Dress Reform in the 19th Century

by Jennifer Erbach


Students will utilize the writings of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Timothy Shay Arthur, Elizabeth Smith Miller, Frances Willard and others to explore the dress reform movements of the mid to late 19th century.

Students will analyze the issue of dress reform from one of a variety of viewpoints, and condense these views into a letter to the editor of a 19th century periodical.

Prior to the Lesson:

Divide the class into 4 groups. Members of each group will receive packets containing the following documents:

Packet 1: Dress Reform for Health and Hygiene

"A Parody," "Dress and Vice," and "Reflections on Women's Dress"

Packet 2: Dress Reform for Social/Moral Reasons 

"Dress and Vice," "Reflections on Women's Dress," and "Gerrit Smith to Elizabeth Cady Stanton"

Packet 3: Men's Perspectives on Dress Reform 

"Advice to Young Ladies," "Dress and Vice," and "Gerrit Smith to Elizabeth Cady Stanton"

Packet 4: The Bloomer Costume 

"Mrs. Kemble and Her New Costume," "Reflections on Women's Dress," and "Reminiscences by Elizabeth Cady Stanton"

Students should read their documents for homework and answer the guided reading questions included with each packet.


Look at some fashion plates from the 1850s thru the 1890s.

Discuss some of the health problems (from the readings) that were appearing among women as a result of wearing such clothing. Look particularly at corset advertisements at http://scriptorium.lib.duke.edu/eaa/ephemera/A01/A0172/A0172-15-150dpi.html.

Do you see anything that indicates a widespread awareness of the health problems resulting from the ways in which women were dressing?

Part I

Spend the first few minutes of the period going over the readings, answering any questions and providing an overview of the dress reform movement. Why did the dress reform movement begin? What caused it to fade out? What connection (if any) existed between dress reform and other women's movements, such as temperance or suffrage?

Part II

Divide students into groups that include at least one member from each homework group. Each student should summarize what they've read and learned for the other members of their group. Taking all of the issues raised in the readings into consideration, have the group compose a letter to the editor of a fashion magazine in support of dress reform, using examples from the readings to support their arguments.

Challenge: If a group wishes, they may write a letter to the editor opposing dress reform. What flaws do you see in the arguments made in the readings? What are reformers not taking into consideration? Do you think any changes should be made in women's dress? Be sure to respond to the main arguments from the readings (health, social/moral, men's views).

When all the groups have finished, have the students read their letters to the rest of the class.


Do we see any similar issues in our society today? Can you think of arguments that blame fashion or the fashion industry for health problems or moral decline? Think of Frances Willard's argument against young girls playing with dolls. Have similar arguments been raised today? (Hint: think Barbie!)

State Standards Addressed:

16.A.5a Analyze historical and contemporary developments using methods of historical inquiry (pose questions, collect and analyze data, make and support inferences with evidence, report findings). 16.D.5 (US) Analyze the relationship between an issue in United States social history and the related aspects of political, economic and environmental history.

Notes for the Instructor:

Time required for this lesson should be about one 50-minute class period, plus outside readings.

A list of some Internet sites where fashion plates can be obtained is included with the readings.

The full-text of Timothy Shay Arthur's Advice to Young Ladies is available on Lincoln/Net and other writings by Frances Willard are available on Illinois During the Gilded Age.

Download the lesson plans below:


Packet 1

Packet 2

Packet 3

Packet 4