Notes from the Dress Reform Convention of 1856

Victorian dress reform was an objective of the Victorian dress reform movement (also known as the rational dress movement) of the middle and late Victorian era, comprising various reformers who proposed, designed, and wore clothing considered more practical and comfortable than the fashions of the time. Dress reformists were largely middle class women involved in the first wave of feminism in the United States and in Britain, from the 1850s through the 1890s.

Dress Reform Convention

(The Lily, May 1856)  Thursday and Friday, the 21st and 22d of February, were pleasant, happy days in Glen Haven. Pleasant days! Happy days! Not merely that winter had relaxed his suilen benumbing grasp, that the merry sunshine and genial warmth filled the air, that gentle zephys whispered of coming spring, but because the hearts and souls of many people were filled with noble aspiration, bounding hope and generous resolve. The great heart of Nature and the heart of man beat in union.

On those days there met together noble men and women, who with one accord lifted their voices in praise of God and his handiwork—man; thanking God for his blessings of life, health, happiness, and the promise of an eternal progression, and who, not content with depreciating the evils that “Mar the harmonies of life,” bound themselves in fraternal bond to work steadily, cordially, and unremittingly for their overthrow.

That on the pallid cheek of woman, the rose of health again may bloom; that the lifeless, hopeless glance of her eye may give way to the sparkling cheerfulness which betokens a poor soul in a sound body; that lassitude, languor, vacillation, and inefficiency shall no longer sit enthroned in the temple of the soul, but in their stead hope and power, vigor, and a wisely-tempered resolution; these are the ends to which their actions tend. Is there one who does not bid them God speed?

This item, and others like it, can be found in Accessible Archive’s Women’s Suffrage Collection. We can provide access to fully searchable newspapers by and for women including The Lily (1849-1856), National Citizen and Ballot Box (1878-1881), The Revolution (1868-1872), The New Citizen (1909-1912), The Western Woman Voter (1911-1913), The Woman’s Tribune (1883-1909) and the antisuffrage newspaper, The Remonstrance (1890-1913).

Sketches of Rational Dress

Sketches of Rational Dress

The proceedings of the convention, which met at Glen Haven on the 21st and 22d, are full of present interest and latent result. The earnest, thoughtful words there spoken effect us, and will effect still more future generations. Over the informal meeting Dr. James C. Jackson presided.— The convention was permanently organized by the choice of Mrs. Charlotte A. Joy as President; Giles E. Jackson and Mary A. Roberts, Secretaries; with several ladies and gentlemen as Vice-Presidents.

An address which, for its comprehensiveness of thought and pertininency of reasoning and illustration, as will as the calm earnestness of its tone can hardly be too highly commended, was read by Dr. Harriet N. Austin.

Some Results of Dress Reform in the 1890s

Some Results of Dress Reform in the 1890s

It is the intention, we understand, to publish the address in tract form, when doubtless many of our readers will peruse it for themselves.

Among others the following resolutions were adopted:


  • That, in advocating Reform in Dress for Woman, our object is not to advocate for her positions of singularity, eccentricity, or to get her out of her “appropriate sphere;’ but to enable her to act with that freedom needful to find out what her “appropriate sphere” is:
  • That, as all intelligence must obey God’s laws, or take the penalty of disobedience, and as the laws of the physical are so obligatory on the physical constitution as the moral are on the moral constitution, Woman is as much bound to claim freedom for her body as her soul, and he who doubts her right to it, or denies her right to it, or opposes her right to it, is an accessory before the fact to the guilt of her disobedience, and deserves stern rebuke.
  • That we will endeavor so to influence the minds of the young ladies of our respective neighborhoods that they will lay aside the short dress of their girlhood only to adopt the reform dress as more becoming their womanhood. Also so to train the mind of the youth of the opposite sex, that they will become their supporters in the cause.
  • That we are deeply grateful to Hon. Gerrit Smith for the able and fearless expression of his views on Dress Reform, and that we believe with him, that the common dress of Woman leaves “them less than half their personal power of self- subsistence and usefulness,” that it unfits the wearer for the vast majority of human pursuits, and entirely for many of them, and that it is “repugnant to reason and religion, and grateful only to a vitiated taste.”
  • That we realize the necessity for a change in the condition of Woman, that we believe her competent to engage in many pursuits as yet not open to her, if she will but make the needful change in herself; and, seeing a clear connection between her dress and her present condition, we are determined to discard a dress that “both makes and marks our impotence,—that is only adopted to ‘womanly helplessness,’—and henceforth attire our persons fitly for the whole battle of life.”

During the consideration of these resolutions, many earnest and encouraging speeches and remarks were made by Messrs. Jackson, Porter, Vashon, Brocket, Wadleigh, Knight, Brewster, Everitt; Mrs. Knight, Mrs. Joy, and Miss Donovan.

On the second day, the National Dress Reform Association was formed. The second article of its constitution reads thus:—“The objects of this Association are to induce a reform in Womans Dress, especially in regard to long skirts, tight waists, and all styles and modes which are incompatible with good health, refined tastes, simplicity, economy, and beauty.”

Among its members are residents of ten different States. In the extent of the evils which it seeks to remedy, its organization, and the scope of its operations, this Association is truly National, and the earnestness, vitality and power that reside in this movement, must insure for it a warm welcome and great influence.

To combine and band together the strong, to encourage the weak, the vacillating the irresolute, to show its power and influence as a protecting mantle over those persecuted, reviled, ridiculed, and slandered, because of noble devotion to truth to spread the knowledge of truth broadcast throughout the land, that the suffering, the despondent, the sick one, weary and laden with many burdens, many learn, rejoice, and grow strong at heart, resolute in purpose, and will in body to compel the attention of the thoughtless, heedless, careless, and the respect of the scornful, the unbelieving, the indifferent, to relieve our land from the sin and misery caused by ignorant and disobedience of the laws of life, to assist in the translation of woman from “slavery to freedom, from cowardice to courage, from the kingdom of fancy, fashion and foolery, to the kingdom of reason and righteousness;” these are the hopes, the aspirations, the resolves of its members.

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