Clothing Behavior as Non-Verbal Resistance: Marginal Women and Alternative Dress in the Nineteenth Century

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This article examines the meaning of an ‘alternative’ style of dress for women in the nineteenth century that incorporated items of men’s clothing in combination with items of fashionable women’s clothing. Components of the alternative style included ties, men’s hats, and suit jackets. This alternative style was primarily adopted by unmarried women who were increasingly working outside the home. It can be interpreted as a set of signs that constituted a symbolic statement concerning women’s status, as embodied in fashionable clothing, and a form of non-verbal resistance to the dominant culture. The alternative style can be distinguished from proposals for dress reform that advocated the adoption of trousers and other changes that were too radical for general use during the period. In contrast to changes in fashionable styles, changes in clothing and physical appearance that represented modifications of upper- and middle-class norms were occurring in marginal settings, such as resorts, women’s schools and colleges, and women’s sports, such as riding, swimming, and bicycling. These changes were incorporated into fashionable styles in the twentieth century. The alternative dress style in the nineteenth century represents an example of the power of nonverbal symbols to express social tensions and to change people’s attitudes in advance of structural changes.

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: May 1, 1999

More about this publication?
  • Fashion Theory takes as its starting point a definition of “fashion” as the cultural construction of the embodied identity. The importance of studying the body as a site for the deployment of discourses has been well established in a number of disciplines. Until Fashion Theorys launch in 1997 the dressed body had suffered from a lack of critical analysis. Increasingly scholars have recognized the cultural significance of self-fashioning, including not only clothing but also such body alterations as tattooing and piercing.

    Fashion Theory provides an international and interdisciplinary forum for the rigorous analysis of cultural phenomena. Its peer-reviewed articles range from foot-binding to fashion advertising.
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