“Suggested Clothing for the High School Girl,” 1918
In preparing for September’s First Saturday Exhibit, DRT Library staff members were amused to find Suggested Clothing for the High School Girl, a pamphlet of clothing patterns. The document was published in 1918 by the Department of Extension of the College of Industrial Arts (now Texas Woman’s University), located in Denton, Texas. Established in 1901 as the Girls’ Industrial College, the institution’s goal was to provide young women with a traditional literary education and practical instruction in domestic sciences, child care, and nursing.
According to the pamphlet’s foreword (shown above), the “designing and construction of the garments illustrated in this pamphlet were done as a class problem by the Domestic Arts Seniors of the College.” The dresses and undergarments were intended to be comfortable, “pleasing to the eye,” and easily made. Moreover, their creators hoped that they would “permit freedom of movement,” as “a mind handicapped by bodily discomfort cannot develop nearly as rapidly as one not so hampered.” Finally, the garments were designed and constructed to address a troublesome trend:
If left to her own choice [the high school girl] naturally selects that which she thinks to be beautiful and ornamental, and as a consequence of which immature selection, we have in the average high school classroom such evidence of paint, powder, beauty-spots, grotesque hair arrangements, cheap jewelry, transparent blouses, high heels, and extravagant use of silk hose as bears marked resemblance to a chorus rehearsal.
Suggested Clothing for the High School Girl was published within an era of significant changes for American women. In Domestic Revolutions: A Social History of American Family Life, authors Steven Mintz and Susan Kellogg write that,
Much more than her mother or grandmother, this new woman was likely to have attended high school or college, to be a member of a women’s organization, or to hold a job in which she worked in the company of men. From 1890 – when just one college-age woman in fifty continued her education – until 1910, female college enrollment tripled (doubling again during the teens)…Clearly the boundaries of ‘woman’s sphere’ were shifting. During the first decades of the twentieth century, the educational attainments of women began to approximate those of men; growing legitimacy was extended to female activity outside of the home; and, most importantly, new realms of work opened up to women (111).
The most conspicuous sign of these profound changes was a shift in women’s appearance. World War I, which ended the year Suggested Clothing for the High School Girl was published, reinforced trends that had been evolving since the late 1800s, as many women felt that extravagant dress was out of place in wartime. According to Mintz and Kellogg:
Before the turn of the century, most women, regardless of class, wore highly formal clothing designed to exaggerate their sexual distinctiveness. Irrespective of season, middle-class women covered their bodies with up to twenty-five pounds of [corsets, petticoats, crinolines, bustles, and other supporting devices]. Even before World War I, however, growing numbers of young women had begun to raise their hemlines; bob their hair; shed their bulky undergarments; and wear powder, rouge, lipstick, and eyeliner in public. A slender, boyish form quickly replaced the large breasted, wide-hipped nineteenth-century feminine ideal. By 1928 the amount of material used in a typical woman’s dress had declined from nineteen yards to just seven. Women were shedding a familiar but cumbersome image (110-111).
For Further Reading
See information about “Reforming Fashion, 1850-1914: Politics, Health, and Art,” an exhibit created by Historic Costume and Textiles Collection at The Ohio State University. The exhibit explored the women’s dress reform movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In particular, see the description of the process by which the average fashionable woman of the 1880s got dressed; it was no easy task!