liberty, in more ways than one
General dress reform movement was sup- ported by a conglom- eration of many different ideological groups, including
health advocates and feminists. In the early nineteenth century, concern arose about the distortion of internal organs and the circulatory problems caused by the tight lacing of corsets. Also of concern was the general inability of women and girls to get decent exercise because of petticoats, long trains, and the heavy structural paraphernalia worn under clothing. The excessive weight of the fabric carried by fashionably dressed women was a problem as well. In response to these concerns, the Rational Dress Society was founded in 1881. Its vision was encapsulated in an article in the Society’s Gazette:
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. It protests against the wearing of tightly-fitting corsets; of high-heeled shoes; of heavily-weighted skirts, as rendering healthy exercise almost impossible; and of all tie down cloaks or other garments impeding on the movements of the arms. It protests against crinolines or crinolettes of any kind as ugly and deforming….
[It] requires all to be dressed healthily, comfortably, and beautifully, to seek what conduces to health, comfort and beauty in our dress as a duty to ourselves and each other.
Ultimately, women’s issues of comfort, health, and freedom of movement were more forceful and lasting influences on dress reform than were aesthetic issues, although dress reform, as a wider cultural phenomenon, did reject Victorian frippery, harsh aniline dye colors and stiff fabrics. Artistic dress in particular adopted soft, flowing fabrics in muted colors, called “Art Colors” by Liberty of London, called “strange, old-fashioned, and indescribable” by critics. Unlike styles derived from French fashions, artistic dress had very little embellishment, limited mostly to smocking and simple, free-style embroidery. Liberty of London provided beautiful silks and woolens for artistic clothing, and eventually carried artistic gowns in their in-store boutique, The Liberty & Co. Artistic and Historic Costume Studio, opened in 1884. Several years later Liberty & Co. challenged the supremacy of French fashion by presenting aesthetic gowns at the 1889 Paris Exposition Universalle. 1