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Bachelor of Arts
Women and gender, United States, Historic clothing, Historic costume, Undergarments, Historical magazines, Ladies' home journal
Historical study of American women’s fashion and its trajectory in the twentieth century from mid-century to the pre- sent has been ambivalent about the significance afforded clothing in the story of social equity and women’s mobility.¹
Scholarship to date connects the material culture of women’s undergarments in the United States to eroticism and questions of health.² Researchers have not explored what I see as a consequential shift in the marketing tactics of undergar- ments from the end of the nineteenth century to the eve of WWII. Formatted as an exhibition catalog, this thesis outlines three different significant movements and events in American history that look beyond design of women’s fashion to the re- lated, but little remarked upon matter of underclothes. In order to understand these changes in undergarment fashions, my project mobilizes both primary and secondary sources with specific analysis of historical clothing, the Ladies’ Home Journal and the reverberations in its pages of the Dress Reform Movement, World War I, and the Great Depression.³
Proceeding chronologically, this thesis begins by analyzing eleven undergarments, contextualized with the history of the Dress Reform Movement, WWI, the 1920s, and the Depression.
In the United States, Amelia Bloomer and other reformers argued for the eradication of tight-lacing, crinolines, and
¹Annemarie Strassel, “Designing Women: Feminist Methodologies in American Fashion” WSQ: Women’s Studies Quarterly 41, no. 1 & 2 (2013), 38.
²Jill Fields, “Erotic Modesty: (Ad)dressing Female Sexuality and Propriety in Open and Closed Drawers, USA, 1800-1930” Gender and History, (2002). Elizabeth Fee, Theodore Brown, Jan Lazarus, and Paul Theerman, “The Effects of the Corset” Images of Health (2002).
long skirts. My project explores the effectiveness of the movement and the political factors surrounding their achievements and failures.⁴ I then transition into World War I and discuss how the dramatic absence of American men who participated in the war effort drastically changed women’s societal roles in the U.S. and required slimming adaptations to their underclothing.⁵ Transitioning into the post-war WWI period, the chapter focuses on suffrage, the 1920s, and particularly the Depression as salient events in the changing underclothes styles over time. Directly following World War I, American women enjoyed more independence than they had prewar. The second chapter parallels the first by exploring how the Ladies’ Home Journal advertised women’s underclothing during and directly following the Dress Reform Movement. This chapter will focus on how the Ladies’ Home Journal altered their related marketing tactics during the war. Although the majority of women would ultimately lose their wartime jobs, I aim to chart the rationale for the persistence of the new shrinking undergarments, as depicted throughout the Journal.⁶ By exploring the history of the Dress Reform Movement, World War I, and the Great Depression in conjunction with how women’s undergarments were marketed, this exhibition catalog aims to show how women’s fashions were impacted by both socioeconomic and political events and movements.
³The Ladies’ Home Journal was in publication from 1883 to 2014.
⁴Patricia Cunningham, Reforming Women’s Fashion, 1850-1920: Politics, Health, and Art, (Kent: The Kent State University Press, 2003).
⁵Lindsey German, How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women, (Pluto Press, 2013).
⁶Adrienne Berney, “Streamlining Breasts: The Exaltation of Form and Dis- guise of Function in 1930s’ Ideals” Journal of Design History 14, no. 4 (2001), 327-342.
A shift in the purposes of women’s clothing and subsequently women’s participation in public life were interlinked, and the cultivation of their desire through advertising bolstered that shift.
The movements as detailed in the pages that follow were largely white, and certainly took place under conditions of white supremacy in the United States. The Ladies’ Home Journal, too, anticipated and cultivated a white addressee. The nec- essary next chapter, post-1939 and thus outside the bounds of the current project, would be to look specifically at magazines in mass production that focused on Black women’s lives and similarly sought their buying power, a development which largely came after 1945. Tracing the underclothing that black w omen wore in correlation to their roles in public life would be crucial to reconstructing how race impacted the marketing of underclothing and black women’s access to public engagement.
2020 Allison Lora Smith. Access limited to the Smith College community and other researchers while on campus. Smith College community members also may access from off-campus using a Smith College log-in. Other off-campus researchers may request a copy through Interlibrary Loan for personal use.
Smith, Allison Lora, "From bustles to bras, 1851-1939 : honors thesis and exhibition catalog" (2020). Honors Project, Smith College, Northampton, MA.
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