I first heard about The Rational Dress Society in a book by Fanny Moyle – Constance Wilde: The Tragic and Scandalous Life of Mrs. Oscar Wilde. Both Oscar and Constance were supportive of the society.
Intrigued, I was happy to research the RDS for an assignment in a fashion history class I’m taking at City College of San Francisco. Now I’m sharing with my readers. Enjoy!
In the year 1881 The Rational Dress Society (RDS) was founded in London by women’s rights advocates Viscountess Harberton and Emily M. King as a push-back against the burdensome fashions of the day. The popular use of petticoats, hoops, bustles, and corsets to create unnatural shapes for the female figure was thought by some to be unhealthy. Doctors reported a connection between these fashions and health issues such as shallow breathing, crushed organs, chronic digestive problems and skin eruptions.
The mission of the RDS was to encourage a shift in women’s fashions away from unhealthy constraints and toward practical options. They sought to educate women by handing out pamphlets, holding lectures, and offering alternative dress patterns for sale. In their mission statement they said:
The Rational Dress Society protests against the introduction of any fashion dress that either deforms the figure, impedes the movement of the body, or in any way tends to injure health.
The new silhouettes put forth by the society included high and loose waistlines, voluminous sleeves and skirts allowing more freedom of movement. The fabrics used were simpler with fewer if any embellishments.
The RDS gained ground but still wasn’t a popular choice and was often mocked in the press and accused of being dictatorial. The following is a segment from an 1881 article in The Birmingham Daily Post, which addresses those assertions.
It appears from the prospectus that there is no intention on the part of the society to interfere with individual liberty; the desire is simply to release ladies from the tyranny of mere fashion, by permitting them to consult their own taste and convenience upon the sole condition that their attire shall be pleasing to the eye while conforming to consideration of health and comfort.
The society’s philosophy of more practical and comfortable clothing for women planted a seed for future movements from World War I to the 1970s – when women burned their bras and it finally made a more permanent impression.
Hennessy, Kathryn. Fashion: The Definitive History of Costume and Style. New York: DK, 2012.
Mackenzie, Mairi. … isms: Understanding Fashion. London: Herbert Press, 2009.