Although 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.

Many 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

In 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 known, created 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 happened before."

Shorter 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.

The 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
discouraged 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.

Given 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:

The 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

Another physician, Florence A. Sherman, focused primarily on the physical 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 Still other "scientists," however, found high heels to be a benefit, even better for your health.

The 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 can be."6

At 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 was looking."

Forced to choose between being stylish or being sensible, the American women eventually opted for fashion.

Where 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.

This "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, and cowardice.

Several 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.

By 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 to consumption."9

This 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, Bruce 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 of criticism.

Miss 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

According 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

All 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.

3. Joselit, 47.
4. Angela J. Latham. Posing a Threat. Hanover: Wesleyan University Press, 2000. 55.
5. Latham, 57.
6. 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.

10. Latham, 21.
11. Latham, 50.