Where Did All the Corsets Go? Dress Reform in the Late 19th Century - Lougheed House

Posted by | November 05, 2018 | Uncategorized | No Comments

by Adam Sarjeant, Lougheed House Admissions Assistant

You may have noticed from our photos of the Lougheed family that they were a pretty fashionable bunch. Lady Lougheed retained a seamstress by the name of Sarah Crelda Dunn twice a year, in spring and fall, just to make sure the family was up to snuff with the latest fashions.

You may also have noticed how much the Lougheed’s dress changed over their time in the house. Photos from the 1890s show the lady of the house in full Victorian dress – bodices, bustles, corsets and all – but photos from the 1910s and 20s show Isabella and her eminently fashionable daughter Dorothy in loose, casual dresses, blouses and skirts. What happened?

Today, we explore the small group of cutting-edge English reformers who masterminded this change, and the Dress Reform movement they created.


From Le Figaro in 1891, showing reform undergarments (a liberty corset, union suit, bloomers, tights, and petticoats).

Establishing an exact timeline for the Dress Reform movement is difficult. As you might expect, reactions against restrictive European clothing have existed for as long as the trends themselves – since at least the 15th century. The beginning of the 19th century, for example, saw a brief revolutionary period in which European aristocratic society seemed to reject the corseted waistline. Napoleon’s first empress, Joséphine de Beauharnais, was an adherent of the more freeing Neoclassical “Empire” style, which became the norm in fashionable circles for several decades, at which time it was politically dangerous to display one’s wealth too openly. By the 1820s, however, the vogue for elaborate cinches, petticoats, corsets and stays had returned in full force as the stigma against ostentatious displays of wealth evaporated.[1] With this revival, the trend swung even more towards the extreme, precipitating a new, even more anti-naturalistic ideal body: “tightlacing” was the tradition of tying the corset as tightly as possible, in order to produce superhuman waist sizes. The new look also had the added effect of producing respiratory dysfunction, organ displacement, and chronic injury.

An organized movement against the increasingly absurd state of 19th century dress reached its climax in the 1870s and 1880s. The medical profession, of course, played a significant role in providing a sound scientific basis for the movement. Though medical practice at the time was hardly as developed as it would become in the early 20th century (germ theory, for example, was still very much under debate), the deleterious effects of the more extreme fashion practices of the time were made readily obvious simply by casually observing of the changed bodies of chronically tightlaced women. However, Europe’s medical community was insular, and rarely communicated with the public. Popularizing the movement, and providing it with a voice in the culture at large, fell to a growing community of Women’s Interests advocates (often thought of as a precursor to the 20th century feminist movement).

Skeleton illustration from Ada Ballin’s 1885 book, The Science of Dress in Theory and Practice


In 1881, an alliance of women’s advocates in London formed the Rational Dress Society, the first organization designed purely to advocate for change in women’s (and to a lesser degree men’s) apparel. The leadership of the society contained its fair share of celebrities and public figures – including Constance Wilde, wife of Oscar Wilde – and was spearheaded by Mrs. E.M. King (honorary secretary) and Florence Wallace Pomeroy, the Viscountess Harberton (president). King was a controversial political figure; between 1870-75, she had organised public protests for the repeal of an English act regulating prostitution, established the Women’s International Peace Society, addressed several scientific societies about the growing need to share domestic work equally between genders, and had been accused by her detractors of contributing to the downfall of English family life and moral order. King was in fact so inflammatory that she was ejected from the Society in 1883, and went on to form the Rational Dress Association, a more radical and active competitor to the Society.[2]

The Association advocated for five specific principles of dress:

  1. Freedom of Movement
  2. Absence of any pressure over any part of the body
  3. Not more weight than is necessary for warmth, and both weight and warmth evenly distributed

4 Grace and beauty combined with comfort and convenience

  1. Not departing too conspicuously from the ordinary dress of the time[3]

One can gather from point #5 that despite their concern for women’s health, the movement was not focussed on altering fashion in an artistic or cultural sense. The Dress Reform movement mainly concerned itself with re-imagining women’s undergarments, and, by modern standards, only by degrees. Despite their concern for women overburdening and overheating their bodies, the Society settled on an acceptable total weight of seven

Rational Dress Society patterns from The Science of Dress in Theory and Practice

pounds for a woman’s outfit – weighty by modern standards, but not enough to include heavy lacing. Their recommended outfit for women still included no less than five separate undergarments for the waist and torso alone.[4] The Association’s greatest public achievement was a major 1883 exhibition, an enormous but scattershot display of clothing alternatives, mostly women’s undergarments, aiming to educate the public on healthy alternatives to their current mode of dress. The exhibition featured everything from corsetless underwear systems, to quilted bodices, to athletic wear.[5] Despite reaching a large audience, coverage in the entirely male-dominated and largely conservative newspapers was hostile.[6] Shortly after the exhibition, E.M. King departed England for North America with her (possibly romantic) companion Elizabeth “Nellie” Glen.[7]

Equally important to the spread of the Dress Reform movement were a number of popular books on the subject, the most successful of which was The Science of Dress in Theory and Practice by Ada S. Ballin. As a lecturer for the National Health Society, Ballin possessed the unique skills necessary to bridge the gulf between the medical community and the movement for women’s rights. In particular Ballin insisted that Dress Reform’s failure to gain traction with modern women was due to the fact that most of the material on the subject “…has been written by men for women.”[8] Far from condescending to her female readers, Ballin created a book which was highly

John Singer Sargent’s 1897 painting, “Mr. and Mrs. I.N. Phelps Stokes” in reform clothing.

literate in the medical discourse, including discussions of infant mortality rates, The Lancet’s assessment of reform undergarments, basics of internal anatomy and the effects of organ displacement, and numerous detailed illustrations demonstrating everything from arch support in footwear to the perspiratory and sebaceous glands of the skin.[9] Though in many ways the book followed the principles set out by the Society, it diverged in its defence of the sensible use of corsets, and even recommended the use of stays for women of a “corpuscular” build, operating under the mistaken belief that this could prevent weight gain.[10]

Though nowhere near as revolutionary in their attitudes as the avant-garde of the 20s would be, the Dress Reform movement formed an essential alliance between science and the equitable treatment of women. Dress Reformers proved that a woman did not have to flaunt decorum or fly in the face of tradition in order to achieve improved living conditions, democratizing and incorporating into the “mainstream” a way of thinking which had previously been considered too radical for polite society.

[1] Katell Bourhis. The Age of Napoleon: Costume from Revolution to Empire, 1789–1815. (NY: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1989).

[2] Ian Leader Elliott, “Mrs EM King – Campaigning for Women’s Rights Pt 1,” Women’s History Network, December 22, 2013, accessed September 21, 2018, https://womenshistorynetwork.org/mrs-em-king-campaining-for-womens-rights-pt-1/#more-3200.

[3] Christine Bayles Kortsch, Dress Culture in Late Victorian Women’s Fiction: Literacy, Textiles, and Activism (UK: Routledge, 2016).

[4] Patricia A. Cunningham, Reforming Women’s Fashion, 1850-1920: Politics, Health, and Art (US: Kent State UP, 2003), p. 93-4.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Elliot, ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Cunningham, 94.

[9] Ada S. Ballin, The Science of Dress in Theory and Practice, orig. published January 01, 1885, accessed September 21, 2018, https://archive.org/details/b2476422x.

[10] Cunningham, 96.

We have year round exhibits and free events.

Join our newsletter list to be the first to know!

Sign up for our e-newsetter.