The following articles about dresses were transcribed by yours truly for the Lenawee County Family Researchers newsletter and the Lenawee County Michigan GENWEB site. I was reminded of them when I read footnoteMaven's piece on Twice Told Tuesday July 6, 2010. The collection of articles presented here may or may not represent all that was written about ladies fashions in 1851 in the Michigan Expositor.
Little did I know when I found these news articles several years ago that what I was reading was important in the fashion world. I honestly believed this was some passing fad, quick to arrive and quick to fade. I found the articles humorous, with a lot of play on words, but did not really understand what I was reading. In fact, it was not till I started this post and started doing some research that I discovered this was more than a passing fad, in fact it lasted well past the Civil War. I found a fabulous web site, Nineteenth Century Dress Reform in Pictures by Britta Arendt. Britta names and has photos of 17 different ladies in short dresses and the names of 14 more for whom she does not have photos, including, Susan B. Anthony. When I found Britta's web page, I suddenly realized I was not dealing with humor but history. She even has a photo of herself in a "Rational Dress". You need to go visit! Then, come on back to Reflections.
The Michigan Expositor was published in Adrian, Lenawee County, Michigan.
The articles actually began with one about long dresses. Grab your favorite drink because you have a bit of reading here. Prepare to smile, enjoy the read.
Michigan Expositor, February 18, 1851:
We apostroplise with the NY Mirror--Ladies!! We are daily disgusted at seeing you sweep the filthy streets with your long dresses. What a nasty fashion! What masses of mud cling to your skirts, your stockings, and all the exceteras of your pedal extremities! What a wonton waste of fabric and of soap! How many dozen pairs of stockings it takes a week to keep you decent about the ankles! But we haven't the stomach to pursue the subject. Will Mrs. Swisshelm or Mrs. Dartington come to our aid and give these adominable draggle skirts a regular blowing up?
No she won't--Mrs. Swisshelm has all she can do in this wicked world to "clear her own skirts".
(It should be noted that Mrs. Swisshelm was apparently the ladies head of society in New York City at this time, when her daughter came out just a few weeks after this article appeared in the Michigan Expositor it was reported that Mrs. Swisshelm had held a "small" party/dance for her daughter with only 160 guests.)
French fashion plates from the mid 1800's,
graphic courtesy of The Vintage Moth.
A draggley dress? Looks draggley to me!
Not two months later, the paper has reports about short dresses, seems the ladies on the east coast were on the leading edge of fashion, much as they are now.
Michigan Expositor, April 8, 1851:
From Seneca Co. Courier:
Short dresses--We are glad to see that several of the most respectable ladies of our village possess sufficient independence to show their disregard of the imperious mandates of Fashion, and consult comfort and convenience in the matter of dress. It is now quite common to see the short dress and pantaletts in our streets, and it is admitted by nearly all that they are a decided improvement upon the dragging style. Indeed they are very generally admired, and we hope that occasional rude and insulting remarks from blacguards, and the annoying conduct of illmanuered boys, will not discourage the ladies in their attempt to introduce a wholesome and much needed reform.
No reference to East Coast here, fashion moving west?
Michigan Expositor, May 20, 1851:
The signs of the times plainly indicate that there is to be a revolution in the style of ladies' dresses--We suppose it must be in consequence of our having recommended (!) last winter the Turkish pants and short frocks that in several cities in the Eastern States the ladies are adopting this new style of dress, and we believe the change meets with universal favor.
Are there no ladies in our village who dare adopt the new style? It will be done here, in less than one year.
"The American Woman's dress"
Michigan Expositor, June 17, 1851:
The New Style of Ladie's Dresses
We see by the newspapers from different parts of the country, that the new dress is being adopted in numerous instances, by the more independent ladies. The innovation seems to meet a very general approbation, and the opinion of the press, is that the new style will be universally adopted, shortly.
The name now given them is "The American Woman's dress": as a declarations that our American ladies are no longer to be led by French fashions. It is true our women have held on to the skirts of the French ladies long enough, and it is quite time they should cut off the connection. This done, the home fashion will undoubtedly rise in the estimation of the American people. Our ladies have been long confined and tortured with this wholesale drapery of silk and cotton, and it is not strange at all to us that they are now pant-ing to be free from it.
A lady of our acquaintance says it will never go; because it makes a short woman look like a girl. Bless your heart, my dear C. this is the very reason it will be adopted - - what lady of twenty-give does not wish to renew her youth? Not go! when it is the very fountain Ponce de Leon sought for, which had the power of restoring youth to the aged? The lady of "a certain age" will renew her youth, and fight her lost "battles o'er again," and who can tell, if with greater age and experience, she may not win at last.
But we are really in favor of a reform - - something like the one commenced. We know it is none of the men's business; but we have thought for years, it was strange that fashion could so make slaves of our women, that they would suffer the monstrisities of her whims in the straight jacket and skirted limbs of the past styles. But reform is needed, not with the ladies alone - - look at the standing collars, and "wad" of silk around the necks of men - - the three pound hats, and harness over the shoulders, called "suspenders." It would be but little less ridiculous to see one suspended by them to the limb of a tree. But we won't say much on this point, till we get unharnessed ourself.
Success to the ladies reform - - and we hope when it is completed, they will give the men no peace "day nor night," until there is a corresponding reform with them also.
Turkish Dresses or the Pretty Pants.
Michigan Expositor, June 24, 1851:
The New Dress in Adrian
On Wednesday last two of our most respectable young ladies made their appearance in the streets in the "Turkish Dress". Their appearance created some excitement, and we are sorry that our boys had no better manners than to follow the ladies as they passed along.........
On last Saturday the "pretty pants" were fluttering in every direction; we noticed Miss W. looking prettier than ever in the new dress and gipsey hat. Just at the close of the day two ladies, Mrs. H. and Miss. G. passed our office, dressed in the full fancy costume of short embroidered skirts and turbans. The dress was decidedly becoming; and the more we see it, the more we admire it. It will take time and experience, of course, to give the new fashion perfection; but when once perfected and adopted by a lady, mind what we tell you, the utility will become so apparent, very few will be again enslaved by the long skirts, which begin already to look decidedly out of character. From the rapid manner in which the short dress is being adopted, we men will have to get new brooms and take to sweeping our walks ourselves.
The short dresses, if properly constructed are decidedly the prettiest dress that a woman can wear, and the fact that reform has commenced in earnest in Adrian, calls for an extra effort of our pen. So here goes:
Cut off those ugly skirts, girls, they're only in the way; and when you make a whirl, girls, and come the quick chasse; there'll be no mud a flying, girls, or stockings grimmed with dirt; ----then cease this useless crying, girls, and off at once the skirt.
With Turkish pants and frock, girls, you're masters of the State; to skip and hop and run, girls, with joy and easy elate;- - - then where's the naughty man, girls, can catch you in a race? - - -There's not one lives that can, girls, unless it is by "grace"- - - Then don the pretty pants, girls, and throw those skirts away; and as through life you prance, girls, you'll bless the changing day. Well you will.
Another month passes, next up, "bloomers", read this one with your dark sense of humor turned on high.
July 22, 1851, Mich. Expositor:
A Letter from Cousin Obediah
Mr. Editor:--As a lover of Humanity in general, but of the fair sex in particular, I have witnessed with the warmest sympathy the tribulation in which the Adrian portion of it has been involved by a certain vexed question.--Well--(I hardly know whether to speak out for fear they will call me a meddling fellow) the long and short of the matter is, that a certain portion of the fair ones, old and young, are longing to change their costume, and to put on something I believe they call a Bloomer, or Camilla, or some such name. You wouldn't believe perhaps, Mr. Editor, when you hear so many of them talking against it, and so many of them looking wise and sorrowful, and feeling very bad that any one could be "so foolish"--you wouldn't believe that nine out of ten of them are dying to try it all on themselves. But I guess it's so; for I heard Mrs. Tightstays say to Mrs. Longdress the other day at tea, that she didn't care if Mr. Willis had been talking some against it, and saying some should wear it and some shouldn't, according to character, shape, etc. and call it a knee plus ultra, and all that.-- She had her own mind about it; and if Mrs. Trailum would only put it on, she would. Mrs. Longdress said that that was just her opinion about it; but as she was moving in the first society she didn't care about adopting any such thing if every body was going to do it first.--She had told Mrs. Trailum so the other night at tea, and Mrs. Trailum said she wouldn't risk her position without knowing who was to follow, --but she thought it must be so pleasant a change, and wondered who sensible ladies, and Mrs. Leadlong in particular, could be so backward in adopting it. Mrs. Longdress thought fashion might be too arbitrary--she had heard so, tho' she didn't know from experience--and that the Bloomers or Camillas might look very well on one, and very badly on another, depending something on the richness of the material; that there should be some discretion used; and that those who couldn't afford anything but cheap materials shouldn't attempt to lead.
I felt sorry for the ladies, Mr. Editor, for I saw they couldn't drink their tea; and I'm told it's the same way all over town, they are so anxious about it. Now if something can't be done before long, who knows where the end will be. I know several who are determined to go to the bottom of the matter; but I rather think that isn't all that's wanted, and that a meeting should be got up. You know that a great deal of courage is manufactured at these "Woman's Rights'" meetings, as they are called. Well, they'd all speak out, as they are apt to do, and both sides would have a chance. Those that don't like the innovation could make speeches too. If they allow the new fangled thing to get to its full height without putting it down, the fault is not in their own understandings; but it may be in their want of add-dress or something else.
I meant to be as brief as the Bloomers, Mr. Editor; but I felt so sorry for the ladies that I don't know what to do about it; and now I'll sign myself
Yours and Theirs in extremity,
Four months pass, are the bloomers in trouble? Toss in some national pride with your fashion.
Nov 4, 1851, Mich. Expositor:
The Bloomer Dress Again
We notice that the opposers to this reform think it will not go because the "women of the town" occasionally appear in it. If that would induce the fashionable to repudiate a "fashion", we don't know what they will adopt; for every extreme of Parisian fashion is speedily adopted by these "ladies of the pave", and none but an "old bead" would distinguish one of them from one of our fashionable daughters of the leading circles. --No, the real opposition arises from the fact that it is a "reform"; and not a legtimate "fashion" from Paris. No one, with common intelligence will doubt that had this "Bloomer Dress" originated with the leaders of French fashions, it would have long ere this been universally adopted as most beautiful and appropriate, but because it originated in our own country, it is very ugly and improper! For shame, Americans!
Still with me?? Great, congratulations on your stamina. Hope you enjoyed reading about fashion in 1851, a bit of history, served with a dash of sarcasm.
Copyright 2010, CABS for Reflections From the Fence