From the last years of the bustle to the flapper era, unprecedented changes in women’s fashion took place, which reflected the underlying seismic shifts in women’s roles in American society. The DAR Museum exhibition, “Fashioning the New Woman: 1890-1925,” on display October 5, 2012 through August 31, 2013, traces the evolution of women’s fashion and how it reflected the changing societal roles and activities of women during the Progressive Era.
The exhibition examines the emergence of the “New Woman” as she was dubbed in popular culture. This archetypal woman represented the growing numbers of women venturing out of the domestic arena where society had told them they belonged and pursuing higher education, working in office jobs, playing active sports and working for social reform.
Active lives required more practical clothes than the many-layered, heavily draped outfits of the late Victorian lady. Simpler, more streamlined clothing evolved during the turn of the 20th century. An array of clothing and objects from the DAR Museum collection are featured showing the changing fashions of the period.
A fashion timeline of costumed manikins shows the progression of women’s dresses, most noticeably characterized in the size and shape of the skirts and sleeves; the fabrics and layers used; and the varying necklines, waistlines and skirt lengths. A sampling of undergarments and accessories of the period show how women achieved the right shape and complemented the look with shoes, hats and jewelry.
The exhibition highlights clothing that represents the activities of the New Woman. Participating in active outdoor sports was one of the hallmarks of the New Woman. While fashions allowed for more women to energetically swing a tennis racket, whack a golf ball and wheel her bicycle down country lanes, ideas of “proper” feminine attire still slowed progress of more practical sportswear. Tailored suits came into style for women beginning to work in white collar jobs. The no-frills suits were appropriate in an office because they were masculine, like the male dominated domain in which they were worn. With the increasing number of women attending college, the shirtwaist ensemble came into style. The outfit of the turn-of-the-century college girl was a skirt, sensibly shorter than current fashion dictated, and a shirtwaist, which was essentially the equivalent of jeans and a t-shirt today.
Even without the right to vote, American women of the Progressive Era effected change in public policy to address social reform, most notably, suffrage. Featured in the exhibit along with the clothing are suffrage banners and other artifacts of the National Woman’s Party’s fight for suffrage which are on loan from the Sewall-Belmont House.
A highlight of the exhibition is the inherent connection of the subject matter to the Daughters of the American Revolution National Society. “Fashioning the New Woman” examines women in the era of the founding of the DAR. The first members of the DAR were part of a larger trend in the United States: women were creating clubs of many kinds, from literary and other cultural clubs, to historical and genealogical societies, to organizations with goals or social activism.
Scattered throughout the exhibition is information about early DAR members who were pioneers in law and medicine, prominent in higher education, and who worked for social reforms and suffrage. Two beautiful dresses on display were even worn by two DAR Presidents General, Caroline Scott Harrison in about 1890 and Lora Haines Cook in about 1925. The Harrison and Cook dresses provide perfect bookends for the exhibit. Mrs. Harrison’s afternoon dress exemplifies the highly structured and decorative bustle style of the late 1800s. Mrs. Cook’s dress, from 35 years later, represents a major shift towards modern dress in its simple boxy construction typical of the 1920s. While elaborately detailed and elegant, it is worlds away from the bustle era.
“Fashioning the New Woman: 1890-1925” is a beautiful visual experience bound to appeal to costume lovers and historians alike. By tracing the evolution of fashion that took place in reaction to the many changes in women’s roles, visitors are reminded of how intertwined decorative arts are with the culture of the times. The DAR Museum exhibition tells the story of this critical period in history through the fashions that reflected and encouraged women’s progression.