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Closer to Modernity: The Nineteenth Century


Blackwell's Durham Fashion Doll [paper doll with dress], Digital ID 1614968, New York Public Library “Fashion is an odd jumble of contradictions, of sympathies and antipathies.” ----William Hazlitt (1778 – 1830)

The nineteenth century is when everything changes. Fashions accelerate along with the social, political, intellectual, and technological advances of each decade. Issues related to taste and aesthetics become more apparent. This is the century when men’s clothes change to take on the appearance we know today. The tailored man’s suit became the great social leveler, permitting the common man and the gentleman to share the same form of dress. The man’s suit exhibited staying power and authority, aided by the rapid development of modern nationalism. Men wore dark garments that were universally recognizable and devoid of any distracting ostentation. The same is not true for women’s wear, however. They were given an almost dizzying array of alterations in gown style, silhouette, padding and ornamentation with each passing decade of the nineteenth century. In fact, by mid-to-late-century, the sexes exchange fashion leadership roles: men with their democratic dress take a back seat to the haute couture dreams of the fair sex. Fashion belonged to women more than ever before in the history of clothing and dress. And yet the numerous details that defined and complicated feminine dress have a surprisingly disturbing social meaning…


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Great post! I'll be

Great post! I'll be interested to see what you have to say about the Aesthetic movement and dress reform in the late nineteenth century. That is the period I am most interested in, and I'm curious to know what materials NYPL has on those subjects. I know a lot about what was happening in the English Aesthetic movement, but less about the American adoption of it, after Wilde's lectures etc. I was fascinated to see the exhibition at the Costume Institute 8 years ago (I think it was that long ago) that included many Aesthetic-style dresses worn by women like Mrs. Carnegie and others. Sadly there was no catalog for that exhibition, so there was not a lot of actual information about the movement in America.

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