At the turn of the last century, women were tough. Not just because they worked long hours doing grueling labour, or because they took care of their children and husbands, but because they did so in constricting outerwear, dresses, corsets, and stockings.
When Nellie McClung was a young woman, a typical day’s dress would include stockings, undergarments, a corset, a slip, a blouse and long skirt or a long dress. A woman’s head was almost always covered with a hat, and if she had some means, she would wear heeled shoes, and jewelry. Dresses and skirts reached down to the ankles, and most sleeves extended all the way to the wrist—even during the hottest days of summer
In the latter half of the 19th century, the advent of the lock-stitch sewing machine helped many women obtain access to clothing and newer fashions they would not have been able to previously. Where at one time beautifully finished clothing would have been done by hand at considerable expense, with this new machine, hemlines and details, like lace, could be finished on a dress in minutes. Along with more readily available factory-made clothing, the need for a personal dressmaker no longer existed, which meant women of all classes could purchase nice clothing.
While attractive clothing was readily and more inexpensively available, for formal occasions many women would still have dresses custom-made. The styles were similar to everyday wear, with narrow waist and wider hips. Flowing skirts would descend to the ankle, and the wearer would most likely wear tall boots that went up the calf. It was the details such as fine lace embroidery, ruched hems, and beading that distinguished a formal silk dress from an everyday cotton outfit.
It is important to note that not everyone could afford such outfits or finery. In fact, most women would have owned only one or perhaps two changes of clothing. Women in the farming and working classes would never have had an opportunity to wear such formal attire. And, even with the advent of the sewing machine lowering the cost of these clothes, a large portion of women would have had nowhere to wear them.
The Male Wardrobe
Men’s clothing at the turn of the century was not much different from today; the biggest change would be the type of fabric. In the early 1900s, men wore long pants or trousers, with linen shirts, and suspenders if they worked a manual labour job, or a tie if they worked in an office, plus a hat. But there was no denim or silk for men. They wouldn’t have worn either blue jeans, or fancy dress shirts. Men’s attire was simply made from fabrics of woven linen, wool or cotton. These were breathable and washable, loosely cut, and ideally suited to long days of work, and dusty travel and working environments.
Victorian fashion was detailed and impeccable. Regardless of a woman’s position or job, she was expected to look—and act—feminine all the time. By recognizing women as equal people in the eyes of the law, Nellie helped allow women the right to make their own choices, including the way they could dress.