Annie Jenness Miller came down from the mountains of New Hampshire with a message for the women of America: “Take off your corsets!”
She led the movement to reform women’s clothing in the late 1800s. Then, women’s fashion was embroiled in tumult. Fashionable women wanted the perfect silhouette, which meant a padded bustle hanging off their backsides and a tight corset cinched at the waist.
But the ideal silhouette offered little comfort for exercise, walking or even sitting. Dress reformer like Annie Jenness Miller argued long skirts forced women to pick their way through filthy streets and then drag mud into their drawing rooms. Enormous decorated hats and elaborate, expensive accessories resulted from a male conspiracy to keep women subservient.
Fashion police even caused children to suffer. “A little maiden of eight years was recently heard complaining that she could not get down on the floor to play, her corset was so tight,” wrote Annie Jenness Miller.
And to strike a blow for women’s liberation, she promoted a 19th-century version of the burned bra: the leglette.
Victorian Dress Reform
The Victorian Dress Reform movement had tried to update women’s fashion since the 1850s, but with limited success.
Many forces came 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.
In England, the Artistic Dress movement advocated fine, handmade materials and loose simple design over the heavily padded and restricting fashions of the day. The Pre-Raphaelite painters epitomized the ideal by portraying women in long flowing gowns.
Annie Jenness Miller
She received a Boston education, and early on earned a reputation as a lady of letters. 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. They launched new and often unattractive alternatives, prompting howls from conservatives. To create a comfortable clothing environment, they distributed patterns and worked surreptitiously.
The fashion powers danced around the problem with minor tweaks here and there as they rolled out new apparel that cleaved to the established styles.
Annie Jenness Miller began speaking about a middle way 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.
She accused the fashion industry of aiming for ‘novelty, exaggeration and display.’ The arbiters of fashion capriciously ignored health and comfort, while ignoring the fundamental laws of beauty, she said.
Fashionistas couldn’t even defend the styles of the day because they’d have to reverse their decision tomorrow when new styles take over, she argued.
Annie Jenness Miller argued that better dress would improve everyone’s lives. Indeed, dress reform belonged to the larger progressive movement, which also advocated temperance, women’s rights, public health and clean government.
She wrote that order will evolve from chaos if people dressed properly. “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.”
Leglettes (Oh, the Horror!)
Annie Jenness Miller found one way to navigate a middle ground: focus on a fashion item that people couldn’t see: underwear.
She suggested replacing the petticoat with the leglette. “And we are wholly prepared for the burst of surprise and horror with which this garment will be greeted by many,” she wrote.
Leglettes, or divided petticoats, had actually won the approval of social leaders. That’s because they knew a celebrated actress wore them. “And why not a divided garment for clothing woman’s legs as well as man’s?,” she wrote. “Were these useful members not given woman for the same purpose that they were given to man?”
Annie Jenness Miller kept her followers updated with her latest thinking on fashion in the pages of her magazine: Dress, the Jenness Miller Magazine.
The Jenness Miller Empire
Annie Jenness Miller began an empire, making and selling her own clothing. She marketed, for example, the chemilette, a light garment that combined bodice and leglette. “Finished with dainty needlework and lace, with ribbons run into the lace at the neck and about the arms, surely nothing could be prettier,” went the pitch.
In response to customer demand for union suits, she found a manufacturer for them. “These Unions … are perfect in shape, quality and finish, and at fifty cents less on ladies’ sizes, and seventy-five cents on children’s.”
Annie Jenness Miller also offered stylish outfits tailored for specific activities. She patented and sold clothing for athletics, leisure and even a business suit for women. But her 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 a 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 soon to come.
This story was updated in 2021.