The Rational Dress Show: 1883

"The Bicycle Suit" 12 January 1895 Photo-engraving of ink drawing Punch, p. 23 Courtesy Athenæum Club Library London Bicycle, sewing machine -- it's all technology Scanned image and text by George P. Landow

12 January 1895
Photo-engraving of ink drawing
Punch, p. 23
Courtesy Athenæum Club Library
Bicycle, sewing machine — it’s all technology
Scanned image and text by George P. Landow



(By Our Fair Correspondent.)

In the Hall of the Prince is a Show—stuffs and chintzes—

(O Maidens of England, pray list to my song!)

For all there displayed is a warning that Ladies,

In matters of dressing, are terribly wrong!

I thought my new bonnet, with roses upon it,

And tasteful costume, was complete, I confess.

But now I ‘m reminded my eyes have been blinded

To all the requirements of Rational Dress!

We look at the models—they puzzle our noddles—

Regarding them all with alarm and surprise!

Each artful costumer revives Mrs. Bloomer,

And often produces an army of guys.

The costume elastic, the dresses gymnastic,

The wonderful suits for the tricycle-ess—

Though skirts be divided, I’m clearly decided,

It isn’t my notion of Rational Dress!

See gowns hygienic, and frocks calisthenio.

And dresses quite worthy a modern burlesque;

With garments for walking, and tennis, and talking,

All terribly manful and too trouseresque!

And habits for riding, for skating, or sliding,

With “rational” features they claim to possess.

The thought I can’t banish, they’re somewhat too mannish,

And not quite the thing for a Rational Dress!

Note robes there for rinking, and gowns for tea-drinking,

For yachting, for climbing, for cricketing too.

The dresses for boating, the new petticoating,

The tunics in brown and the trousers in blue.

The fabrics for frockings, the shoes and the stockings,

And corsets that ne’er will the figure compress.

But in the whole placeful there’s little that’s graceful

And girlish enough for a Rational Dress!

‘Tis hardy and boyish, not girlful and coyish—

We think, as we stroll round the gaily-dight room—

A masculine coldness, a brusqueness, a boldness,

Appears to pervade all this novel costume!

In ribbons and laces, and feminine graces,

And soft flowing robes, there’s a charm more or less–

I don’t think I’ll venture on dual garmenture,

I fancy my own is the Rational Dress! 

Punch Vol. 84, June 1883

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: “Rational Dress” (and much hangs on what one thinks of as “rational”) was an easy target for critics with its lack of corsetry, its mannish bloomers, and its association with both the stoop-shouldered Aesthetic Movement and the more rabid Suffragettes.

The “Rational Dress Exhibition” of 1883 was held at Prince’s Hall, Piccadilly, arousing much curiosity from the public and hostility from the press. It emphasised health and “hygiene” and sensible clothing for sport. All well and good, but what the press (and Punch) most deplored was trousers for women. For example, this London correspondent:

I deeply regret to announce that the question of “rational dress” for ladies is again inflicted upon a suffering public by the misguided ladies who want, and apparently must have, a separate visible covering for each leg. Lady Harberton, whose maiden name I believe was Legg, is at the head of this deplorable movement, and has actually lectured upon it at St. James’ Hall before a large audience. The Rational Dress Society is represented at an exhibition of hygienic dress and sanitary domestic appliances and decoration, where the divided skirt is seen in all its horror, together with dresses for boating, tricycling, lawn tennis and other pastimes which in every other country but this are considered unfeminine. In the exhibition there is a gallery for ladies only, the mysteries of which no male eye may explore. Doubtless the ridiculous and futile agitation will fizzle out, owing to the natural disinclination of the majority of women to make guys of themselves and the equal disinclination of the men to have anything to do with women who wear visible trousers. New York Herald 3 June 1883: p. 15

A visitor to the exhibition described this suit, which, in view of its description as garb for mountain-climbing, seems the height of irrationality.

Another dress, the like of which is said to have been worn by a Mrs. King, of Brighton, when climbing the Alps, is a daring affair indeed. Rather loose knee breeches of black satin (not Knickerbockers) are surmounted by a black satin kilted flounce about a foot long, which is the only visible semblance of the time-honored female skirt; the bodice is a sort of bob-tail coat affair, and there is a waistcoat and neck-tie of cherry satin, long black silk stockings and low-cut shoes with red rosettes. The Times [Philadelphia, PA] 10 June 1883: p. 8

Mrs Daffodil has previously written of dress reform here and here. She is thankful that she is free from the need of any dress reform whatsoever. Her clothing is functional, well-suited to its purposes, and hygienic, thanks to the well-trained laundresses at the Hall.  Perhaps the dress-reformers so interested in hygienic dress merely need to find a laundry able to cope with the soil from a ladies’ rugby scrum or an Alpine ascension.

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,”where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes.

3 thoughts on “The Rational Dress Show: 1883

  1. Connelly

    The Philadelphia Times was a long, way from the action and its correspondent very confused. The so-called ‘mountaineering dress’ was, in reality, an essay in designing a ‘dress of the future” for women. No corsets and no petticoats – in short, it was a feminine ‘trouser suit’. The mountaineering costume was a completely different garment Mrs E M King, who staged the Princes Hall exhibition, and commissioned the ‘dress of the future, was president of the Rational Dress Association. She was a tricyclienne, not a mountaineer. She and Lady Florence Harberton, president of the of the competing Rational Dress Society had their differences over the question of ‘trousers’. Lady Harberton favoured the ‘divided skirt’. Mrs King Insisted on ‘trousers’, of a feminised variety. Mrs King took her dress reform crusade to the US in 1883.


    1. chriswoodyard Post author

      19th-century correspondents so frequently are confused, especially when covering topics so often ridiculed. Many thanks for your illuminating and clarifying remarks!
      Mrs Daffodil


  2. Pingback: She Dressed to Please Her Husband: 1916 | Mrs Daffodil Digresses

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