Sunday, 21 October 2012

The Physical Preoccupations of the Raiment Reformers

                   Do you remember the advice by Lord Bertram Cranworth to those intending to settle in British East Africa I quoted the other day, here? He wrote,
Bear in mind and act on the old maxim: Keep the spirits up, the bowels open, and wear flannel next the skin.”
As with almost every opinion that one person has, there will be someone else who favours the exact opposite idea. And so it goes. Here is the advice given by the German Gustav Jäger,
The air under the clothing can circulate outwards and upwards more freely than when a flannel under-vest is worn, as not only are the open spaces of the network much greater than the interstices of the flannel, but they are also too large to become blocked by the excretions from the skin.”
Gustave Jäger

So, says Gustav, don’t wear flannel next to the skin. It’s not good for you. Jäger was an advocate of the Rational Dress movement. He wrote Health Culture in 1878, which was translated in to English by Lewis Tomalin, who also, in 1884, opened an emporium selling Dr Jaeger’s Sanitary Woollen System, (the brand, although passing through various incarnations, exists to this day as Jaeger). 

Gustave Jäger - Health Culture - Rev. Ed. 1907

In his book Jäger advanced his theory that clothes made from animal fibres were much more advantageous to the general health of the body, and those made from plant or artificial fibres were deleterious to health. Jäger devised what he called his Sanitary Woollen System, which was based on the theory that animals are covered in animal fibres, whereas only mankind has devised clothing made from plant fibres, making this an unnatural practice.
Nature has clothed the animals. Man clothes himself.
Animal Wool, which nature has created to cover an animal body, is the "survival of the fittest" clothing-material.”
Jager's Pure Camelhair Sleeping Bag

He thought that clothes made from animal wool allowed the body to breathe more efficiently, that perspiration passed freely through the woollen fibres much more efficiently, and any air trapped in the fibres warmed the body better. Vegetable fibres (cotton, linen etc) trapped malodorous air next to the skin, prevented exhalation, held moisture and suffocated the skin. Illness inevitably followed. Jäger proposed that layers of clothing, all made from animal wool, were a much healthier alternative. Underclothing should be made from sheep wool stockinet,
It is also more supple than flannel, and therefore more durable, and is more agreeable to the skin, as it does not become knotty, while it is much less liable to shrink.”
He fashioned a combination undergarment, which was a vest and drawers together (what today, we call Long Johns), which became extremely popular in the late Victorian period, and were worn worldwide. They are still available today, although it is not quite as common as it once was to sew oneself in for the winter. 

Advert for The Union Underflannel

Jäger’s view was that it all came down to the free flow of air. He wrote that bedroom windows should be kept open all year round, to allow ventilation, and beds should be covered by layers of woollen blankets, which could be removed or added to, depending on the time of the year. He was opposed to tight boots, which suffocated the feet, and was not keen on corsets, although he felt it was the materials from which they were made that caused the problems, rather than the tight lacing favoured by the fashions of the day. 

Advert for The Emancipation Waist

In this point, he differed from other commentators, who pointed to tight lacings as the cause of many of the problems in female health. Arguments against fashion said that the tight lacing of the waist, with too little above it and far too much below, was injuring women, by deforming their internal organs, restricting breathing and forcing them to carry great weights of heavy cloth hanging from their hips. 

Bustle and Voluminous Skirt

Some women were said to wear as many as seven double layers of skirts, giving them fourteen layers of cloth wrapped around their hips, which were soaked and mired in wet weather, adding to the weight, and trapping air beneath them, whilst light blouses and shawls kept the chest colder, giving great differences in temperature on the body. 

Advert for corded waist garments

Reforms were called for, providing clothes that could be healthier whilst maintaining propriety and female modesty. Early attempts were popularised by Amelia Jenks Bloomer, but these were largely ridiculed and never really caught on. Elizabeth Miller of New York invented the long, baggy Bloomers with cuffs about the ankles, but Mrs Bloomer wore them in the 1850s and her name became attached to them.  

Punch - Bloomerism - An American Custom

Punch was still ridiculing Bloomers fifty years later, and it seems likely that the use of ‘bloomer’ meaning a mistake or error stems from the ‘mistake’ of wearing the garment.

Punch - A Modern Waist

The constriction of the waist in whalebone corsets reached ridiculous proportions – it was said that the waists of some women could be encircled by the fingers and thumbs of a man’s hand (not that such a thing was to be encouraged), and Emancipation Bodices were developed, which were buttoned about the entire torso and from which the various skirts and petticoats could be hung, reducing the pressure on the waist and hips. 

Advert for The Emancipation Suit

Jäger invented his own Emancipation Bodice, made entirely from wool and stiffened with cords, although they were so popular many manufacturers produced versions of their own. In 1881, the Rational Dress Society was founded in London, and its members were quick to realise that it was not only in matters of fashion were reforms needed (and possible). The question of female emancipation was not new (Mary Shelley’s mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, had published her The Vindications of the Rights of Women in 1792), but dress reform was integral to the achievement of women’s suffrage. 

Abba Goold Woolson - Dress Reform - 1874

One surprising aspect came with the development of the bicycle. As the Victorian fad for bicycling grew and grew, it was only natural that women wished to participate, particularly as the health-giving properties of the fashion were widely proclaimed. Obviously, the crinolines, bustles and long skirts of high Victorian fashion were entirely impractical for cycling, and one change was the divided skirt, championed by the President of the Rational Dress Society, Lady Harberton, which was also called the ‘dual garmenture’. Pretty soon, a fashion for cycling suits was born – as witnessed in this cartoon from Punch, with the caption,
“Gertrude. "My dear Jessie, what on earth is that bicycle suit for! “?
Jessie. "Why, to wear, of course."
Gertrude. "But you haven't got a bicycle!'
Jessie. “No; but I've got a sewing machine!”

Punch - 1895
Bicycles were especially popular among the growing lower middle class, those respectable young men from the offices and shops. They could not afford the new automobiles but they could afford bikes, and on the new ‘day off’ at the weekends, they could use them to get out of the towns and into the countryside. Physical mobility became an aspect of social mobility. And wives, sisters and daughters wanted part of the action. 

Bicycling Cartoon - Punch 1895

Some of the conservative critics looked down their noses but who could really object if propriety was properly observed – all that was needed was a chaperone. Cycling clubs and touring societies were founded and remain just as popular – one of my great pleasures is to take a spin around the back lanes of Lancashire on a sunny day. Thanks to the success of the British cycling teams in the 2012 Olympics, it is now one of the fastest growing and most popular leisure pursuits in the country.

I want a combined napkin ring and holder!

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