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Fashions to Die For


As the 20th Century arrived, women’s clothing was lavish and cumbersome. Madame Gaches-Sarraute designed a new corset in 1900. She thought the corsets of the 19th Century were not healthy, and she was right. They restricted breathing and often caused fainting. They even caused misshapen ribs and internal organs. The newly designed “Health Corset” removed pressure from the waist and diaphragm, but pushed the bosom forward and the hips back so it wasn’t much of an improvement. Women topped the corset with as much as forty pounds of clothing including frilly blouses, petticoats, and heavy skirts.

The fashionable woman required an extensive wardrobe. There were morning dresses, afternoon dresses, tea dresses, and evening gowns. Upper class women changed clothes many times each day. The simplest trip meant traveling with trunks to accommodate corsets, crinolines, dresses, skirts, blouses, and shoes.

The working-class woman did not have as many changes of clothing, and usually wore dresses made of muslin. She would dampen her skin with water before putting on the muslin dress. The garment would stick to her skin and emphasize her figure. But in colder climates, women who followed this trend sometimes died of pneumonia! Crinolines were heavy undergarments made of horsehair and steel, worn so a skirt would keep its shape. It made ordinary tasks like walking through a doorway or sitting in a chair almost impossible. In 1861, the wife of poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow died when her skirt, held out by a crinoline, got too close to the fireplace and caught fire.

On this date in 1900, the Griggs Courier of North Dakota reported a similar accident. Clara Wilson was driving in a carriage with her daughter. When the carriage stopped, Clara stepped out upon a discarded match. Her skirt caught on fire. Bystanders did their best to put out the fire, but she was badly burned, and died later that day.

In the early 1900s, women’s fashions began to change as women became more active. One reason for the change was the bicycle, which quickly became popular. Although women were warned about health problems caused by being too active, they took to the bicycle, which gave rise to less restrictive … and less deadly … fashion trends.

Dakota Datebook written by Carole Butcher


Griggs Courier. 3 May, 1900.

University of Vermont. “Women’s Clothing.” "http://www.uvm.edu/landscape/dating/clothing_and_hair/1900s_clothing_women.php" http://www.uvm.edu/landscape/dating/clothing_and_hair/1900s_clothing_women.php Accessed 2 April, 2017.