A Celebration of Women Writers

"Dress Improvement." by Mrs. Annie Jenness Miller (1859-)
Publication: Eagle, Mary Kavanaugh Oldham, ed. The Congress of Women: Held in the Woman's Building, World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, U. S. A., 1893. Chicago, Ill: Monarch Book Company, 1894. pp. 695-696.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

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There exists such pre-conceived prejudice in the minds of many because of former attempts at dress reform, so-called, that the scope and purpose of the present work for dress improvement is more or less misunderstood and its value and success under-estimated in consequence.

Dress reform was inaugurated as a crusade against the worst evils, physiologically speaking, of the fashionable dress of a period when deforming exaggerations were conspicuous to a degree. The heroic women who wore the earlier forms of dress reform were martyrs to freedom of body. They did not concern themselves with artistic selection, nor strive after picturesque and pleasing effects. Their banner was inscribed with the bold and uncompromising words, dress reform–nothing more.

Because of this fact they did not succeed. Were one, ignorant of color combination, poetic expression and picturesque accessories, to undertake the work of creating a great painting because of technical knowledge of drawing, his work would prove essential failure. In like manner, dress-reformers failed to impress the public with the importance of a work that concerned itself with physiological functions alone.

I emphasize this fact in order that the essential difference between the earlier dress-reform movements for which modern dress improvers have suffered vicariously and the present effort at evolution of a high type of clothing for the human structure may be recognized and afford a basis for thorough understanding of what is hoped for in the future.

One who carefully examines the pages of fashion magazines, and looks into the history of dress, will find the conclusion forced upon him that there has never been any attempt upon the part of fashion makers to clothe the body consistently. Novelty, exaggeration and display have been the ends sought. The body has been cramped and distorted, its requirements for health and comfort disregarded according to the caprice of fashion's arbiters. The fundamental laws of beauty have been violated, and the human form robbed of its expression to what end? Who can answer? One might offer defense of the dress of today, but he would be compelled to reverse his decision tomorrow, for what obtains today may be regarded by the fashionable world tomorrow as "perfectly hideous," as women are often heard to say of fashion plates that are out of date.

Trace dress through its successive changes, and its absurdities, frivolities, deform- [Page 696]  ities and exaggerations are almost beyond belief. At fashion's command, anything may become the vogue without regard to eternal fitness. Women vie with each other in being the first to appear on the promenade in the latest fashionable caprice, and yet women, when appealed to in the name of health, grace and art, timidly ask: "Could one wear such a dress?"

All this brings us back to the central truth, that the education of principles having reference to line, color, arrangement and expression, must precede any great advance in artistic methods of dress. There are laws fixed and unchangeable that may be learned, and we are just now at the threshold of this great study of bodily possibilities and clothing for accurate expression.

Like all higher artistic evolution the work proceeds slowly, because of ignorance, prejudice and tradition, but the triumph of higher forms of dress is as certain as the progress of human beings along other lines of science and art.

Physical development must precede the artistic clothing of the body. We must become as gods in physical grace and expression before the highest types of dress will perfectly become us. While our bodies are ill-shapen, chest sunken, shoulders raised, abdomen protruded, classically free dress seems in truth to exaggerate our deformities; but once our bodies become nobly erect and vitally expressive, dress radiating from the natural points of support in free lines, will seem artistically graceful and expressive. For this reason I always urge upon my hearers and followers conservation and good judgment in selecting and adapting the least exaggerated forms of prevailing fashions while working with muscles, nerve-centers and joints for graceful poise and bodily culture. A stiff and unyielding figure will not become at once beautiful and expressive through disregarding the garments that have cramped motion, but disregarding such garments will give the body that freedom without which improvement remains impossible. Therefore, bodily development and free dress must go hand in hand for higher results.

Art in dress demands study of the body and adaptability of fabric, color and decoration of individuality. Exquisite needlework and ornamentation of a noble and not of the trivial kind will make the dress of the future sumptuous, elegant, costly and magnificent, according to the requirements of time and place.

Upon the other hand, art knowledge and regard for form and fitness will make simple dress devoted to the utilities no less attractive in its place and for its purpose than the robes of the lady of wealth, whose social requirements demand splendor and richness. The eternal principles of art in dress will be recognized as fixed and unchangeable, and regard for nature's unalterable laws will prove the keynote to eternal harmonies.

Inconsistencies in general extend to all departments of dress under fashion's rule. Fashion gives no attention to such fine distinction as appropriate dress for different occasions, excepting it be a distinction between evening and street attire, and even these are not arbitrary. Street dress frequently offends good taste by too great length, suitable to house and carriage wear only; while evening dress jostles street attire upon occasions that should be sacred to picturesque costuming.

When art in dress becomes recognized, every walk in life and every occasion will have its appropriate dress, and every class of society will be the gainer. Under the regime of art in dress no woman will be seen picking her way along filthy streets in a dress-skirt bedraggled with mud, nor will women wear gems and rich fabrics at church, cloth tailor-made gowns in the reception room and high hats loaded with bustling and aggressive trimmings at the theater. We shall not be served by kitchen girls arrayed in tawdry finery; shop girls in cheap jewelry and cotton lace, nor denied ourselves the privilege of proper selection in dress for time and place in any profession. In short, with the study of principles order will evolve from chaos, and each department of work will have its recognized dress, appropriate in detail, self-respecting, because the right thing for our immediate needs, and beautiful because appropriate.

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Mrs. Annie Jenness Miller is a native of New England. She was born in the White Mountains, January 28, 1859. Her parents were Solomon Jenness and Susan Wendell Jenness, both of the oldest New England stock. She was educated principally at Boston, Mass., and by private tutors. She has traveled over nearly all of the European continent and many times over America, Canada and parts of Mexico. She married in 1887 Mr. Conrad Miller. Her special work has been in the interest of women and a higher physical status for the race, one branch of which has been dress improvement. Her principal literary works are "Physical Beauty" and "Mother and Babe," besides which she is the owner and publisher of the "Jenness Miller Monthly." Her profession is literature and platform speaking. In religious faith she is Episcopalian. Her postoffice address is Washington, D. C.


Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

This chapter has been put on-line as part of the BUILD-A-BOOK Initiative at the
Celebration of Women Writers.
Initial text entry and proof-reading of this chapter were the work of volunteer
Mary Mark Ockerbloom.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom