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Women's fashion changed as freedom came

A woman would have won this small bustle on her backside in the 1900s.1 / 3
A woman wore a corset daily to make her waist as small as possible.2 / 3
These small hoops, which would have been hung by a woman's feet, would be attached by ties around the waist.3 / 3

Women's fashion is an ever-molding industry that evolves with social and political changes.

When Red Wing was founded in 1857, fashion consisted of full hoop skirts and tight corsets, giving women an hourglass figure.

Less than 30 years later, the hoop skirts had disappeared, and the bustle that women strapped around their waists to sit on their backsides became popular. This gave women an "S" curve, which started at their breasts and curved over the bustle, said Goodhue County History Center collections and exhibits manager Johanna Grothe.

Even though these dresses that fill children's storybooks look elegant, the reality of wearing them was less than spectacular.

Where a woman dressing today typically dons three articles of clothing before going out -- bra, underwear and then a dress that covers her body -- women in the 1800s wore a minimum of eight.

First would be the bloomers, similar to today's underwear but reaching to the knee or mid-calf. Then came the stockings that would go up to mid-thigh and the garters that held them up.

Next was the chemise, something similar to a slip. The corset would go over that and be cinched tightly, followed by a corset cover to protect the dress from the rusting of the steel in the corset.

Then add the petticoats, which were half-slips starting at the waist and normally had ruffles at the bottom to fill the dress out.

"Then you're about ready for your dress," said Char Henn, director of the Goodhue County Historical Society.

After a woman was fully dressed, her waist would normally be about a third of the size it actually was -- despite the layers of material she now wore.

"For most young women of breeding, your goal in the 19th century was to be married by the age of 21 with a waist measurement smaller than your age," Henn said.

The strictness of dress extended past the layers of clothing women were required to wear; it also applied to the length.

In the late 1800s, Red Wing woman Julia B. Nelson took her dress up two inches because she was getting tired of cleaning mud from her hems. She saw it as an easy alternative to washing her cloths daily.

"That got written about in the newspaper; that was a big deal," Henn said.

Just the fact that the hem of Nelson's dress was not touching the ground was considered unladylike.

During that time period, women were taught through books like "The Cult of True Womanhood" that said "women were more pure, pious, domestic and submissive than men," Henn said. This was why they stayed in the home and did not go out in public casually like men did.

To preserve purity, measures were taken to avoid any hint of sexuality in the home environment as well as in dress. Some very conservative households did not show the legs of a piano.

"It was thought men might go into a frenzy of lust if they saw the legs of a piano," Henn said. Women were always completely covered. Even after marriage, some women still never fully undressed in front of their husbands.


The transition in fashion from the 1800s to present came about with the help of social factors and politics.

In the 1880s, women started to participate in sporting events like tennis and biking; corsets made moving freely to play these sports difficult. Another factor that affected women's dress was the growing homesteading movement; moving West required women to work alongside their husbands.

The suffrage movement also helped fuel fashion changes.

"You can't go out and advocate and be marching on Washington at the White House if your corset is going to cause you to pass out," Henn said.

Then, World War I proved the death of the corset.

"Women donated enough of their steel-boned corsets to make two battleships," Henn said. That was 2,800 tons of steel.

During the war, women were expected to continue on without their men and sons, so clothing had to change to fit that task. This also gave them a chance to see what life was like outside of the home.

"Once you got out in public and you're going to school and out with friends, you're not necessarily under your parents' roofs all the time. You got your own ideas," Henn said.

By the 1920s, women had moved into the public light: going out on dates, smoking, dancing and drinking. Now women were binding their breasts to create a boyish look instead of the curvy bodies their mothers strived to have.

"You didn't want a feminine figure anymore," Grothe said.

This sudden change was just the first of many to come to the American fashion world. Miniskirts, shorts tank tops would arrive in the late 1960s.

One of these similarities today from the 1800s, however, is this ideal of a small figure.

"(Corsets are) the beginning of the anorexic body as the ideal of feminine beauty. Before corsets, a rounded stomach was seen as the epitome of beauty," Henn said.

Steel-boned corsets may be in the past, but a new trend is to wear a one piece garment that does just about everything that corsets used to do, although not quite to that degree, said Jan O'Meara, who owns the Levee clothing store in the St. James Hotel.

A well-known brand that sells this shape-wear is Spanx. Women wear the garments under any clothing item where they want to make sure the "bulges don't go to the wrong spots," O'Meara said.

Another thing that hasn't changed is how clothing is chosen. In the 1800s, people planned ahead with purchases, much like today. O'Meara said now women are looking for more staple items that they can use in multiple ways. For instance, instead of buying new outfits every season, women buy a dark-colored classic item and then pair it with different colors in different seasons, O'Meara said.

One big change since the 1800s is the idea of comfort. Corsets that made women pass out, spring bustles and long sleeves year-round were not designed for comfort.

"People think it looks interesting, but I don't think people would want to do it," Henn said of the century-old styles.

Conversely, comfort is a main priority in many of today's fashions. One popular look right now includes stretchy, breathable leggings to pair with an over-sized, loose sweatshirt or tunic.

Whimsy's Closet owner Sue Olson said women want clothing that makes them feel good and look good, from start to finish.

"I tend to look for things you don't have to spend a lot of time taking care of, that you can put it on and start the morning feeling comfortable and end the day feeling comfortable," Olson said. "You shouldn't have to work that hard at being comfortable."

Another thing that has gone to the wayside is the Victorian era's modesty that governed women's clothing. Piano legs and women's legs are no longer considered too scandalous to show. And stores dedicated to women's undergarments -- which would have been taboo 150 years ago -- are now run-of-the-mill.

"You look at Victoria's Secret and the underwear they have, Queen Victoria would never have recognized it, and she certainly would not have approved," Henn said laughing.