Monday, April 20, 2015

A Moment of Change

     In the middle of the 1800s, something happened, to the tune of a Strauss waltz.  A combination of tech involving dyes, the sewing machine,  and steel hoops, allowed women's clothing to reach levels never achieved before in human history, and outside of the odd couture creation, never again.
All to the tempo of 3/4 time, as women, and men waltzed through the earlier part of the Victorian age, women's clothing expanded far beyond the boundaries imposed by multiple layers of petticoats, as had been the rule in the 1840s, and 50s.  It was no longer enough to have huge pannier that extended the skirt sideways.  The volume had to be complete around the body.  And these, by our terms diminutive women, of 4' 10', or  5' became in time, the ladies who used the greatest amount of fabric, and decorative trimmings ever.  Between the 1840s and the 1860s, women of means used greater amounts of textiles in the making of their clothes, than at any other time in human history.
    And because Elias Howe had invented the sewing machine, trimmings could be added, yard by yard, pleated, and ruffled, to make sure that those who viewed us knew we were important, and wealthy. 
    So, the middle of the 19th century becomes a benchmark point.   It's a place from which the entire modern age begins.  From this moment in time, a Great Deflation occurs.  Over the next decades,  women's clothing will shrink, inexorably, and never regain the physical volume, of the mid 19th century.
    From the beginning of the 1800s, women's skirts expanded in width; propped, inevitably, by succeeding layers of petticoats.  But, there was an inescapable end point after which the simple adding of another layer wasn't going to achieve the end desired.  Enter technology.  The cage crinoline (and no one is entirely sure of exactly when this occurred, though we think around 1850), made skirts of any dimensions desired possible.  Sure, it meant that getting through a door, and navigating a populated room with furniture in it, was a complex process.  Women rose to that challenge though, no matter how absurd, or potentially life threatening.  There are multiple accounts in newspapers of the time, of women being either injured, or dying, because their vast skirts got a bit too close to an open flame.
   If this was the real reason for the deflation of women's skirts, that certainly makes sense.  But I suspect the reasoning is more complex, and subtle than that.  My own suspicion, is that women's role in society was changing, and more importantly, their view of themselves was changing.  The idea of hampering themselves in endless layers of furbelows, and frills, became increasingly silly.
    The end result is that over the next 70 years, women's clothing would narrow, simplify, and shorten; and would never, outside of the occasional fashionable ephemera, reach the extremity of size and extravagance of the mid 1800s again.
I think its important to look at these moments of change, because they give us a window into our own motivations, both superficial, and deep.

    And honestly, I could wish that menswear had such a profoundly changeable and interesting past, but after the ossification of 1800, menswear essentially stopped in its tracks, and is only just now waking from its centuries long sleep.

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