April 14, 2022

A Look for the New Woman

With textile factories turning out large quantities of cloth, the second half of the nineteenth century witnessed a revolution in clothing production. 

The sewing machine increased productivity; the tape measure helped to standardize sizing; and the introduction of paper patterns increased the variety of available styles.  By the end of the century, consumers could purchase ready-to-wear clothing in shops, department stores, and through catalogs. 

During the 1890s, the number of women employed outside the home almost doubled. Women of the decade enjoyed new levels of independence. The so-called “New Woman” of the era worked, cycled, and played sports. She wore a simple skirt and a blouse that was tailored similar to a man’s shirt but could feature tucks, frills, and lace trimmings. The shirtwaist ensemble was worn as standard day wear, for sporting activities, and most often by the new female workforce.

The confident, sporty Gibson Girl captured the newfound freedom of the era.  Often seen wearing shirtwaists, she participated enthusiastically and skillfully in sports. Slender but voluptuous, she possessed a cool confidence, was independent in her relations with men. This archetype of American upper-middle-class womanhood was often associated with the “New Woman” of the period.

While women had been participating in more sports since the 1870s, female participation expanded greatly in the 1890s. Many women’s colleges began adding basketball to standard gymnastic activities. More and more women were playing golf, tennis, croquet, and bathing at the seashore. Women wore a variety of outfits for these activities, from a standard shirtwaist suit to more specialized clothing. The sweater would have been a possible choice for tennis or golf. 

Around 1892, the bicycle became a common form of transportation.  By 1896, bicyclists numbered some 10 million, an explosion from about 50,000 in 1885.  The affordable bicycle enhanced freedom of movement just as many women were entering the workforce and demanding expansion of their rights.  The “bicycle suit,” made for easier cycling, consisted of a jacket and bifurcated bloomers. However, more women chose a skirt with a deep pleat in the back to allow them to sit on the bicycle while still appearing to wear a skirt.

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