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How Britain’s “Punch” magazine in the 1850s saw the new trend in women’s fashion

P hoto


/ A lamy

C hronicle in her own drawing room, and campaigning vigorously for the legal and economic rights of women, Lady Harberton held an open debate on dress reform. It was priced so reasonably that working women could afford to attend. From that first meeting emerged the Rational Dress Society.

The secretary was another stalwart feminist, Mrs E. M. King, who wrote passionate denunciations of old-fashioned clothing which harmed women’s health. One of her great triumphs was the staging of an exhibition of rational clothing, featuring designs from Europe, America and many local manufacturers. But, as is the fate of so many organisations beset by the narcissism of small differences, King and Harberton fell out over a disagreement about skirts. Harberton favoured wider divided skirts like a “Syrian” design she praised; King deplored even the term “skirt” and advocated shorter, narrower trouser-like garments. So King resigned and set up the rival Rational Dress Association. Whatever the differences, new designs, patterns and catalogues proliferated.

But the most decisive transformation came with the First World War, when women began to take on the traditional jobs of men – and their working costumes. In 1916,

writes Chapman, “the Secretary of State for War, Lloyd George, and the Home Secretary Herbert Samuel, stood at a window in Whitehall and watched as a seemingly endless procession of women war workers organised by the WSPU (Women’s Social and Political Union) marched past.” It must have been quite a shock to see the army of women in their overalls and trousers, some in khaki uniforms, some in farm labourers’ garb. Nothing could have better symbolised the connection between the demand for rational clothing and the demand for the vote.

After the war, when suffrage was granted to some women, there was no turning back. The age of flappers and bright young things put an end to the unhealthy and restrictive fashions of the Victorian age. By the end of the Second World War, when women had again taken on even more active roles in peacetime jobs and in the armed forces, wearing trousers had become a fact of life. But not for everyone. Right through the rest of the century and beyond, restrictions persisted in some areas on what women were allowed to wear. It wasn’t until 1968 that the Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University ruled that women students could wear slacks or jeans. A decade later, the National Union of

New Humanist | Spring 2019


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