Advice to females on rejecting 'fashion'

Book Excerpt


Background Notes

This book, Dress Reform Practically and Physiologically Considered, was written by M. Angeline Merritt, a resident of Somerset, in upstate New York, and published in Buffalo by Jewett, Thomas, & Co in 1852.  In this book Mrs. Merritt advocated dress reform for women - that current, "fashionable" clothing was unhealthy and that more practical clothing should be adopted by all women.  She discussed the physiological dangers (those relating to the functions and activities of the body's organs) of fashionable clothing and criticized the social customs which sustained such unhealthy practices.   She provided many samples of evidence in her book, from fashion plates and illustrations to opinions of "the press" and private testimonies in order to support her argument for reform against the Parisian styles in vogue in the 1850s.

Mrs. Merritt was one of a number of women authors who opposed "fashion."  This excerpt from her book focused on the corset and the severe consequences to the health of women who wore them.  She argued that the use of that garment was connected to a decline in the general health of American women.

The image, used as a frontispiece for the book, displayed the "Turkish Costume" outfit, a type of dress recommended by dress reformers and women's rights activists.  It included a short, slightly below knee-length sacque dress pleated to the waistband, and a pair of pantaloons, or early bloomers, to go underneath the skirt of the dress.  This allowed freedom of movement and none of the constriction that reformers argued was so damaging to women's health.

Transcription of Primary Source


In laying that before the public which is of vital interest to the community, we deem no apology demanded. To every lover of physical, as well as mental and moral progress; to every candid inquirer after the practical truths embodied in the subject herein considered, we believe this little work will be a welcome messenger.

Viewed with the candor which the subject demands, we trust its teachings will not fail of practical illustration: while the hope that those of our own sex who peruse it will act upon the honest conviction of unbiased minds, in the inspiration which has guided the pen of the Author.


Somerset, Niagara Co. N.Y., June 1852


Whence come those fashions, that intelligent beings owing allegiance only to high heaven, should crush physical existence with more than pagan zeal to pay deference to their controlling power? We answer, from licentious Paris and infidel France! Where woman stoops from her high position of virtue and morality, to mingle with the vicious and impure, to pander to the low passions and base desires of compeers in the arts of hell!! Let American and Christian women blush, at the character of their Parisian models of fashion! Heaven knows, the world know, and they may know if they will look about them, that practices and fashions that destroy the finer beauties of moral being, that mar the perfections of physical existence as GOD has conferred it, that turn the higher perceptions of intellectual greatness into the broad channels of immorality, vanity, and display, emanate only from the basest designs of vice-- are creations only of minds that would acknowledge no accountability at the bar of retribution. It is universally admitted that the fashions which we have proved, upon natural and physiological principles, to be greatly injurious and highly pernicious in their influence and tendency upon the human system, originated in a city and among a people noted the world over for infidelity and licentiousness; and we opine, that in this very fact, we find a clue not only to their immoral influence, but to the real and ostensible design of their origin. It has long been a settled principle in reason and physiology, that nothing can unduly stimulate the human body, and morbidly excite the nervous system, without exerting a correspondingly vicious influence upon the animal propensities, developing passions of lowest order and awakening impure desires. In such a principle, it is evident, we find a solution of the designing policy which gave our fashions birth. Where chastity is an article of commerce, where vice and vicious propensities are the prominent demand, where virtue and purity are unappreciated qualities, and their opposites are the staple commodity in a glutted market, there should be, surely, to keep up the hellish supply, a generally adopted plan of demoralizing influences; and where could the arch-fiend of impurity have found one more potent than the effeminating agency of dress, rendered popular by the assuming, insidious name of fashion! Yes! let our extra modest emulators of LES MODES PARISIENNES understand that this reasoning had to do with their creation; the originators knew from the unmistakable precedences of analogy, that to pursue whatever course tended to stimulate the body, and thus vitiate the nervous system, would necessarily affect the base of the brain, and excite the propensities therein existing, in a pre-eminent degree, and upon such truthful reasoning were these pernicious fashions founded.

It is true in theory, as it is true in fact, that tight waists, as usually whaleboned and popularly elongated, crowd the abdominal viscera down in immediate contact and collision with the sexual organs of the pelvic cavity, creating unnatural excitement and diseases in both, and then wadding the small of the back by such an unnatural weight and superabundance of clothing throws in its element also, to the morbid excitement of the nervous energy, and the effeminacy of the physical system.

We repeat that it is the high time that those professing morality, and who have a regard for exemplary virtue, should know the natural effect of these customs and fashions, which they seem to practice with heaven daring impunity, and knowing should blush to longer bow at the scathed shrine of such polluted creations of moral dearth and darkness!

But we are told that ladies who imitate the Parisian style of dress, in this day and country, are pure and upright in their intentions. Granted, if you can make innocence and the unavoidable curse connected with the fashions coalesce; but we take it that your very innocent intentions neither do, or even can, modify their natural and legitimate result. Like causes produce similar effects, whatever may be the reserved intention of the causer or actor. So in this case, the acknowledged natural effect of dress upon morals, in this part of the world, where virtue is lauded, may not be as prominent as under other influences, but the suppression is rather, that the moral force is sufficient to control and conceal the tendency, than that the natural organic influences are not the same. Abuses of the human system the world over produces similar results, only that from climate, regimen and inherent causes, the legitimate tendency of such abuses may be either greatly mitigated or aggravated.

But, having learned from the preceding pages, that the present fashionable modes of female dress are deteriorating, unhealthful, and alarming in their influences upon the sex wherever rigidly practiced, we come to the inquiry.

Curator Notes

Exact Title: 
Dress Reform Practically and Physiologically Considered: with plates, illustrations, opinions of the press and the private testimony of various prominent individuals
171 pages, illustrated
Merritt, M. Angeline
Jewett, Thomas and Co.
Place of Publication: 
16 cm.
American Antiquarian Society
Catalog Code: 
19th Cent. M