Welcome back to our series examining the phenomenon of American Victorian women who chose to don men’s fashion. Last time, we looked at the intersection of this phenomenon with humor, fun, and adventure. In contrast, today’s installment will be all business as we get to know a few ladies who adopted men’s clothing due to the practical demands of their work. From artists to farmers, surgeons to bookbinders, Victorian women of the working classes bucked gendered fashion norms in their struggles to gain a footing in their chosen fields. Contemporary news coverage was at times surprisingly receptive to their nonconformity, perhaps an indication that at the intersection of class and gender, labor—and, more specifically, productivity—proved the dominant normative force. At other times, not even arguments for productivity won working women freedom of dress.
For Union and Confederacy alike, in the US Civil War, fashion stood as a nexus between civil unrest and the renegotiation of gender roles and expectations. As some women inserted themselves into traditionally male spaces and roles on the homefront to fill voids left behind by men at war, others seized the opportunity granted by the turbulence of the times to insinuate themselves into military settings and roles. One famous example of the latter was Dr. Mary Edwards Walker. A civilian, Walker became the first female US Army surgeon in September 1863 after two years of unpaid wartime medical work. Having worn traditionally masculine clothing on her family’s farm even as a child, Walker continued to do so into adulthood. In November 1865, Walker became the first and only woman to be awarded the Medal of Honor for her wartime service. Even decades after the war, hers was a household name, famous (and infamous) for having “adopted men’s clothes for convenience, comfort and health in the field.” The Chicago Day Book in 1912 featured Walker in old age, “the famous advocate of men’s clothes for women as she looked when making a recent call on President Taft.” Throughout her lifetime, unfounded rumors that she had even been granted “a special act of Congress [that] enabled her to wear the clothes she chose” were widespread. Tragically, Walker’s Medal of Honor was rescinded in 1917—two years before her death—due to her civilian status. It would be 60 more years until the honor was posthumously returned to her in 1977.
A contemporary of Walker, Elizabeth Cady Stanton likewise fought to further women’s rights, including the right to wear traditionally masculine clothing for reasons of work. In an August 1869 issue of the NY Sunday Times, a caustic staff writer criticized Stanton for her stance on the matter:
If the women could only wear male attire, they could get men’s wages for their labor, Mrs. [Stanton] says. Mrs. Stanton has said many a silly thing, and this one may be added to the number. Men are not paid because they wear bifurcated garments, but because they can give, in labor, the equivalent of the sum paid them. If women could do as much as men, and do it as well, they would command the same [price], whether they wore trains or trousers, paniers or pantaloons. It is the muscle, not the man, that exacts so much [remuneration] for so much exertion, and a man in petticoats would earn as much as one in breeches if his services were equally valuable.
Readers will note that the argument that women are paid less than men because of their innately inferior ability is dismayingly evergreen. Even so, Stanton’s advocacy for women’s freedom of fashion expression and her commentary on the insidious connection between misogynist gender norms and curtailed economic mobility reflect the significance of the gendered fashion debates of her era.
Victorian women striving for greater access to work opportunities came from all corners of society. In Chicago in 1880, painter Rosa Bonheur was reported by the Chicago Daily Tribune to don “man’s attire … not for the public eye, but strictly for her own convenience.” Frustrated by the unwelcome public attention she attracted as a young female painter, Bonheur found in men’s clothing not only “greater freedom of movement for modeling and painting” but also the freedom of nondescriptness. For her, eschewing the trappings of femininity brought a reprieve from both the physical limitations of Victorian women’s clothing and from the prying and judgmental eyes of an unwanted male audience.
Not unlike rumors of Dr. Walker’s Act of Congress, the Helena Independent in 1889 spread word of Missourian Emily Paxton, who “[held] a written permit from the governor of that state to wear a man’s dress anywhere in Missouri outside of cities of 10,000 inhabitants.” According to the Independent, Paxton, like Walker, grew up on a farm where by her caregiver’s direction “she put on male attire, and for twenty-three years she has continued to wear it except when visiting a city.” Notable here is the distinction between rural and urban locales: While the countryside may offer the flexibility to set aside women’s clothing to meet the demands of manual labor, cities remained sites of societally defined propriety.
Rural laborers would not always enjoy the same freedom as Paxton. Shortly after the close of the Victorian era, a 1905 article in Walla Walla’s Evening Statesman wrote of “a woman living in the southern part of the state, whose name is withheld” who had written Governor Herrick to request permission to wear trousers. “As a reason for the request she says she is forced to work out of doors a good deal in the management of a farm, and male attire would he much more [convenient] for her than petticoats.” Although the letter was referred to the attorney general “with the suggestion that perhaps he would recommend an amendment to laws to suit the case[,] such a request could not be granted.”
Around the nation and across the decades, working Victorian women turned to male attire for practical reasons rooted in the necessities of their labor. This intersection of capitalism and gender expression proved a fruitful source of news coverage of the era, foreshadowing later movements of the twentieth century as two world wars would bring further female resistance to the rigidity of gendered fashion norms, continuing a fraught national conversation.
In our next installment of this series, we’ll pivot from working women to examining the role of upper class privilege in the women-in-male-attire debate. Stay tuned for more!