The Victorian Dress Reform Movement

As previously referred to in one of my previous blog posts, Victorian fashion was imperative in defining and identifying the differing class brackets and in making a good impression to society. Due to the strict morals and standards imposed in the Victorian era, women, in particular, were required to dress in tight-fitting corsets and many restricting layers of petticoats and fabric, which became not only an inconvenience, meaning many women were unable to move properly, but also caused the health problems and even deaths of many women. Therefore, the dress reform movement was developed in the latter portion of the nineteenth century, which advocated the development and wearing of clothing that was more practical, comfortable and safe.

Dress reformists mainly consisted of middle-class women or upper-class women, contributing to the development of first-wave feminism, epitomised by the middle-class action of the Suffragettes towards the end of the nineteenth century and early twentieth century. The movement began in the ‘Progressive Era’ which was a period of widespread social and political activism occurring during the Victorian era. The greatest success of the dress reform movement was believed to be the reform of women’s undergarments, which became looser and more comfortable. The movement, however, remained focused primarily on women’s clothing, which meant that men’s clothing was advocated for considerably less; irrespective of this, the movement still initiated the widespread adoption of long johns. The movement established dress reform parlours where women could buy new garments or accessories for the clothing, which contributed to the mass recognition and growth of the movement.

Some key developments in the movement involved fashion garments such as the Bloomer suit. This was developed in 1851 by Elizabeth Smith Miller, a keen temperance activist. The suit involved loose fabric around the ankles, with a short dress, shirt or vest worn on top. Many women and key suffragist activists emerged wearing the garment, and women were dubbed ‘Bloomers’. However, the development was short-lived due to the ridicule from both the press and the public, meaning that eventually the suit disappeared until the 1890’s-1900, where it returned as a women’s athletic costume.

Although the dress reform movement failed to enact widespread change during its time, its influence developed looser clothing for women in the early twentieth century, meaning that as feminist views became more prevalent, women were finally able to develop better and safer clothing.

From, The Victorian Blogger


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