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Meanings in Mid-Nineteenth Century Dress: Images from New England Women's Writings

Meanings in Mid-Nineteenth Century Dress: Images from New England Women's Writings

Abstract

This article draws on the writings, including diaries, letters, etiquette books, and popular fiction, of mid-nineteenth-century women to explore the roles and meanings of dress in everyday life in Victorian New England By mid-century, with the rapid change engendered by industrialization, immigration, and urbanization, individuals were especially concerned about their social position and were preoccupied with social front, the persona they presented with their attire. Women were the prime monitors of their own and their family's dress and were responsible for front, as well as assembly, upkeep, and management of clothing. Their sense of self was intimately tied up with appearance, and they struggled simultaneously to keep up-to-date and to avoid being too fashionable and thereby conspicuous. Women's writings about dress indicate a general acceptance of their prescribed roles, including modesty, domesticity, nurturance, thrift, and piety. Personal accounts mirror the great amount of backrtage labor that was necessary to maintain the proper social front and the constancy and centrality of managing and caring for clothes. The women who emerge from the writings are hard workers, good managers, and intelligent and concerned individuals.
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