1900's, athletics were fast on their way to becoming a widespread
interest of women. To accommodate the need for freer movement,
a lightweight corset was made with less boning and sometimes,
only cording or quilting was used for support. The garment also
had larger shoulder straps. In 1910, the first ventilated mesh
corset and the "all-elastic-step in" was introduced.
World War I required the steel from corsets be requisitioned for
the war effort. And, of course, the women's suffrage movement
and the arrival of the flapper helped to loosen the tyranny of
the corset as an undergarment. The 1920's escorted in the Flapper
and sexual freedom. Gone were the distorted, curvaceous figures
from previous years. The girl-woman silhouette catered to the
naturally slender, but a larger woman could achieve the fashionable
appearance with a light corset and bandeau.
the 1920s, the Saturday Evening Post featured an essay
by one physician who lamented the waning of the corset: 'We doctors
will miss them terribly, for they could be so neatly blamed for
every sort of feminine woe, from gallstones to anaemia, from neurasthenia
corsetless freedom, while exciting health reformists, also troubled
moralists, who wished all women would strap themselves back in.
The lack of a corset, many believed, led to poor posture among
the newly "freed" young ladies. Without the corset,
Bliven described Flapper Jane's walk as duplicating, "the
swagger supposed by innocent America to go with the female half
of a Paris Apache dance." Flapper-style fashions were indeed
associated with a distinctive mien that was itself a common source
E.K. Bertine, who supervised the exercise program at a
women's health center in New York, complained that young
women had gotten the wrong idea about what it meant to
be beautiful. Their posture, a "lop-sided stance
characterized by sunken chests and round shoulders,"
suggested fatigue rather than beauty. Whether tired, provocative,
energized or indifferent, however, the fashionable flapper
was correctly perceived to present a serious challenge
to the tenacious influence of American Victorian traditions
of feminine behavior and display.10
to a report in the Atlanta Constitution, for
example, there was a public outcry when uncorseted young
women attended dance halls. Dancing was, understandably,
a far more sensual experience without the "armamentation"
of a corset. The Atlanta report also cited problems in
Detroit, where church leaders were now convinced of the
evils of modern jazz dancing, particularly the variety
associated with the removal of the corset. The executive
secretary of the Council of Churches in Detroit, Dr. M.
C. Pearson, explained: "Young men like to have the
girls remove their corsets... This makes dancing a thing
of passion. Corsetless dancing is nothing but passion."11
across America war was being waged against the new women's fashions.
Throughout the 1920s, a coalition of doctors, dress manufacturers,
society women, churchmen, newspapers, and social organizations
determined to consign contemporary fashions to the attic. It was
up to them, they felt, "to
swing the pendulum of styles and manners back toward an age
of purity, piety, and the elusive ankle." But something more
fundamental than aesthetic issues was hanging in the balance:
the essence of the modern American woman. Was she to be dainty
and demure or sleek and assertive? A paragon of modesty or of
modernity? America had not yet decided.
4. Angela J. Latham. Posing a Threat.
Hanover: Wesleyan University Press, 2000. 55.
5. Latham, 57.
qtd. in Joselit, 147.
7. qtd. in Joselit, 49.
8.qtd. in Joselit, 50.
9. Woods Hutchinson, "Health and Sports Suits,
" Saturday Evening Post 198 (8 August 1925): 20.