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Journal of Women's History 16.4 (2004) 191-206
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Femininity and Fashion since the Victorian Era
Susan K. Freeman
A magazine headline at the grocery store recently informed me that showing skin was no longer in. Eager to see if this fashion trend comes to fruition, I have taken note of the sexy "boyshorts" in women's lingerie aisles. Will these masculine-cut panties, often detailed with lace, become the underwear of choice for women? Will teenage girls continue to roll down waistbands on their shorts and skirts and sport sweatpants with names of athletic teams emblazoned across the buttocks? Will "metrosexuals"—image-conscious, heterosexual men—persist in their pursuit of beauty practices traditionally associated with women? And what do all these trends reveal about the societies in which they appear?
Fashion trends invite attention, analysis, and speculation from casual observers and fashionistas as well as academic scholars and feminists. As contemporary critics and future historians explore the social, cultural, and gendered meanings and implications of early-twenty-first-century style, they will benefit from the work of historians and theorists who have examined [End Page 191] cultural change in style and imagery over the past century and a half. Five recent titles offer facts and interpretations of fashion and femininity, focusing on cleanliness, advertising, undergarments, outerwear, and adornment. These books catalogue changing styles with rich narrative description and abundant images. Although they mostly neglect larger considerations of the historical significance of beauty aesthetics, women's bodies, femininity, and consumerism, the authors nevertheless raise important questions about fashion's social history and multiple meanings.
Full of folklore, facts, and images related to the promotion of cleanliness in the United States, Stronger Than Dirt examines advertisers' attempts to create a loyal consumer base for soaps, perfumes, cosmetics, bathroom fixtures, and other hygiene products from the late Victorian era to the mid-twentieth century. Communications scholar Juliann Sivulka's readings and discussions of particular ads are provocative, interrogating how advertisers have used scientific claims, racialized imagery, and sentimentality to sell soap. Sivulka reads historical sources to explain how manufacturers and marketers promoted hygiene standards and influenced household rituals and consumer behavior. As the author contends in the opening chapter, her work illuminates "myths, icons, heroes, stereotypes, rituals, and formula" in advertisements of the era (19).
Quirky in its organization, the book begins with an introduction and progresses chronologically with little explanation for the starting and ending points: 1875 and 1940. The opening chapter touches on cleanliness norms prior to 1875, and a chapter on the rise of the mass market in the late nineteenth century follows. Three subsequent chapters concentrate on soap and bathrooms. A final chapter is devoted to African American consumer culture.
Stronger Than Dirt is striking in its descriptiveness. The author chronicles the methods of making soap and the differences among homemade, store-bought, all-purpose, laundry, and toilet varieties. In one passage, for example, Sivulka describes the material culture of the late-nineteenth-century bath, and notes that the rich would likely bathe in the bedroom, near a source of heat, whereas working...