For the last two weeks most of us Americans have been deluged not only with images of food—turkeys, pies, sweet potatoes—but also with images of clothes. As Black Friday, which has stretched out into more than a week, merges into Cyber Monday, our local newspapers swell with advertising sections and our email becomes clogged with ads from national brands. Not only are we supposed to eat far more than our bodies want, but also to deck ourselves out in clothes that make our lives more difficult instead of more enjoyable.
Perhaps we should make a national hero of Amelia Bloomer, the 19th century feminist who tried valiantly to make clothes serve women instead of making women slaves to clothes. Although clothing reform was not her major interest—she also campaigned for women’s right to vote and to petition the government, as well as for temperance—she recognized that the heavy, uncomfortable dresses women wore restricted their activities and the work they could do. When she saw a costume made up of loose trousers covered be a knee-length skirt, she adopted the idea and advocated it in her newspaper The Lily. It soon became known as the Bloomer costume. Women discovered that it freed them from the necessity of restricting their activities. With their new freedom they could walk along the filthy streets of big cities or the mud and dust of country roads without carrying along bugs and trash clinging to their skirts. They could even ride the new-fangled bicycles and moved faster and more easily than they ever had before.
Many women wore the style and enjoyed their new freedom. Getting rid of tightly-laced corsets and long, dragging skirts was a blessing, but men just didn’t understand. We have to suspect that men liked having women restricted in their movements and controlled in their activities. Newspapers continued to make fun of women in pants and some suggested that once a woman was allowed to wear pants she would soon rule her husband. It took many years and the Great War to bring real dress reform to European and American women.
But have we really come so far? Surely when we see women striding confidently into public meetings and offices wearing pants suits and walking as comfortably as men do, the progress is obvious. But when you look at the ads for skin tight dresses that make every movement uncomfortable, and high-heeled shoes that have crippling effects on a woman’s ability to do anything active, we can only wonder.
The fashion industry appears intent on sending women back to the bad old days when they had to rely on men to transport them wherever they wanted to go. Some of the shoes on sale remind me of the shoes that Chinese women with bound feet used to wear. Does anyone want to go back to the lotus shoes that disfigured Chinese women’s feet for so many years? Chinese women have moved beyond that, why do fashion tyrants want to drag us back into that world?