Fashioning the New Woman: 1890-1925

October 5, 2012 - August 31, 2013

During the years historians call the Progressive Era, American women took on many new roles and activities, and fashion had to follow. Active lives required practical clothes. This exhibit examines the changes in women’s lives and clothing during this critical period in women’s history.

Women in the World:
Suffrage and WWI

Many women of the Progressive Era became involved in social reform in numerous areas, including temperance, suffrage, labor reform, civic improvement, civil rights, and other areas. Women justified leaving the domestic sphere where Victorian society said they belonged, by arguing that they could not raise healthy children or run safe households without the reforms they sought.

Many facts of modern American life such as clean water, safe food, the 8-hour workday, and public libraries and playgrounds, were achieved in large part through the efforts of these women.

When the United States entered the "Great War," or World War I, women were eager to answer the call to help in every capacity open to them. Some served in the military, others took over jobs left by men sent overseas, and hundreds of thousands volunteered their help with various organizations, one of the largest and most widespread being the American Red Cross. Some volunteer units permitted use of breeches, bloomers, or overall trousers—perhaps it took war work's urgency to trump old taboos.


Of all the social reform issues "New Women" were involved in, perhaps the one most nearly touching their own rights was suffrage, or the vote. Members of the National Woman's Party held daily vigils in front of the White House in 1917-18, wearing sashes with the symbolic colors of the suffrage movement, and silently holding banners addressing President Wilson directly—considered a shocking departure from polite political behavior, especially for women. Suffragists endured police beatings, arrest, and force-feeding in prison.

Suffrage Sashes, 1910s - Courtesy of the historic National Woman's Party, the Sewall-Belmont House & Museum, Washington, D.C.

Reproduction Suffrage Banner - This banner is a reproduction of one of the banners carried in the White House vigils. See photos of the White House demonstrations here And search for suffrage banners used in demonstrations and parades here

Right: Suit, 1918-19. Wool and wool knit. Label: The French Shop, Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. Hat, late 1910s.

Left: Wool Suit, 1918-19. Wool, silk braid trim. Label: Bowman & Co., Harrisburg (Pennsylvania). Hat, late 1910s, Friends of the Museum Purchase 2004.17 Reproduction dickey

Suits and right Hat courtesy of Shippensburg University Fashion Archives and Museum. Right Shirt courtesy of Linnard R. Hobler and Jean Maritz Hobler.
Cotton Shirtwaist, about 1900

The shirtwaist, based on men's shirts, appeared in women's fashion in the 1890s. The perfect complement to the new tailored suit and separates, it was available at every price, and soon was made with feminine touches like lace and embroidery. The shirtwaist was worn by college girls, office and factory workers, and for sports.

Shirtwaists became symbols of the labor movement when shirtwaist factory workers led a strike of 20,000 employees in New York City in 1909, gaining reduced working hours (to 52 from 65 or more) and four holidays a year. In 1911, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, in which 146 workers died, forever linked shirtwaists and the labor movement. The tragedy gave new momentum to efforts for improved workplace conditions.

Courtesy of Shippensburg University Fashion Archives and Museum.
American Red Cross Workroom Service Uniform and Knitting Needles, 1917-18

The Red Cross coordinated volunteers under four areas of service: canteen, clerical, motor, and supply or "workroom," that is, helping prepare supplies like surgical dressings and bandages.

Sarah Glover wore this coverall and "veil," as the uniform regulations called it, when volunteering during the War in Richmond, Virginia, preparing bandages and knitting for the troops. Knitting needles were provided, as the Red Cross had its own knitting patterns and sizing system. On the needles is a half-finished Red Cross design for fingerless gloves for sending to soldiers overseas.

Courtesy of Shippensburg University Fashion Archives and Museum
Cotton seersucker skirt and cotton shirt, about 1917, DAR Museum
Boots, 1910s, DAR Museum

American Red Cross Motor Corps Uniform: Skirt Suit, 1917-18

Wool twill, wool chevrons, metal buttons; cotton shirt. Suit label: Best & Co., New York.

The Motor Corps volunteers could elect to wear breeches under the skirts of their suits, but some, according to surviving photos, wore breeches without the proper skirts over them. The wearer of this skirt suit apparently chose to wear only the skirt, as it lacks breeches.

Motor corps volunteers, over 12,000 strong and almost entirely women, provided transportation support for hospitals, camps, and canteens. They also served in the influenza pandemic that followed the war in 1918.

American Red Cross Nurse’s Uniform, 1917-18

Cotton dress and apron.

The Red Cross issued guidelines for uniforms, but each volunteer was responsible for providing her own. Inevitably, variations resulted. This example has a collar and cuffs of the same fabric as the dress, instead of prescribed white ones.

Some nurses found the uniform "exceedingly ugly! It was designed by a man who believed that women working in the hospitals were a menace to the men patients...A man designed these things to make the women unattractive."—Lena Hitchcock, nurse serving in World War I.