Lady Frances Harberton and the Women of the Rational Dress Society

In 1898 Lady Harberton, was refused entrance to the Hautboy Hotel in Ockham, Surrey. The reason? She was wearing bloomers and a short jacket.

President of the Western Rational Dress Society Florence invented the divided skirt and was also a keen advocat of cycling (the Cyclists Touring Club tried to sue the Hautboy Hotel for refusal to admit but unfortunately lost the case). . The Cheltenham Chronicle reporting the case in April 1899 that when Lady Harberton had started the society it had taken “a great deal of both physical and moral courage even to mention the word bloomers”. Lady Harberton and others of the society spent much time addressing public meetings and giving ‘shows’ of the alternative forms of dress mainly devised by the members of the society themselves.

The Rational Dress Society, which was originally founded in America with proponents such as Amelia Bloomer, was founded in London in 1881, describing it’s purpose as

“The Rational Dress Society protests against the introduction of any fashion in dress that either deforms the figure, impedes the movements of the body, or in any way tends to injure the health. It protests against the wearing of tightly-fitting corsets; of high-heeled shoes; of heavily-weighted skirts, as rendering healthy exercise almost impossible; and of all tie down cloaks or other garments impeding on the movements of the arms. It protests against crinolines or crinolettes of any kind as ugly and deforming….[It] requires all to be dressed healthily, comfortably, and beautifully, to seek what conduces to birth, comfort and beauty in our dress as a duty to ourselves and each other.”

Opposition to the traditional female costumes of tight corsets, heavy skirts and restrictive cloaks was on the basis of health but also convenience. As Sarah Grand wrote ‘The New Woman has too much healthy enjoyment of life to worry about whether her ankles are visible or not’. There was a great deal of opposition to the ideals of the society from both men and women, frequently on the attractiveness or otherwise of the alternatives being suggested.

The work of such women, willing to stand up for what they believed and face public ridicule or hostility had a direct effect both on the way women were viewed in society and the opportunities open to them.

Written for Sheroes of History by Julia Carter.

Find out more…

See how newspapers at the time reported Lady Harberton’s Rational Dress scandal here.

There is a lot more information about what Rational Dress was exactly, and the key players in the movement on the Fashion Era website.

2 thoughts on “Lady Frances Harberton and the Women of the Rational Dress Society”

  1. Thanks for this Web site! There are a few typographical errors in this article. Please let me know if you’d like me to point them out to you. We wouldn’t want silly mistakes to affect the credibility of your interesting article!

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