‘Clothes make the man and woman’… so goes the saying. And it must be true for what we wear on a given day can either lift our spirits or depress us. How often is the closet door opened and like looking into a refrigerator lamenting that there is nothing ‘good’ to eat, so mirrors a similar sentiment when you are about to embark upon a very special outing and what is suspended from the hangers appears as outdated as a 1980s haircut.
And what a dilemma it is to purchase clothes … for as soon as you buy something, it goes on sale the very next week. As for choosing what fits well …the sales clerk has that habit of remarking that you look simply divine, whereupon we often wonder if he or she is being sincere, politely kind, or giving you a positive nod of approval that is actually attached to the chance of a sales commission.
But who can complain for our stores are brimming, the shelves are overstocked, (except if you wear a very petite size you are out of luck for these items are seldom available). Our clothes are as divergent as the seasons; fabrics that were once worn in the winter… such as wool have been customized over the years, keeping us snug in the coldest of winds while preventing that interminable itch that once came along with the tight weave of your sweater against the back of your neck. And like the change of seasons so is the trend of fashions, making buyers acutely aware that what was once quite the chic attire must be set aside like yesterday’s news when the snow melts. Our only saving grace is that the older we grow the more wisdom we have acquired, for haven’t we seen those outdated fashions come back into vogue…it does take time but often patience pays off… the only regret is that one’s figure may have altered before the “yellowing” of fabric.
With our selections are invitations for us to make bold statements, demonstrating our own freedom of expression; an action that subliminally reinvents the present and asks others to make room for change. Some take little notice while others take offense; but whatever the response, fashion and the art of willful choices are not a new sensation.
Today I bring back our esteemed thinker: Elizabeth Cady Stanton, author of the great “Declaration of Sentiments”, a revolutionary call for women’s rights in the early 19th century and president of the National Woman Suffrage Association for 20 years. In spite of her grand efforts, women did not get the right to vote in the United States until 1920; yet her resolve and introduction for an amendment in 1878 and her fight for change on the national and state levels paved the way to ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution.
So, let us hear the words of our great lady for she will present to you a more troubling and politically charged look at a women’s wardrobe from The History of Woman Suffrage (1881)…
“… Quite an agitation occurred in 1852, on woman’s costume. In demanding a place in the world of work, the unfitness of her dress seemed to some, an insurmountable obstacle. How can you, it was said, ever compete with man for equal place and pay, with garments of such frail fabrics and so cumbrously fashioned, and how can you ever hope to enjoy the same health and vigor with man, so long as the waist is pressed into the smallest compass, pounds of clothing hung on the hips, the limbs cramped with skirts, and with high heels the whole woman thrown out of her true equilibrium. Wise men, physicians, and sensible women, made their appeals, year after year; physiologists lectured on the subject; the press commented, until it seemed as if there were a serious demand for some decided steps, in the direction of a rational costume for women.
The most casual observer could see how many pleasures young girls were continually sacrificing to their dress: In walking, running, rowing, skating, dancing, going up and down stairs, climbing trees and fences, the airy fabrics and flowing skirts were a continual impediment and vexation. We can not estimate how large a share of the ill-health and temper among women is the result of the crippling, cribbing influence of her costume. Fathers, husbands, and brothers, all joined in protest against the small waist, and stiff distended petticoats, which were always themes for unbounded ridicule.
But no sooner did a few brave conscientious women adopt the bifurcated costume, an imitation in part of the Turkish style, than the press at once turned its guns on “The Bloomer,” and the same fathers, husbands, and brothers, with streaming eyes and pathetic tones, conjured the women of their households to cling to the prevailing fashions. The object of those who donned the new attire, was primarily health and freedom; but as the daughter of Gerrit Smith introduced it just at the time of the early conventions, it was supposed to be an inherent element in the demand for political equality.
As some of those who advocated the right of suffrage wore the dress, and had been identified with all the unpopular reforms, in the reports of our conventions, the press rung the changes on “strong-minded,” “Bloomer,” “free love,” “easy divorce,” “amalgamation.” I wore the dress two years and found it a great blessing. What a sense of liberty I felt, in running up and down stairs with my hands free to carry whatsoever I would, to trip through the rain or snow with no skirts to hold or brush, ready at any moment to climb a hill-top to see the sun go down, or the moon rise, with no ruffles or trails to be limped by the dew, or soiled by the grass. What an emancipation from little petty vexatious trammels and annoyances every hour of the day. Yet such is the tyranny of custom, that to escape constant observation, criticism, ridicule, persecution, mobs, one after another gladly went back to the old slavery and sacrificed freedom to repose…”