Rational dress

The Rational Dress Society, founded in 1881, fought the strictures of the Victorian corset, crinoline, and high heels.

Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Florence Wallace Pomeroy, Viscountess Harberton, was a Victorian troublemaker. In 1881 she was a member (and may have co-founded) the Rational Dress Society; in 1893 she was the leader of the Short Skirt League; in 1898 she was the treasurer of the Rational Dress League. All of these organisations had one target: the ridiculously restrictive clothing of the era.

The Victorian corset was a popular, widespread, and controversial item of clothing. It was designed to reduce the size of women’s waists with whalebone, steel springs, and tight lacing. Throughout the 19th century, debate focused on the health effects of such strictures. Some women downplayed its problems. Many others, like Louisa May Alcott (noted author of The Mummy’s Curse), did not:

“Growing stout! Yes, thank Heaven, she is, and shall continue to do it, for Nature knows how to mold a woman better than any corset-maker, and I won’t have her interfered with. My dear Clara, have you lost your senses that you can for a moment dream of putting a growing girl into an instrument of torture like this?” and with a sudden gesture he plucked forth the offending corsets from under the sofa cushion, and held them out with the expression one would wear on beholding the thumbscrews or the rack of ancient times.

Eight Cousins

It wasn’t just the corset, though. High heels punished feet, and women wore literal steel cages for skirts. Crinolines, and later crinolettes, were highly flammable and responsible for thousands of deaths in the name of fashion.

Crinoline fire
Wellcome images, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Viscountess Harburton and her Rational Dress Society fought them all. Its manifesto was clear:

The Rational Dress Society protests against the introduction of any fashion in dress that either deforms the figure, impedes the movements of the body, or in any way tends to injure the health.

Rational Dress Society

The society presented at health exhibitions and published gazettes, offering less restrictive alternatives to the corset and crinolines. This work intersected with two other bulwarks of women’s rights in the 19th century: universal suffrage, and cycling. Harburton promoted both. When she was refused service at a hotel in Surrey while out cycling, she sued. Harburton lost the court case, but won much attention for the rights of women to wear divided skirts.

Harburton’s position on clothing was best expressed in June 1898:

No one is free who is unable at least to have the unrestricted use of her own limbs, and woman’s present appearance is the perpetual expression of this fact, and of her abject acquiescence in a humiliating position.

Pomeroy [née Legge], Florence Wallace, Viscountess Harberton

Oscar Wilde’s wife Contance was also a member. Wilde himself wrote an essay on the subject, pithily stating that

Indeed what is a fashion really? A fashion is merely a form of ugliness so absolutely unbearable that we have to alter it every six months!

The Philosophy of Dress

In the early 20th century fashion indeed shifted away from the corset (and towards other strictures such as the hobble skirt); as Harburton and others wanted, dress gradually became more “rational.”

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