The Weight of Fashion: 1883

WOMAN’S BURDEN OF DRESS.

The Danger in the Folds of Heavy Shirts and Cloaks—Weighing Garments Which Women Wear—How the Heavy Burden May Cause Disease or Exhaustion.

[New York Times.]

I feel called upon to correct some of the nonsense uttered and written about the injury done to women by their costumes.

High-heeled French shoes and tight lacing have hitherto borne the burden of blame for the sufferings of women. But now comes the Lancet, of London, in the track of other iconoclasts, and casts at least a doubt upon this favorite theory by an article in regard to the weight of women’s clothes. The article in question is brief and pointed, calling attention in a few words to what the writer regards as a serious evil. It was printed in the issue of December 2d, and the principal part of it reads as follows:

“The clothes worn by women are, as a whole, too heavy, and, by a perversity of fashion, they receive an enormous increment of weight at this season in the shape of cloaks and mantles of sealskin or plush with quilted linings. The attention of medical practitioners needs to be specially drawn to this matter in order that they may remonstrate with their female patients, and also avoid misconception as to the actual strength of some who complain of fatigue in waling, which may be mistaken for a token of weakness, whereas it is only natural exhaustion from carrying a burden that few strong men would care to bear.

The waist is encircled as with a belt or hoop, to which a load heavier than a felon’s chains is attached, and the shoulders and chest are compressed by an additional burden. Breathing is laboriously performed, and the contents of the trunk and pelvis are thrust down with a force which, if represented in pounds, would occasion considerable surprise.”

In order to ascertain how far the statements contained in this article were borne out by facts, a Times reporter investigated some of the mysteries of the feminine toilet at Lord & Taylor’s by exploring a number of the departments and having the weight accurately ascertained of every article under examination. Four dresses of medium size were weighed. Six pounds was the weight of a dress of velvet and cloth; a silk dress weighed three and a half pounds, a plush five and a quarter pounds, and a dress of ladies’ cloth on a cloth skirt five pounds three ounces. Dresses of ladies’ cloth are very generally worn, and, with fur trimmings, are still heavier. Twenty years ago dresses had plain underskirts and waists, and were not loaded down with elaborate trimmings, which are now the rage. Steel trimmings, now happily gone out of fashion, were very heavy adornments, but the real jet trimmings worn in certain circles are also a load to carry. When a lady’s heart is set on having a stylish dress she seldom entertains the problem of weight. Dresssmakers try to make them as light as possible, but with plush and silk this is no easy task. With all these trimmings dresses will continue to be burdens until the old-fashioned skirt, gathered at the waist, comes in vogue again. The reporter timidly investigated those articles of dress which may be boldly characterized as ladies’ underwear. He was informed that the gossamer gauze for summer use and the silk goods in pink, blue and flesh colors were as light as a fairy, and could hardly be weighed; but a cold, scientific inquiry, with the assistance of scales, showed a weight of six to eleven ounces for gauze cassimere suits, according to size, and eight to fourteen ounces of the silk. The latter is expensive, costing from $4 to $15 a garment, but it fits closely to the skin, is a preventive against cold, and affords as much comfort, they say, as wool. The heavy merino underwear for winter weighs from twenty-two to twenty-eight ounces a suit. Many ladies wear gauze or silk all the year round, as they want to look as symmetrical, and in some instances as aesthetic, as possible. Closely fitting underwear, it is reported, is an advantage in securing a perfectly fitting dress. Muslin underwear has also its claim for popularity on this score, and the sum total of an outfit runs from twenty-three to twenty-eight ounces. The underskirt is an important factor in determining the weight of a lady’s clothing, a colored underskirt weighing fourteen ounces, and a plain or cambric underskirt eight ounces. A satin waling-skirt scores twenty-nine ounces, and one of flannel twenty-one ounces. The latter, it is needless to say, sells by the thousands on the shopping thoroughfares of the city. When the reporter asked the weight of the seal-skin dolman the young weigher declared it to be four pounds. As this was evidently inaccurate the reporter sent it back to be reweighed. Six pounds was the result this time, and the weigher pleasantly excused the discrepancy by saying he thought he was “doing it for the express company.” Fur-lined dolmans were found to weigh exactly five pounds and sealskin sacques four pounds each. The young lady who would be comfortably and fashionably shod for the street, must wear cork-soled shoes whose average weight is a pound. If she dons a pair of rubbers an additional five ounces will be added. For stormy weather a pair of arctics may be desirable, a matter of fifteen ounces. The problem of stockings depends on whether the lady under discussion is going to the ball and will wear a pair adorned with beads, heavy bangles, and what not, and weighing five or six ounces, whether she will be content with silk stockings weighing two or three ounces, lisle or cotton stockings of three or four ounces’ weight, or even  Derby ribbed cotton at six ounces. Gloves are light eight; a six-button pair registering one ounce; a twelve-button pair two ounces, and fur-topped dog-skin pair three ounces. A lady’s handkerchief weighs an ounce, her collar and cuffs one and two ounces respectively, and her walking-hat, say of plush, beads and feathers, nine ounces.

At Arnold & Constable’s store, Mr. Walker, manage of the manufacturing department, afforded the reporter an opportunity of seeing the various heavy garments worn by women at this season of the year, and gave him estimates of their weights. The first garment examined was a satin-lined sealskin dolman. “That,” said Mr. Walker, “is a favorite covering with ladies, and is quite warm. It weighs about—I can only give you my estimate—eight pounds. Here is a sacque, also lined with quilted satin, under which is laid light cotton wadding. That weighs about twelve pounds. It is no warmer than a sealskin and is more cumbersome, but is not so expensive. Here is a sealskin dolman lined with plush, which I should think weighs a good twelve pounds. I don’t wonder that women get tired if they carry those around much. How, here is the most sensible garment that has ever been adopted by American women. This is a close-fitting pelisse. They are very much worn this season, and are as warm and comfortable as can be desired. They weigh from six and one-half to eight pounds, the weight of the heavier ones being caused by trimmings of braid, &c., which add nothing to their warmth. They combine lightness and warmth with the placing of the weight upon the shoulders.” Mr. Walker then showed the reporter a number of heavy winter skirts. A plain one of cloth, with a few trimmings of plush, weighed about nine pounds, and hung wholly from a waistband. Another, of cashmere, weighed about the same. “That’s nothing,” said Mr. Walker; “think of a woman’s having carry this around all day.” The skirt to which he referred weighed fully twelve pounds and was of plain cloth. Several other skirts of the same kind and weight were exhibited and all were found to be such as are commonly worn in the street at this season. Mr. Walker afterward took from a box a ball dress of blue and white satin and plush, which looked as light and airy as clouds. It had a long train and a low corsage.

“That doesn’t weigh much,” said the reporter. “About twelve pounds,” said Mr. Walker, smiling. The reporter lifted the garment, and judged that Mr. Walker was right. The bulk of the weight in the dress was in the skirt. A number of heavy felt skirts, such as are worn under light dresses, were examined and found to weigh from eight to ten pounds. “Are there any substitutes for these skirts?” inquired the reporter. He was told that there were, and was shown some quilted satin skirts lined with cotton wadding. These weighted about two pounds each, and ranged in price from $5 upward, while the felt skirts cost as high as $8. Consequently, a felt skirt weighing eight pounds could be replaced by a satin one weighing two pounds and costing no more. Skirts of quilted Japanese silk, filled with eider down, were also shown. These weighed about a pound, or a pound and one-half, and were declared to be very warm. Of course they were expensive, but not beyond the reach of a large class of women who tired themselves out in carrying much heavier garments, under the impression that they were warmer. The young woman who was in attendance at the skirt counter was asked if women often wore a heavy cloth or felt skirt and a heavy sealskin dolman at the same time. She said they did so very frequently, thus carrying a heavy burden.

C.C. Shayne, a fur manufacturer, said that when a sealskin sacque did not fit a lady she complained that it felt heavy, whereas, in the case of a good fit, the weight was more evenly distributed. Mr. Shayne saw in a milliner’s shop the other day a dress whose trimmings alone weighed more than sealskin circular. Sealskin was not much heavier than cloth, and otter was a trifle lighter than seal. Fur-lined circulars or dolmans weigh from four to six pounds—about the same weight as that of seal dolmans untrimmed—and otter sacques about seven pounds. These heavy garments are still growing in favor with the fairer sex, more sealskin having been sold this year than last, while otter is making inroads, it is said, on its popularity. Gentlemen do not take so kindly to sealskin overcoats, as a handsome fit can not be made with this material, but it is available for driving-coats and trimmings. A lady’s fur jacket weighs about the same as a gentleman’s, and a lady’s sealskin Derby hat does not tip the beam so much as a man’s double-banded hat by a quarter of a pound more. The heavy coachman’s capes are no longer worn by ladies with sacques, which, being made of beaver, are a little heavier than seal.

Several physicians who were seen expressed interesting opinions on the subject. Dr. Robert F. Weir said that fatigue was one of the most common causes of nervous disease, but it was almost useless to fight against a prevailing fashion. The harm from wearing heavy clothes about the waist lay in the pressure on the abdominal cavity. The lower classes particularly wore heavy weights about their waists and wore ill-fitting corsets. Dr. Weird spoke of a hospital case that had come under his notice in which a woman’s liver was almost cut in two by wearing skirts tightly around her waist with worn-out corsets. He added that fashionable women did not lace to tightly nowadays as formerly, owing to the spread of a knowledge of physiological principles. The dolman having over the shoulders by diffusing its weight, did not do as much harm as the skirts. Stockings held up by supporters were an additional strain on the waist. Many women were daily fagged out by the heaviness of their dress, and especially was this true of a convalescent who is just out of the house to resume her wonted round of gayety. “A great deal of the evils of dressing could be obviated by shoulder supports,” said the Doctor, “but they would be visible with the low-neck style of dressing in the winter and the diaphanous materials in use for summer toilets.” Dr. Weir said he would like to see reform in woman’s dress, but it was like running one’s head against a stone wall to attempt any thing of the sort…

Dr. Mary P. Jacobi said that it was plain that women wore too heavy clothes, which, hanging about the waist, caused troubles of the pelvic organs. Heavy clothes interfere with muscular activity, and, as women were hampered by their dress, walking with them was less valuable than it otherwise would be. Their clothes should be as light as is consistent with warmth. There is an expenditure of force in carrying too many clothes which should be spent in other directions….

Dr. Lewis A. Sayre handed the reporter his twenty-pound ulster, and jokingly said he could hardly blame a woman for wearing heavy clothes while he sported such a weighty garment. He was inclined to find fault with the shoes they wore, their high heels and narrow toes, which made it impossible for them to walk with grace or stand with ease. If a woman would properly distribute the weight of her clothes, the Doctor thought, she could carry enough to keep warm and suffer no inconvenience. Clothes should be so adjusted as to permit the circulation of blood, and should not be so girded around the waist as to cause engorgement of the pelvic organs. A woman gets tired from her clothes simply because she is not properly dressed.

For the purpose of providing date for comparison the reporter called at a large retail clothing house and had some men’s garments weighed. The heaviest ulsters were found to run as high as fifteen pounds. Ordinary winter overcoats weighed from six to eight pounds. A suit of winter clothing, consisting of a Prince Albert coat, waistcoat and trousers, weighed six pounds. An English cheviot suit, with sack coat, weighed four pounds.

The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 27 January 1883: p. 12

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire:  This was, of course, a time of heavily-upholstered ladies, fashion favouring brocade, velvet, and plush. All that was lacking was the ornamental brass upholstery tacks.  As is usual, the medical profession had strong opinions on the subject of what women should wear, although, unusually, one of those physicians was a woman. This article originally appeared under the name of “Clara Belle,” a syndicated fashion writer. The Cincinnati newspaper left out her final word:

So I am down on those alleged reformers who would have us hang every thing from our shoulders, instead of letting the weight rest harmlessly on our hips. In my opinion, the chief reason for the superiority of woman over man in grace depends on the freedom of her shoulders from constraint. If you have any doubt that women really are more graceful than men just put some fellow into skirts and see what a hulking, awkward, outlandish figure he cuts. But if for 100 years all of the women were to shift the weight of their clothes from hips to shoulders the sexes would be brought to a par, the gentler having in the meantime become as lumbering and heavy as the rougher. Believe me, we have no reason to put the upper parts of our torso in bondage.

Springfield [OH] Daily Republic 18 January 1885: p. 3

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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