Dress for success … in the 1890s

The Economic History Society recently held their Women’s Committee Annual Workshop at the University of Leeds, on the theme of Women and Business.

New research by Dr Clare Rose reveals that English working women in the 1890s had many problems that are familiar to us: equal pay for equal work, the glass (or diamond) ceiling, and how to find affordable clothes that presented a professional image.

All of these problems were especially acute for the thousands of women taken on in office jobs after 1880, who faced distrust and hostility from male supervisors and colleagues. They needed to dress in a way that showed they were prepared to work; respectable; but still feminine. The fact that they were all young and unmarried added to the stress on their appearance.

The problem of what to wear in the office was solved by the development of business suits for women. These were made in factories in Manchester and London, advertised in national press campaigns, and sold by mail-order.

Clothing factories advertised their goods as being made in `modern and hygienic’ conditions, rather than old-style tailoring workshops. They offered products that were good value and consciously `modern’ for women office workers, and at the same time provided employment for thousands of women as machinists, clerks and designers. The development of modern clothing for women in the 1890s both followed and increased women’s employment opportunities.

Intute links to more resources on the issues of Economic History and Women and Economics.