In 19th century Western hemisphere, clothing was one of the most evident ways of gender differentiation. The middle classes were rapidly expanding and people sought to display their wealth through things like elaborately ornamented and delicately embroidered dresses and beautiful and innovative styles of furniture. Women were essential parts of this display of wealth. Women from well to do families displayed and promoted their social status through use of luxury items and expensive garments. A man exhibited his wealth and position in society through the extravagance and beauty of his wife’s clothes (Torrens).
High society women did not do any work at all aside from efforts in enhancing their physical appearance and a supervision of their servants who maintained their homes (Jordan). Each sphere of a woman’s life had a different dress associated with it (Jordan). Fashion required women to maintain an extremely slender waist. This was not achieved through dieting or exercise but through extremely tight and restrictive corsets (Torrens). Corsets limited the use of vital muscles of the body, which eventually caused those muscles to atrophy. They also pushed up some internal organs and pushed down others, which eventually caused permanent changes in the internal structure of the body. Women frequently experienced spells of hysteria or fainting due to these restrictive fashions which further reinforced society’s view of women as foolish and delicate creatures (Bullough and Bullough). In addition the ornate manner of dress was very costly and reinforced societies view of women as a financial burden (Torrens).
The dress reform movement in 19th century America made use of multiple rhetorical positions to advocate for dress reform; Catherine Beecher gave lectures and wrote on the health problems caused by the tightness of the corsets (Nelson). The Adventist preacher Ellen G. White attacked the fashions of the time as frivolous and wasteful and strictly against Christian morality (White).
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