An Exhibition on Rational Dress for Victorian Women

On 19 May 1883 Eliza King and her Rational Dress Association held an exhibition to champion comfortable clothing for Victorian women.

Attire for skating and Alpine climbing, the Rational Dress Exhibition, 1883. Penta Springs Limited/Alamy Stock Photo.

Women, wrote the feminist Charlotte Stopes in 1890, were suffering under ‘the Despotism of the goddess Fashion’. Stopes belonged to the Rational Dress Society, which campaigned for comfort in women’s clothing – and practicality, too. Many women began the day putting on walking boots, Stopes said: it became impossible once corsets were laced.

Eliza King’s Rational Dress Association went further. It aimed to reform all clothing, decrying the chimney-pot hat and the swallow-tail coat. Its exhibition opened on Piccadilly on 19 May 1883. Prizes were awarded based on five criteria, the most important of which was ‘freedom of movement’.

Visitors were greeted by four rows of rational costumes, stockings and socks. There was a ladies’ cricketing dress in white serge flannel; a white felt sou’wester – unisex – for lawn tennis or boating; dresses for skating and climbing the Alps. Exhibitors ranged from a baroness to Mrs Ball, a working woman from Bow.

Legs were problematic. Should they be clothed in bifurcated dresses? Most of the exhibits, The Times opined, were ‘rational down to the waist’. King was unbowed. Corsets and waistbands were out, she wrote. ‘Surely we have reason to hope that our emancipation has begun.’