Women's Fashion in America and Europe: Collections

The history of fashion and clothing in America and Europe is long and diverse, with dress styles changing rapidly as the world and its expectations of women adapted and developed. Using the primary sources available in Gale's Women's Studies Archiveresearchers can explore this history through materials created by and for women themselves.

For the nineteenth-century American woman, fashion was one of the primary ways to display wealth and status, with expensive fabrics and more complicated styles indicating a higher place in society. Clothing also had the power to reflect the values and traits expected of women: the pure and pious leader of the family or the submissive and domestic wife. Fashion was intended to present women as both modern and stylish. Dresses were often heavily influenced by the fashions of Europe, especially England and France, which were advertised via fashion plates and journals like Vogue and Harper's Bazaar. The styles of these dresses, however, changed significantly throughout the 1900s. In the early part of the period, high-waisted empire cut bodices were common, echoing the neoclassical aesthetic that was fashionable in England. As the century continued, the high waistlines of women's dresses lowered, skirts got bigger, and corsets came back into vogue, with dramatic dress designs influenced by Romanticism. Later in the century, the Victorian influence was seen with the large bell-shaped skirts of earlier dresses becoming narrower and more fitted.

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Fashion changed quickly through the twentieth century. Initially the Parisian influence and structured, corseted Gibson Girl style of the previous century continued, but as the first decade progressed, dress styles became softer. Practical designs proliferated during World War I, before eventually giving way to the shift-like flapper or Garconne dresses’ short hemlines that characterized the roaring twenties. Simple, feminine silhouettes were the key to women's everyday fashion through the Depression of the 1930s when American women had less money available to spend on clothes. This was contrasted with the glamorous dress silhouettes that emerged from Hollywood at this time. The impact of World War II was seen in the return to functional, utilitarian clothing in the 1940s. Clothes rationing was less severe in the United States than in the United Kingdom, meaning that the sporty, casual designs created by fashion designer Claire McCardell were able to take off in America. Yet another change in fashion was brought about in the post-war period, with hourglass figures initiated by Christian Dior, poodle skirts, and playful patterns separating the 1950s style from the decade before. The mini-skirt and mini-dress trend, made fashionable by the work of designer Mary Quant, dominated the 1960s, as did hippie fashion. Bell-bottoms, which appeared later in the decade was a style that continued into the seventies when it was joined by disco. The 1980s was exemplified by power dressing and sportswear, and the preppy style emerged in the United States during this time. As the century progressed, clothing became increasingly casual, a reflection of both the increased freedom afforded to women and innovations in technology. Cheap, versatile fabrics and ready-to-wear garments, made for any activity, democratized fashion.

The primary sources found in the Women's Studies Archive are an ideal source of information for researchers investigating fashion history, fashion design, clothing, garments and textiles, and the role of fashion in women's lives and liberation. Monographs from the nineteenth century provide insight into not only the fashions that were popular at the time, but also women's relationships with their clothing, discussions about hygiene, social influence, beauty, propriety, and morality. Other monographs give a history of fashion, looking back on not only the nineteenth century but also the century before that with examples of the patterns used by women to create their dresses. Newspapers and journals illustrate the way that fashion was disseminated to women and charts the development of style, something that is particularly visible via illustrations, photographs, and adverts. There are numerous documents available in the Women's Studies Archive that can be used to understand the development of fashion and its impact on women's lives, including discussions on female stereotypes and the perception of women, etiquette guides, and journals targeted at women that showcase the garments and fashions of the time. Gale's Women's Studies Archive is an invaluable resource for anyone exploring fashion history and the way it has shaped the female experience.

  • Women’s Periodicals

    In collaboration with the British Library, Gale has digitized a range of nineteenth and twentieth-century magazines and journals created both by and for women. They shed light on a range of aspects of women’s lives, from work to leisure. These periodicals provide a full and invaluable source for the study of the social and political history of women and their place in society in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. They cover every aspect of the surge of emancipationist activities between the passing of the Married Women’s Property Act in 1870 and the gaining of full, universal suffrage in 1928, and also cover women’s activism beyond suffrage, including anarchism, pacifism, reproductive rights, and abolitionism. Offering excellent insight into the attitudes and standpoints of a wide variety of women, from suffragettes and philanthropists to working women and the ladies of high society, this material challenges historians and social scientists to understand the complexities of the moral and social attitudes of women—through women’s own voices. It also provides deeper insight into their range of political viewpoints on topics such as education, work, religion, temperance, and social reform.

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  • Monographs on and by Women from the American Antiquarian Society

    Voice and Vision features a substantial monograph collection from the American Antiquarian Society. These books contain the output of predominantly female authors in a variety of forms, including poetry, fiction, instructional guides (domestic and professional), personal letters, recipe books, memoirs, pamphlets and leaflets, biographies and autobiographies, personal papers, children’s literature, commentaries on fashion, diaries, and religious tracts. The material covers an eclectic mix of topics, such as the abolition of slavery, African American women, alcohol and temperance, American life, divorce, domestic service, education, female crime, poetry, health and hygiene, Native American women, Irish women, juvenile literature, mental health, moral reform, religion, sexual discrimination, social reform and charitable organizations, women in publishing, women’s legal status, and women’s suffrage and rights.

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  • Rare Titles from the American Antiquarian Society, 1820–1922

    Containing over one million pages of women-authored works from the American Antiquarian Society, the pre-eminent collector of pre-twentieth-century Americana, this archive includes over a century of female writing. This unique corpus of female-authored literature centers on the American female experience in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The database not only provides women’s perspective of history but is an essential resource for researchers wanting to undertake in-depth analysis into women’s authorship enabling researchers to track the development of female language, literature, and ideas.

    Curated by the American Antiquarian Society, the monographs were selected from across the library’s collections, including a diversity of fiction genres and non-fiction subjects, but primarily because they were authored or edited by women in an attempt to provide users with a canon of women's literature. This artificial collection has been kept deliberately broad and includes fiction, poetry, instructional guides on domestics and etiquette, personal letters, recipe books, memoirs, histories, pamphlets and leaflets, biographies and autobiographies, personal papers, children’s literature, commentaries on fashion, diaries, legal accounts, oration, political ephemera, and religious tracts. This incredibly wide scope supports a variety of research, helping users answer questions about women's cultural contributions as well as provide insight into women’s day-to-day lives. The individuals range from famous figures to complete unknowns, allowing scholars to make new connections and rediscover lost or ignored works from the past.

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  • European Women’s Periodicals

    This collection contains European women’s publications from Austria (over 20), Belgium (over 15), France (over 40), Germany (over 50), Switzerland, and the Netherlands and Dutch Indonesia (over 50). The majority of the material dates between 1880 and 1940. These periodicals informed readers and allowed them to express their views on a wide range of topics, including literature and the arts, women's suffrage, birth control, education, and homemaking. Socialist women's journals such as Die Gleichheit highlight the important role women played in socialist movements. Other periodicals focus on Catholic interests, issues of importance to young women or working women, and specific political parties and movements. Illuminating a wide range of women's concerns, struggles for equality, and involvement in progressive movements, this collection is vital for researchers interested in the history of feminism in northern Europe.

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  • Women’s Lives

    This selection of primary sources covers the lives and activities of important women of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Women's Lives looks at the lives of women missionaries who traveled the globe between the years 1840 and 1980 as well as the records of American pioneer women, their migration on the Oregon Trail, and their lives in the Pacific Northwest.

    Materials related to the women's missionary movement feature journals, letters, and manuscripts written by female missionaries about their experiences and the people and customs of the countries in which they resided. They provide accounts of living in East and South Asia, South America, the African Congo, and the United States.

    Diaries, memoirs, photographs, and letters document the lives of a selection of American pioneer women who traveled the Oregon Trail or settled or lived in the Pacific Northwest. These materials provide insight into the farm, family, and social life of nineteenth-century women in rural America.

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  • Herstory

    The Herstory Collection comprises full texts of journals, newspapers, and newsletters tracing the evolution of women's rights movements in the United States and abroad from 1956 to 1974. Compiled by the Women's History Library from materials donated by the organizations that published them, the collection showcases documents from the National Organization of Women (NOW), Daughters of Bilitis (DOB), Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), Women Strike for Peace (WSP), and many other groups.

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