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Hemline Caught in a Horse’s Mouth
Although many have tried, and more than many have failed, it is almost impossible to wear a long ball gown, curtsey, and smile, while sitting side-saddle comfortably on a horse. It would have been even worse if your bell-bottoms got caught in your shiny, new bicycle, essentially leaving you stuck to it until a kind soul came along to help you. These fashion nightmares really seem like just that. A nightmare. However, it took quite a few decades until the clothing trends of the past evolved to today’s normal. Leisure activities forced fashion to adapt to a new normal. From shorter hemlines to society deeming it okay for women to wear bell-bottoms, it was a long and winding road for changes in the fashion industry.
Of course, it is doubtful that you would see someone wearing a disco suit in the late 1800s, as that was not the typical style of the decade. Most of the styles from the 1800s ranged in a variety of dresses designed for women. The length of the skirt, the depth of the neckline, and even the width of the cage crinoline (or the hoop often used to make dresses look fuller) were all determined by the time (“The Roaring Twenties History”). The Romanticism period (1820 - 1830) abounded with surface ornamentation, color, and print. This peasant look and loose shirt made it easier for women to run through fields of wildflowers and achieved the resemblance of a Disney princess character. On the other hand, heavy, bold gowns were fashionable during the Gothic era, just 20 years later. Fashion lines flopped into tasseled ringlets, while sleeves were contoured to the shoulders. “Generally necklines were worn high during the day and wide in the evening. Colors shifted to darker tones and solid color fabrics were more in tune with the new solemnity” (Franklin).
A combination of pantaloons, waistcoats, and shirts was the choice for males. A top hat or white, powdered hair was also very common for patrons of high practices, such as law or medicine. “A frilly, white cravat, which seemed to resemble a handkerchief, was also worn as a former version of the modern-day office tie” (Jennings). Lace, linen, and leather were generally found throughout their accouterments and fur coats were considered a luxury, keeping its wearer warm. Hence, it is quite evident that a polished, dreamy look could be found among both women and men in the early days of vogue.
Most clothing and fashion trends were normally a representation of what the general public spent most of their time doing. It, undeniably, was also one of the most profitable ways for designers and new clothing stores to reach out to more diverse audiences and drive up their sales. In fact, Macy’s Department store first opened by selling retail dry goods on October 28, 1858, in New York, NY. This included daily outfits worn by both men and women dating back to the fashion of the 1850s. Aside from the construction and expansion of shopping malls and outlets, families spent their time going to the circus and were astonished by the up-and-coming art of photography. As workers slowly started to get more free days off from their jobs, they were able to go to golf clubs, horse races, hunting clubs, polo matches, and sports games. Basketball became a prevalent winter sport, contributed by the United States. (Parks). Movie theaters started becoming more common and jazz clubs started popping up around town, requiring the fabrication of raiments other than soccer uniforms.
The creation and popularity of some lively new hobbies were mirrored by a new fashion line that emerged. The elegant look of afternoon ball gowns had morphed into lightweight hats and cute, satin skirts. These tiny outfit modifications allowed everyone to enjoy them- not to mention the riches that came out of a marketable attire for the designers. Bicycling was a newfound, popular leisure activity for both men and women. It allowed for faster travel, kept the user in shape, and was for people of all ages. A new activity meant a whole new market for riders. “Women's fashion followed suit, raising hemlines to the ankle and adding lead weights to skirts by 1895 so women could engage in physical activity without fear of their skirts jumping past the point of immodesty” (Parks 173). In fact, it was not until the late 1880s that women started to wear trousers. Many did it as a political stunt, while others simply wore them to enjoy leisure activities. However, neither their motives nor their slacks protected them from the prying gazes of those that did not appreciate their style. Luckily, it seemed as though the river gates for recreational activities had finally opened and there was something for everyone. Draped in a fancy ball gown and a sparkling necklace, the cultural elite continued to “celebrate ‘highbrow’ arts such as the opera, the symphony, Broadway theater, and the pastime of collecting Asian and European antiquities” (Carnegie 5). Most of these events were attended by people of the higher social class. A shift in men’s formal wear was “the quintessence of uniform elegance” (Jennings). Most men in both the 1800 and 1900s owned at least one pair of formal clothing. If it was not possible, then they would either rent or borrow them for special occasions. Regardless, being able to access one was a must. Frivolous afternoon activities at home or late-night operas could have been the reason for dressing up - although it was not considered dressing up. A black or white tie, white shirt, and a sleek, fitted jacket would have been appropriate to wear just at a family dinner on a typical Tuesday. Now, there are fewer occasions for men to dress this formally in public (though this varies with what your job may be), but it proves why old songs and early movies seem to denote the chimeric fantasy of glowing love. It is very easy to get caught up with all the emotions a mere garb can emit.
As the curtain to the Victorian era gradually closed, skirts were elongated and dresses became more daring. They were now commonly worn sleeveless or on one shoulder. Fashion designer of the decade Paul Poiret of Parise insisted on reducing the number of undergarments, loosening corsets, and designing dresses to be made of materials that allowed women to move more freely. In the 1900s, “the First World War provoked yet another fashion – skirts that rose to well above the ankle” (Franklin). This later went on to influence the unfitted, simple frock of the flapper. The uniform of flappers was established with hemlines as short as the knee. Quality, previously apparent by means of complicated fit and construction, was now expressing itself through fabric and by manipulating a single layer of material (Franklin). Flappers stood for everything that society deemed was wrong. The Flappers were essentially a political group of young, energetic women who wanted to pressure society into adopting kinder views for women’s rights. They were making a political statement by wearing these dresses, smoking, wearing too much makeup, and living for the moment. Their decisions were a manifestation of their yearning for freedom. Their outfits were an inspiration for their lifestyle. Their fashion sense facilitated the growth of women’s economic, political, and social freedoms. It also reflected the orthodox, cultural opposition (prevalent at the time) that prevented their individual equality.
The very essence of fashion depends on the public and, quite frankly, the art of living. A sense of fashion not only defines a person, but also greatly enhances their abilities, values, and presence. Outfits are meant to cater to one's activities and plans for the day. If that is not the case, then it is very possible to find something that suits generic undertakings. Without the public being exposed to the new, burgeoning past times, women might not have been given the chance to wear slacks instead of tights. In the absence of the constant shaping and evolution of vogue, the elegant and charming look of a men’s bow tie may have just turned into a mundane expectation for every business affair. Traditional flannel shirts would not have been seen as appropriate casual attire until almost 80 years after the scandalous fabrics of flapper outfits were regularly draped on mannequins in a shopping mall.
Franklin, Harper. “Fashion Timeline.” Vintage Fashion Guild, 13 Feb. 2011, vintagefashionguild.org/fashion-timeline/. Accessed 17 Mar. 2020.
History.com Editors. “The Roaring Twenties History.” HISTORY, 28 Feb. 2020, www.history.com/topics/roaring-twenties/roaring-twenties-history.
Jennings, Danielle. “Men's 1800's Wear.” LoveToKnow, LoveToKnow Corp, mens-fashion.lovetoknow.com/Mens_1800's_Wear. Accessed 17 Mar. 2020.
Parks, Rebecca."Overview." American Eras: Primary Sources, vol. 1: Development of the Industrial United States, 1878-1899, Gale, 2013, pp. 173-174. Gale In Context: U.S. History, link.gale.com/apps/doc/CX2737200065/UHIC?u=edi7267&sid=UHIC&xid=6040d15f. Accessed 17 Mar. 2020.
"The 1900s Arts and Entertainment: Overview." UXL American Decades, edited by Julie L. Carnagie, et al., vol. 1: 1900-1909, UXL, 2003, pp. 4-5. Gale In Context: U.S. History, link.gale.com/apps/doc/CX3436900011/UHIC?u=edi7267&sid=UHIC&xid=c3e45f6c. Accessed 17 Mar. 2020.