The Rational Dress Society and Victorian Dress Reform

In 1881, a group of high society women gathered in London to form a new organization. They named their group the Rational Dress Society, intending to reform Victorian women’s dress. The group came up with criteria for the perfect dress. It included:  

  1. Freedom of Movement
  2. Absence of pressure over any part of the body
  3. No more weight than is necessary for warmth, and both weight and warmth evenly distributed.
  4. Grace and beauty combined with comfort and convenience
  5. Not departing too conspicuously from the ordinary dress of the time

Their ideas were revolutionary and controversial. Typical Victorian dress styles incorporated heavy fabrics, tight corsets, bustles, hoop skirts, and extravagant ornamentation. The women argued that dress reform would allow them to participate in activities like cycling. Bicycles had become a symbol of freedom for many women who found the sport liberating and emancipating.  

Lady Harberton

A founding member of the society was Viscountess Florence Wallace Pomeroy, also known as Lady Harberton. Lady Harberton, the daughter of wealthy landowners, married James S. Pomeroy. He later became the 6th Viscount Harberton. In 1880, Lady Harberton took up the cause of dress reform. She loved to cycle, but heavy, long skirts prevented her from enjoying the activity. She championed the reformed dress, which consisted of baggy pantaloons worn underneath a knee-length skirt. She also invented the divided skirt, which initially evoked jeers on both sides of the pond. Some feared that trifling with a traditional women’s dress was a step down a path to loosening moral values.

In 1883, the Rational Dress Society sponsored an exhibition held in London. The exhibit included shorter dresses, divided skirts, “costumes for climbing for lady mountaineers, and a costume for walking.” One man reported to The Times that the women in his family discarded their corsets and found new freedom in dancing, walking, tricycling, lawn tennis, and other open-air exercises. They vowed never to return to corsets and heavy skirts. Attitudes for many women (and men) were undergoing a seismic shift. The “woman of the future” wanted freedom in her clothing – and freedom within other aspects of her life.  

The struggle for rational dress came to a head after an incident in 1898. Lady Harberton went cycling in Surrey. She stopped for lunch at the Hautboy Hotel but was turned away for improper dress. Lady Harberton sued the hotel but lost the case because the hotel had offered alternative seating in the bar. Nevertheless, the case brought attention to rational dress and a victory for women who advocated for it. Lady Harberton spent decades promoting clothing that would make life easier for women. Later in her life, she also became an advocate for the women’s suffrage movement. Lady Harberton died in 1911. The Guardian eulogized her as an “enthusiastic and undaunted advocate” for dress reform.

If you would like to learn more about Lady Harberton, or the Rational Dress Society, search Newspapers.com™ today!

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101 thoughts on “The Rational Dress Society and Victorian Dress Reform

    • They come and they go. I wore the 3”-4” heels in the late 70’s. And today at 73 I wish I hadn’t. Lol Dolly Parton played a large part in that decision. At any rate we bow to the trends and suffer through.

      • Why do you wish you hadn’t? Are there detrimental long term effects? I’m 6’1 so I’ve never been brave enough to wear them but I always thought I would had I been shorter!

        • Wearing high heel shoes throughout your day or for long periods of time places added stress and pressure on various parts of your body. This extra stress can harmfully affect not only your knees, but also your hips, lower back, and Achilles tendon. In the 70’s and 80’s I wore platform shoes then high heels, I remember the pain! Have been heel less for 30 years now

          • I regret folding my feet into ANY shoe that was too narrow. I have wide feet, but fashionable shoes only come in medium, so that’s what I bought and that’s what I wore, heels or no heels. Today, I suffer from neuromas in both feet and can only wear a particular sandal by Crocs. (Age 69)

        • I’m 6’1 too!!! 🙂 The height didn’t bother me, My EEE double wide size 11 1/2 feet did!! As soon as companies started making heels in wide and size 12, I was HOOKED on heels! I have a collection of 5″ heels I absolutely LOVE! Sine the pandemic started though, I have spent the last year and a half sitting cross legged in front of a computer for the better part of 12 hours every day. My feet and legs (and well, the rest of me) has gone to pot…I’m afraid my high heel days are over 🙁 (On a side note, I want to take up cycling just so I can say “I’m on the wheel!” 🙂

        • Yes, there are detrimental long-term effects. I’m 79 and my feet are a mess, particularly my toes. Take one look at my toes and it’s plain to see that I wore pointed-toe heels. I was a ballroom dancer for about 30 years and hated those shoes, pretty to look at but as my husband termed them: “cruel shoes.” I quit wearing heels to work after slipping and falling on a Saltillo-tile floor in our building, breaking and crushing the head of the radius in the left arm, requiring surgery to remove the head of the radius. I could go on, but “I rest my case.”

          • One slip or fall can cause a lifetime of grief. Sorry you suffered so much with your arm! Didn’t realize pointed toed heels were required for ballroom dancing..

      • Fools bow to trends. I never have and I don’t buy things based on commercials and advertisements. I can also sit calmly and listen to my telephone ring without answering it.

        • Michaen,
          I’ve never bowed to trends myself either. The trends in women’s clothing is both shocking and abhorrent.

          I’m a mature woman of 57, there is nothing so insulting as going into a clothing store and finding Hello Kitty & other cartoon’s on WOMEN’S outerwear, sleepwear and yes underthings too!

          To be fair what you wear under your clothing in in your bedroom is your business, but for grown women to dress in clothing meant for children is childish.

          I completely agree with letting the phone ring. I even go so far as to leave the house intentionally without my cell phone.

          I have to laugh at people I’m with when they are SHOCKED that I’ve left the phone behind. We are going to lunch or a social gathering to spend time in each other’s company. NOT to spend that time surfing the web, text fests and answering calls!
          ,

          • Maybe it’s the age since I am same, but I too leave the phone at times when gathering. I want to look at the people not sit next to them but text each other; that would be like if we wrote notes, seems childish.

      • My great aunt Mary gave me a lesson about the dangers of corsets. She explained that they caused health problems for women by inhibiting breathing that is why there were fainting Lounges. They also did not allow muscles to remain strong but they would atrophy. There is no reason to endanger your health for fashion, she said. She asked me if I would remember that and I have.

        • They sure did! He was guilty! I had to give rhem up except 1-1/2″ at most by age 40, then at that age I went flatsole! I am 75 and still have some problems! And 5’1″ tall!

          • I always used to wear stilettos, and even now wear high heels on formal occasions. No problems with my feet at all! (I’m 76.)

        • They still do if brave enough! We had a sharp dresser in Halifax, NS in the 80ties that was a bit of a local celebrity: daily dressed in impeccable men’s suits with high heels and all the women wanted to know where he got them.

      • I don’t know but who ever did should be whipped. Luckily, or unluckily, I developed a bunion while in my early 20’s and my 5 foot shelf have been in flats since then.

      • Actually heels were initally worn by Asian men of high ranking and European Royalty. Shaped more as platform shoes to keep their feet out of the muck and mud. Something I learned at the Fashion Institute in NY and later taught my students at the SU Fashion Program.

      • High heels started with men. It made it easier to stay astride a horse that was moving fast. These heels were on boots. Will have to google to see when ladies started wearing them.

    • I am 75, but in my working days I was overweigh, have high arches t and tried to wear 3″ heels. Consequently, I cracked both balls of my feet and developed tendonitis in my ankle. About 20 years after I started wearing high heels, the orthopedic surgeon recommended surgery. orthotics, and no heel higher than 1.5″. I have been fine ever since.

    • Yes, it’s hard to skip merchandized trends when we’re young, like shoes that deform our feet, and unpractical clothes & skimpy swimwear (but Coolibar in Australia came to my rescue for swimming). Why do men get to wear practical shoes and “classic” clothes w/super fabrics (like from Tyrwhitt, London)? My husband can walk all day in his well-made shoes; I’m hobbled in mine.

    • As a male with many years (age 78) to do so I’ve often wondered why so many women wear painful appearing shoes. They are frequently reported as such by the wearers. Mostly, they are as silly as our neckties, but at least we can loosen those or, as is becoming more common, remove them entirely. Fashion is one thing, but discomfort is in its own category.

    • We all owe a great debt to the women who stepped out of their comfort zone in society, used their own resources, and made changes happen that we now take for granted. Women such as Sojouner Truth (1797-1883), Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902), Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896), Harriet Tubman (1822-1913), and Susan La Flesche Picotte (1865-1915). From the 1400s until the US Civil War, the British laws of coverture denied women (yes, US women) a separate voice once married, and the husband had absolute ownership of wife and children.
      I am currently reading investigative reporter Kate Moore’s new book: The Woman They Could Not Silence — One Woman, Her Incredible Fight for Freedom, and the Men Who Tried to Make Her Disappear. Women risked being labeled insane and put into an asylum for life. This is no joke!
      In the midst of hoopskirts, cooking on woodstoves, and educating her children, and recovering from a wrongful imprisonment in an insane asylum… a certain Elizabeth Parsens Ware Packard (1816-1897) took issue with being wrongfully declared insane but “legally” processed as such, by her Bible-toting, gaslighting, pastor husband. She had become a mature woman, with 6 of his children to her credit. Because she dared think and express intellectual and spiritual understanding of Bible teachings that differed from her husband’s. And because he could get rid of her in this legally sanctioned way, Theopholis Packard did. But it backfired. He really didn’t know who his wife was and what amazing strength she had to rise up out of the depths of such wrongful incarceration—especially when she became a witness to all the other women who landed in the insane asylums at the time. And died there, never reunited with their families again.
      Without the above women’s lives dedicated to personal and radical societal reform…well, your guess is as good as mine as to whether we would possess the women’s vote, or female doctors, female attorneys, and female clothing designers…who can advance humanity’s causes because of the foundations those powerful, and beautiful women laid for us to build upon.
      I am 62 this coming December. The last time I wore heals and a girdle, was in the late 1970’s. I was a child bride at 16 and escaped a life in which I had been trafficked into my early twenty’s. I associated heels with men’s excessive demands to make us tip toe around their sensitive egos and keep us imbalanced. I never mentioned this to anyone, not even my daughters and sons (who I birthed later in life), until they were well into their teens.
      Fashion can be an expression of practical beauty or another way in which we are convinced to conform. Who knew such a chat over heels could yield such interesting tidbits?

      • Your post packs a punch to our society back then. Thank God for the women who were strong enough to go against their oppressors. Starting in 1969, I was employed as a legal secretary and watched as the firm hired its first female attorney. Of course, she was spectacular, a recent graduate with honors from a top law school and who put her male counterparts to shame. More was required of her. She wore a dark suit, bow tie and heels everyday. Dress slacks were out of the question. Most of her clients were females involved a divorce or custody suit. She went on to become a federal court judge of high acclaim. God bless the female forerunners of the world.

    • I noticed that in the last few days the hostess on Jeopardy has been wearing flats instead of high heels. I haven’t worn heels in years.

  1. The pandemic and virtual meetings have prompted other changes. Nobody can see my shorts and sandals in business meetings!

  2. But some of us LOVE our high heels! I worked my entire career in them…..and still enjoy them for dressy occasions. Unfortunately those occasions a fewer and farther between in retirement where jeans and tee shirts seem to be the uniform. What I like about the freedom of dress ladies is that they made it okay to wear what we like and choose to wear.

    • That’s exactly the point. Women have the freedom to wear what they want. If a woman wants to wear high heels, enjoy! The Victorian Era dictated women’s activities, clothing, etc. couched in the idea of the promoting the virtuous woman.

      • Personally, I miss “the virtuous woman,” and do my utmost to be one. The human body is as God made it, but there is no reason to display it as if it was for sale (or given away gratis.) I used to wear heels, and still have some, but am more comfortable in kitten heels or lower styles. Wisdom is supposed to come with age, and I suppose you can add the desire for comfort also.

  3. I love the change in dress but feel the negative came much later. The worst I have seen are the short shorts the girls are wearing to the university. What are they thinking. I thought those cheeks were for husbands viewing.

    • I agree, those shorts are obscene to wear to public school! What are their parents thinking is the question? Are their parents even paying attention to what their girls are doing?

      • I agree. Parents are letting their children make huge mistakes in picking out clothes. Do they care is the question.

    • Hey Butch, Angela,

      Preventing such shaming of women for what they are wearing is just what these early pioneers of freedoms for women were doing. Your comments denigrating the dress of women today are just such comments set in a different time.
      Then it was the “scandalous” new split dress or pants for women. Horrors! How might your comments be viewed 100 years from now?

      • Julie,
        The showing of excessive amounts of skin is called immodesty and is the cause of many moral stumblings by men and women alike. The Victorian Dress Reform only altered the way clothes fit. You can not successfully make any comparison to the dress codes, then, and the current free-for-all, to which Butch and Angela are referring.

        • It truly is. When the acceptance of public showing of parts used to defecate, Urinate and procreate becomes the norm, where is the mystery? Will the “romance” be gone? We will root in squaller like animals. The final mystery…gone forever! The game will be over

        • Amen…just the other day while at the beach with my husband three teen girls about fourteen years old kept parading up and down with their baby behinds exposed. i felt like crying. They don’t have society today to tell them how dangerous and immoral on all fronts this is.

      • I wore the high heels too when I was young, I still love them but cannot wear them. I ruined my feet. Now I need surgery but don’t trust it.
        Things have gone to extremes though. People will wear anything and look like slobs. Just go to your local Walmart.

        • These days you have to go to Walmart it is everywhere. I do the soundboard at church and it is amazing to me the dress attire for Sunday services, but more for weddings and funerals. Do they not have respect for themselves, and consideration for others.

    • Regardless of your opinion about the clothes, ‘for husbands’ viewing’ is some seriously outdated thinking. It’s 2021, Butch.

      • No, it is not. To people who have faith in God and His word, and who have self-respect as well as respect for others, it is very pertinent today AND into the future. How does displaying everyhing make life better?

    • PFFT. Women can wear whatever they want. Short shorts, cleavage revealing, or not.

      EDUCATE MEN TO RESPECT WOMEN’S BODIES.

      They’re the problem. Not us.

      • I disagree. If we all looked like super models no one would mind. But most of us I don’t. Sometimes people’s desire to be comfortable make others uncomfortable.

        • Exactly. I realize that some fashions of yesteryear were not promoted by the desire to dress modestly. . I don’t encourage women to wear necklines up to their chin, but I sincerely appreciate modesty. I get embarrassed by women who believe they have the “right” to sidplay everything. The fitness of the woman in question doesn’t make a difference. I don’t want to see anyone’s cleavage, gluteal creases or other parts normally covered by underwear!

      • would you consider it decent for men to go to church, shopping , or even out in public without their pants on and everything hanging out?

    • I think we lost a lot of things when the sexual revolution gave people the idea that it is acceptible to display the whole body. Right thinking leads to right actions. I widh people had enough self-respect to dress appropriately.

  4. Comfortable or not, the yoga pants and leggings without the longer tips to cover their back sides are awful! Leaves nothing to the imagination, sometimes even in the front!

  5. God bless Lady Harberton!
    There were many health issues for the women of the 19th century directly related to wearing the corsets. It was believed at the time and later proven by modern medical MRI testing that constriction of the chest led to muscle atrophy and lower-back pain. The pectoral muscles also become weak and these weakened muscles cause a greater reliance on the corset.

    Constriction of the liver by wearing the corsets would become enlarged or displaced. Causing mechanical congestion, by obstructing the flow of blood.

    It was also proven that the corsets affected the stomach making it difficult to digest food completely and leading to indigestion, Also affecting the colon may have aided a poor diet in causing constipation which, if severe enough and left untreated, eventually lead to death.
    Corsets also led to increased blood pressure.

    Constriction of the lungs preventing the lower lobes of the lungs from fully expanding when taking a breath. One historian argued that because the lower lobes had been strained, they were unable to adequately fight off pneumonia or tuberculosis.

    There are many more health issues created by wearing the corsets these are just a few.

    Lady Harberton freed women from this vile device. It not only improved their organ functions but gave them the FREEDOM to enjoy many outdoor activities that I’m sure lead to better overall physical and mental health.

    • Love your comment. I am a new member to DAR and am now feeling like a modern day Lady Harbeson fighting the outdated dressing protocols in that organization. Of coarse corsets are not required but formal dress is. They frown on wearing casual attire to many functions!

      • Cheryl,
        Good luck changing the DAR dress code. Fortunately, they do not require that you wear formal dress all the time, even when not attending meetings. LOL

        Unfortunately, unlike the Lady Harbeson who was fighting against social dress protocols, I’m sorry to say, you chose to join the DAR.
        It like many other organizations and employers all may require certain attire.

        Perhaps, if you approached the dress code from the perspective that the DAR knows it has an image problem of being snobby etc., you might have a chance at changing the protocol governing the attire they will permit at functions.

        I wish you well Cheryl aka 2021’s Lady Harbeson

        • I am also a DAR member. Our Chapter is not snobby or ridged in dress code. Now if you attend State or National functions you won’t be able to wear your jeans but sometimes it’s fun to dress up. Search for another Chapter that fits you better

    • I am not sure what you mean by “the pectoral muscles” or muscles of the upper chest/breast area causing more reliance on the corset, but I know that all of the muscles that supprt the spine were weakened, making it necessary to wear a corset. Some women could not hold their torso upright without wearing a corset. Can you imagine that? I am thanful that we discarded that, but the bra was one of the garments that replaced the corset, and too many women today believe that they are “too restrictive.”

  6. I am sure Lady Harberton would be rolling in her grave when the sexual revolution and ultra mini skirts took over in the 60s and Madonna’s boobs poke through in the 80s….

    I much prefer the look of ladies in the Victorian Era to our modern fashions.

    • Bernedette,
      I COMPLETELY agree with your comment regarding today’s crass lack of clothing. The Victorian era dress was very flattering and modest, minus the corsets of course.

      Sadly, today’s “styles” of anything goes or rather as little or as tight a possible is offensive unless you are in a nudist colony.

      I’m afraid the theory on dressing today is, if you got it, flaunt it. Unfortunately, there are those that don’t have it and still flaunt it anyway.

      Driving home from the store one day there was a rather large man and woman in their front yard. I can only presume he was wearing a speedo but I can’t swear to it since his 400+lbs hid the evidence of any clothing. She was only slightly smaller than he was, clad in a string bikini.

      From the back seat my 3 yr old son piped up and said, “Momma, that is why God made Adam and Eve cover up with fig leaves.”

      As the saying goes, Outa mouths of babes!

    • AMEN! There is such a difference between restrictive, unhealthy clothing and becomeing indecent. God gave us common sense, but it is up to us to use it.

      • Becka,
        Unfortunately, in today’s society COMMON SENSE is like DEODORANT, those who need it the most DONT USE IT!

  7. I watched a series on BBC that had a woman who was an advocate for this movement. These woman were amazing. Thanks to them, we are now able to wear even more comfort yet attractive clothing.

  8. I remember a time when women could not wear pants to work. One woman in my office threatened to sue unless we could wear pants, so they allowed us to wear pant suits.
    That was a major breakthrough, but I still had to deal with dress codes. A dress code is just an opinion. When I was a wage slave, I had to go along. Now that I am retired and free from the corporate yoke of oppression, I live in jeans. I don’t think I will join the DAR, although I am eligible.

  9. I am also a DAR member. Our Chapter is not snobby or rigid in dress code. Now if you attend State or National functions you won’t be able to wear your jeans but sometimes it’s fun to dress up. Search for another Chapter that fits you better

  10. I do not find jeans the least bit comfortable. I need freedom of movement and less back aches pulling at my waist. and I do agree, romance died a horrible death long time ago. it is all about sex any more. this is not just men but women now a days call it freedom of choice this is not just clothing but also sexual partners. then they all wonder what happened to trust and loyalty. It seems to have died along with romance and modesty.

  11. Back in the 50s, my grandparents lived in a town on Lake Huron that became a resort in the summertime. I remember my grandmother complaining about the tourists walking around in shorts that ” let their rear axle hang out.” Short shorts have been around for ages, and people have complained about them for just as long. However, what one wears at the beach is not appropriate for the college classroom.

  12. I graduated from High School in 1975. So I did the platform shoes to look taller and thinner, clogs just because they were cool, and then high heels of all kinds when I went into the workforce. Some where in there I know I had a pair of earth shoes with the heels lower than the toes. I’m 65 now and my feet are a mess! Bunions, lapping toes, etc. But, I looked pretty good back in the disco dancing days when I wore Candies heels with the hard plastic soles and heels, (no insoles or cushioning of any kind ) and danced for hours!!!!

    • and you were a lot younger. I was a go out dancer when I was younger. I loved to dance. I got older and now have trouble even walking. Age appropriate clothing, loose fitting but still decent makes me feel better now. You can dress any way you want but remember that is how other people see you.

  13. I believe we should have a chance to decide what we wear, but we need to question how free our choices truly are when we’ve grown up being bombarded with the destructive lie that to be a beautiful and valued woman one must look a certain way.

    • Like all of our choices, we need to consider the consequences. Does what I wear make me look cheap? If I dress a certain way to appeal to men’s natural arrousal by what they see, am I not being unfair to them? If I want to be respected, shoudn’t I dress respectably? Just throwing that our there for thought.

  14. I tried wearing ‘heels’ when I was younger and felt and thought at the time they looked ridiculous. Thousands of styles of flats to choose from if you want to look ‘dressy’. Never understood what women saw in them other than trying to fit some image of what men think is ‘sexy’.

  15. Interesting note on the article. It says ” In 1880, Lady Harberton took up the cause of dress reform. She loved to cycle, but heavy, long skirts prevented her from enjoying the activity In 1880, Lady Harberton took up the cause of dress reform. She loved to cycle, but heavy, long skirts prevented her from enjoying the activity”……but the accompanying photo shows a young’ish woman with a bike from the mid 1890’s. Other that tying her to the 1880 date, the connection to cycling is spot on. Rational dress, bloomers & such were directly tied to women cyclists. And that really took hold in the 1890’s.

  16. By chance today, I read of a Belgian woman, Miss Weber, who wore “Trouser-loons” in America in 1850 and then a speech by Mrs Smith, at Hope Chapel Broadway, reported in the New York Herald, and copied in Coffin’s Botanical Reformer, No. 82, July 5, 1851, p. 64. Herbalists were interested because of the risks to health of tight corsets.

    • I believe her name was Amelia Bloomer, but therer was a woman who developed a pair of leg coverings before the Civil War. They were very full, and worn under a skirt that was approximately knee length.

  17. We could argue one set of “standards” to another for centuries as people have been doing since the 1st piece of clothing was worn. However we can also apply a well known axiom:

    Judge not lest you be judged.
    Simple in theory. Hard in practice.

    As to the lady whose grandmother claimed that her feet hurt in flat shoes: your grandmother probably had flat feet. An elevated heel may have alleviated that problem to an extent. Smart woman!

  18. I haven’t ever seen this site go so long without adding any new newspapers. It’s like everyone’s a bot now!

    The dead internet theory is spot on!

  19. As for clothes if you look like a prat then expect to be treated like one. You worked for the rewards so you reap them.

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