Eleanor Roosevelt's lifetime coincided with major turning points in the social history of women in America. She was born into middle-class, Victorian society with all of its rigidity and staunch conformity. The society confined women physically, morally, and psychologically with restrictive dress and relegated them to lives of public and political inactivity. Yet by the early years of Eleanor's married life, women had begun to make great strides into the public sphere. It was along with many other women that Eleanor became an independent, "modern" woman in the 1920s, adopting the liberating fashions of the day to facilitate her ambitions.
The story of the American woman can be told through the images of what she wore and was she was expected to wear. From the 1890s through the 1930s, women's role changed drastically from that of a "parlor ornament" to an independent working-girl. The corresponding women's dress reflects this transformation and functions as a barometer of the time–revealing how women were regarded and how they regarded themselves in American society.
Fin De Siécle (end of the century)
"Dress tells us first the class to which the wearer belongs." -- The Woman's World, 1889
By 1895, the "Bloomer Girl" was causing quite a sensation on city streets. She was a carefree woman, wearing a short gathered trouser, riding freely on the newly invented drop frame bicycle. Those few women who wore this costume seemed to be "desexing" themselves. Gender roles were rooted in the "cult of womanhood," a philosophy which held that women are of a weaker, more vulnerable nature and should correspondingly remain with domestic-oriented activities. The most fashionable women’s magazine of the time, Godey’s Lady’s Book, warned respectable women to resist participation in public duties since argument, debate, and serious thought were "injurious to their natures."
The hourglass shape, the reigning fashion for society women like Eleanor Roosevelt's mother Anna Hall, emphasizes the bust and the hips while enormous hats, voluminous skirts, tight fitting shoes, and the corset greatly restrict their movement.
Yet the woman’s role in late 19th-century America was more than just wife and mother. A man of the bourgeois elite conspicuously exhibited his wealth and power by how many servants he kept and by the manner of dress which adorned his wife. She was also an ornamentation. Elaborate costumes perpetuated an air of opulence while the actual demands of women’s wardrobes supported a life of privileged idleness.
Sarah Bernhardt, the popular French actress at the turn of the century, shocked audiences with her highly sexual demeanor and independence.
Yet by the 1890s, institutions of higher learning were graduating educated women who went on to be political and social activists. Advancements, such as the bicycle and the typewriter, projected women into the public arena, while actresses like Sarah Bernhardt were asserting a new beauty ethic of the modern and independent woman. As America approached the turn of the century, these influences gradually began the decline of the patriarchal order and the ascent of assertive female sexuality and independence.
Belle Époque (the beautiful age)
"Today woman can make of herself what she will. She is making her mind as free as her body. Let her see to it that both are attractive." -- Fashion Catalogue, 1914
The "Gibson" look was widely popular for middle and working class women. That it stemmed from the "S-shape" fashions worn by the bawdy and sexually liberated women of the late nineteenth century attests to the women's overall increasing assertiveness in this period.
The turn of the 20th century brought with it significant changes in American culture and fashion. Working women, in sales and clerical positions, had more money to spend. They could take advantage of the new department stores that made "modish" garments and cosmetics readily available. Women could also travel alone in Model "T" Fords and venture unchaperoned into nickelodeon theaters. The result was a democratization of cultural amusements and a liberation from bourgeois domination over matters of taste and style. Although dress was still restrictive, it asserted a more overt female sexuality and was symbolic of women’s increasing independence.
The women of the early 20th century was no longer confined to the home. New amusements such as golf, movie going, and joyriding in motorcars allowed for less formal expectations in women's dress.
The new styles were largely inspired by forms of theater that in past years had been taboo. Whereas "women of the stage" had been considered "low" and "unchaste," they were now considered to be at the forefront of fashion. Burlesque women, whose blatant sexuality had openly ridiculed bourgeois order, inspired the fashionable Gibson Girl shape with its voluptuous projections of the bust and the hips. As more women became independent and publicly active, the corset became looser and the "new look" became waistless. Paul Poiret, the French designer inspired by the "harem" costumes of the Ballets Russes, ushered in this style in 1908 which rejected the corset and sported shockingly cropped hair. Latin dancing --associated in years past with classes on the fringe of "respectable" society -- became a popular pastime and demanded erotic, thin clothing. As the suffrage movement gathered in force and women’s sexuality became more acceptable (Vogue proclaimed in 1908, "The leg has suddenly become fashionable"), women’s dress loosened its strictures and followed suit.
Poiret rejected the corset in 1908, outfitting women in the sheath-like styles made popular my the touring dance troupe, the Ballets Russes. Yet, while he did away with the corset he chose to "bind" women's feet with tight fitting "hobble" skirts.
World War I Era
"Loose Hips Build Ships" -- wartime slogan
Given the nature of women's work during the war, rigid and formal women's fashions were impractical. Women wore utility clothing to work signifying their dedication to their duties and to their country.
The coming of war was fatal to the corset. By the time the U.S. entered the war in 1917 three years of wartime scarcity in Europe had already taken its toll on women’s fashion. Ostentatious displays of wealth seemed unpatriotic. "Voluntary dressing" was widely adopted by most women wherein they donated the steel stays of their corsets to be used for battleship construction, wore garments of cheap and informal fabrics, and avoided excesses of any kind. Dress was simplified to reflect the sobriety of the time.
Women willingly donated their corset materials to the war effort and so in doing, signaled the death toll of the garmet. In total, 28,000 tons of metalware were donated- enough to build two battleships.
Functional, practical clothing was the order of the day as middle-class women took up farming and factory labor. Overalls and trousers were no longer quite so shocking when worn in the workplace. Skirts were baggy, short, and thin to facilitate movement and to conserve material. The notion of casual, everyday clothing came about for the woman whose identity was no longer that of a "parlor ornament," but that of a vital contributor to the preservation of the country and its ideals.
The Jazz Age
"The American girl is independent, a thinker who will not follow slavishly the ordinances of those who in the past have decreed this or that for her to wear." -- Colleen Moore, 1923
Skyscrapers, fast-moving cars, and carefree amusements defined the post-war era. Tired of war and all that it demanded, a cult of gaiety and youth reigned in American society. Gone was the sobriety of wartime. American women looked to Zelda Fitzgerald as the definitive "flapper," Clara Bow and Louise Brooks of the silver screen as "modern," sexually free women. The amusements which had been slightly disreputable before the war — jazz, Freudian theories, makeup, and movies — were now mainstream. Women could vote, pursue careers, and openly assert their sexuality for the first time. They were entering the "Jazz Age" in which "la femme moderne" rejected the prevailing social restrictions over women, their activities, and their fashion. The now old-fashioned Godey’s Lady’s Book indignantly responded that this was evidence that the country needed the corset "physically, fashionably, and morally."
Despite continuing discrimination in the workplace, the agility of the shortened dresses, the comfort of the low-hanging waistlines, and then freedom of the cropped hair facilitated women's entrance into the work force.
Gabrielle Chanel was the first fashion designer to assert that women could be comfortable and still look stylish in the workplace. She created a revolution by introducing "working-class clothes" into elite society. The "working girl" was glamorized as a woman financially, socially, and sexually independent. Catering specifically to women’s call for simplicity in dress, Chanel cut easy-care fabrics (serge, jersey, and tweed) with straight lines to create a look of understated elegance. American designers copied Chanel’s easily-reproduced styles and sold them in department stores everywhere. High fashion had become fully democratized. Both wealthy and working class women appropriated Chanel’s "look" of informality sporting raglan coats and costume jewelry.
In many ways, Chanel was the leading example of the modern woman. She shortened her skirts, cit her hair, tanned, lived openly with a man to whom she was not married, and enjoyed financial independence.
Chanel's practical and affordable philosophy of dress appealed to Eleanor Roosevelt's sensible nature. Eleanor, like many women in the 1920s, was aspiring to live an active public and political life which was made easier by the functionality and independence of "modern" dress.
"Spring styles say 'CURVES'!" -- Vogue, April 1932
The trend toward more liberating fashions in the 1920s suffered a setback as America entered the Great Depression. Society could no longer support a carefree, gay attitude. The nation was suddenly thrown into a state of confusion, grief, and anxiety. Americans, confronted by the dejected state of the country, turned to Hollywood for comforting images of wealth and leisure. Romance and traditional femininity reigned as female stars donned glamorous, full-length gowns of luxurious fabrics. On the whole, women’s hemlines lowered through the 1930s signaling a general reversion from the freedom of short skirts.
Hollywood starlets like Jean Harlow popularized the glamorous "bias cut." The style clung to the female body, outline feminine curves, and then drapes voluminously and romantically to the floor.
No longer was the assertive, sexually aggressive woman acceptable. Instead, women were expected to re-feminize themselves, with curves and curls, in order to restore what some saw as man’s "shaken masculine pride." In Hollywood films of this era, femme fatales Joan Crawford and Bette Davis were inevitably overcome by strong, confident men. A majority of society felt that women’s place was in the home and not competing for jobs alongside men. By 1931 several states, cities, and school boards legislated against the employment of women. The fashion industry reinforced this conservatism when it attempted to re-introduce and re-popularize the corset, the bustle, and the hoop skirt.
Katherine Hepburn, the popular movie actress, maintained a sophisticated, independent, and yet feminine look by combining slacks and an assertive demeanor with feminine beauty.
Yet women continued to be active and the mid-calf length dresses of the 1930s were still far more liberating than restrictive Victorian garments. These women were active individually, not collectively. They pursued lives of "activism without feminism," dressing practically, but without making the bold claims to independence they had in the decade before. The era called for a femininity which would stabilize rather than threaten the already shaken country.
Eleanor Roosevelt is one of the most outstanding cases of women who remained publicly active in the 1930s. As first lady, she continued to dress modestly, but always with practicality in mind.
My American Experience
How has a First Lady inspired you or someone you know? Who was president when you were young, and what were your impressions of the First Lady? What First Lady has most influenced the world around you, and how? Share your stories with AMERICAN EXPERIENCE.