The late 1800s were a tumultuous time for women’s fashion. Fashionable women wanted the perfect silhouette, which meant a padded bustle hanging off their backsides and a tight corset cinched at the waist.
The problem with the ideal silhouette was that it wasn’t very comfortable for exercise, walking, or even sitting comfortably. The Victorian Dress Reform movement had tried to update women’s fashion since the 1850s, but with limited success.
Many forces were coming together to promote a new style of dress for women. Political activists equated a more liberated style of dress with political rights for women. Meanwhile, fitness advocates argued that it was impractical and unhealthy for women to maintain Victorian fashion while bicycling, playing tennis or engaging in other sports. Yet others said it was simply impractical for women to drag long skirts, some with trains, through filthy streets and then drag the city grime into the house.
Annie Jenness Miller jumped into the fight. Born in 1858 in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, Annie Jenness Miller was educated in Boston. She was well-spoken, eloquent, attractive and caught right in the middle of the fashion wars.
Those pushing for radical change simply abandoned the old ways, launching new and often unattractive alternatives (prompting howls from conservatives). They distributed patterns and worked surreptitiously to create a comfortable clothing movement.
Those in power in the fashion industries simply danced around the problem with minor tweaks here and there as they rolled out new apparel that cleaved to the established styles.
Jenness Miller, and others, thought there was a middle way, and she began speaking about it from the lecture circuit. She promoted a concept that integrated design with comfort. Dress improvement, not dress reform, was her rallying cry as she doggedly attacked the fashion industry:
“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by the fashionable world tomorrow as “perfectly hideous," as women are often heard to say of fashion plates that are out of date.”
“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.”
Jenness Miller took her ideas on speaking tours through the major U.S. cities. Her followers were eager to stay up to date with her latest thinking on fashion, which she provided through the 1890s in the pages of her magazine: Dress, the Jenness Miller Magazine.
Jenness Miller began an empire. She made and sold her own clothing, which featured a bodice that moved away from corsets, and stylish outfits tailored for specific activities. She patented and sold clothing for athletics, leisure and even a business suit for women. But he styles hewed somewhat to the accepted norms so as not to be too provocative. Her middle way appealed to many women who simply wanted comfortable clothes, not full-on fashion revolution.
By the time fashions began changing rapidly at the turn of the century, Jenness Miller was out of the picture. But her system of dress improvement rather than reform empowered the fashion changes that were soon to come.