A Woodsy Costume: 1905

2 rompers

It is a well-known fact that the small-girl of our species is accustomed to derive early but erroneous views as to anatomy from the dolls which her fond imagination converts into loving, though commendably noiseless, babies. Having learned that dolls are filled with sawdust, she firmly believes that the interiors of men, women, and children are artistically packed with the same material. Her first theological problem is how to reconcile the Biblical assertion that she is made of the dust of the earth with her firm scientific conviction that sawdust is really her chief ingredient; and her earliest and most formidable fear arises from the delusion that an accidental pin-prick may let loose her vital sawdust and transform her into an empty and shapeless bundle of clothes. Of course, this anatomical error vanishes with her infancy. Before she has reached her tenth birthday she has discovered that she is filled with a variety of organs which are far more complex than the contents of her doll, and has totally abandoned the theory that the extreme attenuation of her maiden aunt is the result of a chronic leakage of sawdust. It must be a sad moment when a small-girl learns that her doll bears only a surface resemblance to humanity, and that, instead of being dilated with dry and compressible sawdust, she is herself filled with a material that cannot be safely brought in contact with green apples, and for which no ingenious nurse can substitute coal ashes or cotton in case of a serious accident.

But now comes Mrs. Martha Gearing—vaguely described as “of Wisconsin.”—with an invention which aims to convert the sawdust illusion of girlhood into the actual condition of womanhood. Mrs. Gearing is evidently a reformer whose specialty is the elevation of woman; for it is expressly in order to elevate her sex that she has designed a new garment, to be known as the “emancipated costume,” and—we may assume—to be exhibited and described at the next Dress Reform Convention, by the inventor herself. The “emancipated costume’ first dawned upon the inventive mind of Mrs. Gearing as she entered her ice-house one winter’s day. The ice-house was lined with sawdust, and though it was cool in summer, Mrs. Gearing found that it was warm in winter. At once the idea came to her that she could keep warm in winter and cool in summer by lining her own person with sawdust.

From this happy thought was gradually developed the “emancipated costume,” by the wearing of which any woman may emancipate herself from the thraldom of fashion, the trammels of skirts, and the bills of dress-makers, besides securing the utmost physical comfort compatible with a due deference to the present prejudices of civilization in favor of clothes. Thus, Mrs. Gearing kills a variety of objectionable birds with a single garment, and she certainly deserves the fame which she will doubtless earn by her first appearance in public clad in the “emancipated costume.”

It is not an easy matter to describe the new dress. Not that it is at all complex—for it consists of a single garment—but because the theme is too sacred for irreverent handling. Perhaps it may be permissible to hint that were an “emancipated costume.” to be made for a small boy of six years of age, it would consist of a shirt and trousers combined, and forming but one all-enveloping garment. When it is further hinted that whether the “emancipated costume” is intended for a small-boy or a large female reformer, its pattern is precisely the same, a conception of the true shape of the garment may be delicately conveyed to the most modest mind. Of course, there is no law to prevent the wearer of this new garment from also wearing a skirt or two, and such other external articles as taste or prejudice may dictate. Mrs. Gearing, however, urges that the true reformer will wear the “emancipated costume” and nothing else—except a few trifles in the way of boots, hair-pins, and such like coverings for the extremities of the person; and we may expect that all dress reformers who are really anxious for the elevation of woman will share the distinguished inventor’s views.

But the chief characteristic of the “emancipated costume” is the fact that it is made double, and that the intermediate space is divided into a number of presumably water tight compartments. These are each provided with small valves through which sawdust can be introduced in quantities to suit the wishes of the wearer. Mrs. Gearing claims that in extremely hot or cold weather a layer of sawdust an inch thick, evenly disposed about the person, will make the wearer perfectly comfortable. In proportion as the temperature of the atmosphere rises or sinks to the neighborhood of 65° (Fahrenheit) the quantity of sawdust is to be regulated, until the wearer feels neither too warm nor too cold. Thus clothed, she would need but one dress for all seasons of the year, and could adapt her clothing to meet the most sudden changes of weather by merely taking in or letting out a little more sawdust. Of the beauty and utility of the “emancipated costume.” there can be but one opinion. It will certainly be cheaper than the present style of feminine dress, and Mrs. Gearing asserts that it will be far more healthful. There will be “no more corsets,” cries the exultant inventor, “and no more cotton !” The latter allusion we do not clearly understand, but the disappearance of the corset would undoubtedly conduce to the welfare of mankind.

There is no reason, however, that this beneficent invention should be monopolized by women. The school-boy will clamor for an “emancipated costume,” which will enable him to bear with fortitude the réproofs of his father and school-teacher —especially if he lays in a little extra sawdust just prior to an interview with either of them. The brakeman will find that he can survive an unusual quantity of collisions if he is carefully padded with sawdust, and the like precaution will be found extremely useful by book agents and map pedlers in regions where the inhabitants are athletic and wear heavy boots. Thus the “emancipated costume.” will elevate boys and brakemen and pedlers, as well as women, and all over our country those who are peculiarly exposed to contusion will rise up, without regard to sex, color, or previous condition of turpitude, and call Mrs. Gearing blessed. Meanwhile, the small-girl will be more than ever convinced that humanity is largely composed of sawdust, and will undergo the most terrible apprehensions when her brother, who has failed to convince his father that skates are a devotional implement, which a truly devout youth invariably carries to prayer-meeting under his jacket, comes forth from the paternal “study” leaking sawdust at every pore from a rent and treacherous “emancipated costume.”

The Banker and the Typewriter, 1905

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire:  Insulated garments are nothing new in the history of fashion. Ladies wore quilted and down-filled petticoats with comfort and panache.

paisley petticoat

A richly coloured petticoat whose channels are stuffed with down, c. 1860 http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O129215/petticoat-booth-fox/

blue satin quilted petticoat

A beautifully detailed 18th-century quilted petticoat. http://www.philamuseum.org/collections/permanent/130065.html?mulR=1650502641|2

Down jackets kept off the chill, while cork-filled garments were recommended for ladies afloat.

Mrs Daffodil will not make the expected joke about “barking,” but is doubtful about the comfort of saw-dust insulation: splinters would seem to be almost compulsory and one fears that the insulating properties of the wood pulp would offer scant recompense for the nuisance of smelling like a saw-mill.  Mrs Daffodil can find no photo-gravures of the emancipated costume and no indication that the ingenious Mrs Gearing ever actually patented her novel garment, but here is  an eerily similar garment of a much later date, designed for exercise.

The description of the emancipated costume given above is that of a child’s “romper suit,” pictured at the head of the post. Mrs Daffodil rather fancies that it actually looked more like this:

1920s clown

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

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.



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