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Bras and the Clothing Reform Movement

Last week, we took a look at the history of bras from ancient times up through the Victorian era. During the Renaissance and the Victorian era, the precursors to the modern bras had come to resemble modern-day torture devices. During the late Renaissance and the 1800s, the ideal of beauty came to be a very thin waist, generous hips and an ample bosom, and corsets and other shaping devices were designed to highlight these features. But the emphasis on tiny waists got so crazy that shapewear began to cause medical problems for women, and the Clothing Reform Movement was born.

Medical Problems from Bad Shapewear
The emphasis on the ideal of beauty based on a tiny waist with ample endowments led to shapers designed to cinch the waist very tightly, lift and display the bust and flare out into a flattering wide hip. As more and more women began to accept this ideal and work to shape their bodies to fit it, shapers became tighter and tighter, leading to the development of medical problems for many women.

Fainting was extremely common during this era, as women were unable to breathe properly due to their corsets being laced far too tightly to embody this feminine ideal. In more extreme cases, women suffered misshapen or deformed rib cages, and ribs were known to puncture ribs or livers, leading to death. Many women suffered eating disorders, nausea, gynecological problems and other medical issues as a result of tightlacing and restrictive corsets.

Medical Concern Prompts Clothing Reform
Many women during the Victorian era wore dangerously tight shapewear in spite of the risk. Reputable physicians spoke out against tightlacing and restrictive corsetry, including prominent physician Alice Bunker who spoke out against the pregnancy corset, and Dr. Mary Edwards Walker, the only woman to ever receive the Medal of Honor. Physicians speaking out against medical concern were often disregarded as their advice was “unfashionable,” and it took years of medical concern combined with feminist influence to begin to shape clothing reform.

Gaches-Sarraute in an unpopular, unfashionable reform corset

Feminist Influence in Dress Reform
While medical concerns highlighted the physical danger of tight corsets, it took prominent feminist figures to reveal the social dangers of tight corsetry and really begin to pave the way for dress reform. Prominent feminist figures, such as Amelia Bloomer, Elizabeth Smith Miller and suffragette Elizabeth Cady Stanton were slowly able to turn the tide of popular opinion and begin to sway women away from wearing these dangerously tight corsets.

These prominent feminists were responsible for forming societies focused on clothing reform, including the Rational Dress Society, the National Dress Reform Association, and the Reform Dress Association. Amelia Bloomer spread the word about the reform movement through her temperance magazine, The Lily, and prominent activists and suffragettes worked hard for over 50 years to combat the influence of fashion and convince women to wear more sensible garments. The feminists achieved what medical science alone could not; by the late 1800s and early 1900s, women’s fashions were beginning to change to permit more active lifestyles, and pose less of a risk to women’s health.

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