Saturday, August 1, 2009

Women's Fashions: 1800. Part 2

The first responses to the new style, like Abigail Adams', were of moral outrage, denouncing it as the "reigning unchaste costume, the impure style of dress, and that indelicate, statue-like exhibition of the female figure..." (The Port Folio, December 12, 1801). But most journalists were young men who liked the new look. Their comments often expressed a mock concern for the young women's health in such light clothing: "From the number of young nudes whom we daily see, we might suppose that parents had revived the barbarous custom of exposing their children." (The Port Folio, June 19, 1802).

One young man grasped why women were so enthusiastic about the style. Nineteen-year-old Washington Irving, in his first published piece (in New York's Morning Chronicle, Nov. 15, 1802) described the clothing of the Revolutionary War period: a woman wore a corset laced as tightly as possible to nip in her waist, a hoop (which was positioned around the hips), as many as five petticoats and finally a gown; her outfit was completed-- at the top -- by a precariously high hair style built on a cushion of false hair and -- at her feet -- by high heeled shoes which caused her to teeter and lean dependently on the arm of her escort.

In contrast, he depicted the contemporary belle, who "emulating in her dress and actions all the airy lightness of a sylph...trips along with greatest vivacity [aided, no doubt, by her newly fashionable flat shoes]. Her laughing eye, her countenance enlivened with affability and good humor, inspire with kindred animation every beholder." His words capture the sense of liberation which women must have felt, getting out from under the complicated styles of the 18th century.

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