Introduction: Charlotte Perkins Gilman on the Symbolism and
Sociology of Clothing ix
Michael R. Hill and Mary Jo Deegan
Prefatory Note 3
1 Primary Motives in Clothing 7
2 Some Modifying Forces 15
3 The Principles Involved 25
4 Physical Health and Beauty 37
5 Beauty versus Sex Distinction 49
6 The Hat 61
7 Decorative Art, Trimmings, and Ornament 73
8 Humanitarian and Economic Considerations 85
9 Larger Economic Considerations 97
10 The Force Called Fashion 107
11 Fashion and Psychology 119
12 Hope and Comfort 131
About the Author and Editors 159
Introduction: Charlotte Perkins
Gilman on the Symbolism and
Sociology of Clothing
Michael R. Hill and Mary Jo Deegan
In The Dress of Women, Charlotte Perkins Gilman presents a nonfiction analysis of the symbolism and sociology of clothing. Originally published in Gilman’s monthly journal, The Forerunner, in 1915, The Dress of Women was serialized, month by month, at the same time as Gilman’s well-known novel, Herland, and a year prior to Gilman’s companion work, With Her In Ourland: Sequel to Herland. The Dress of Women, published here for the first time in book form, is a lively, nonfiction guidebook to many of the gender issues presented in Gilman’s Herland/Ourland saga and provides Gilman’s intellectual, philosophical, and sociological insight into the ethical situations and plot developments that are simultaneously explored in her two didactic novels.
Beyond its interest to fans and scholars of the Herland/Ourland saga, however, The Dress of Women is, in its own right, a major analytical treatise by one of America’s foremost sociological theorists: Charlotte Perkins Gilman. We have, as sociologists, added the subtitle, A Critical Introduction to the Symbolism and Sociology of Clothing, to emphasize Gilman’s specifically sociological project in this work. Gilman critically and comprehensively analyzes the institutional generation and ideological support of gendered practices in the modern world, focussing on fashion and dress as paradigm examples. She marshals a well-developed holistic grasp of enduring, coercive institutional patterns and their interrelationships, and she astutely anticipates much that is considered novel in Erving Goffman’s (1959) classic analyis of The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life and his otherwise insightful Gender Advertisements (1979). Gilman’s adaptation and thorough-going extension of Thorstein Veblen’s (1899b) The Theory of the Leisure Class places her among the leading critical social thinkers of the early twentieth century.
Gilman’s insightful analyses remain astonishingly fresh, and The Dress of Women raises and dissects core issues that today, at the start of the twenty-first century, regularly find voice in women’s magazines and on TV talk shows, including: “slavishly wearing the newest fashions,” “comfortable clothes,” “dressing to impress men,” “the high cost of fashion,” “impressing other women,” “modesty in clothing,” “dressing for success,” “beauty in clothing,” “sensible apparel,” “the ethics of wearing fur,” and so on. Many of the institutional and aesthetic questions that Gilman offers breezily in Herland and With Her in Ourland are here reiterated and given more formal thematic unity. But, here too, as in her fiction, Gilman’s style is characterized by pert examples and acerbic wit. Below, we highlight Gilman’s work in sociology, note her intellectual connections to Thorstein Veblen, and outline the linkage between cloth and clothing, as explicated in The Dress of Women, and the plot line in the Herland/Ourland narrative.
CHARLOTTE PERKINS GILMAN: SOCIOLOGIST
Gilman’s (1935) autobiography, diaries (1994, 1998), love letters (1995), bibliography (Scharnhorst 1985b), first husband’s diaries (Stetson 1985), and numerous literary studies and biographies (e.g., M. A. Hill 1980; Scharnhorst 1985a; Mayering 1989; Lane 1990; Karpinski 1992; Kessler 1995; Knight 1997; Rudd and Gough 1999; Knight 1999; Golden and Zangrando 2000) are well known, and her work specifically in sociology is slowly gaining wider, albeit belated, appreciation. The critique of Gilman’s prolific work is a virtual industry among scholars in departments of English and modern languages, and—while undoubtedly relevant to textual studies—the large body of literary criticism obtains no discussion here, for our guiding interest is primarily sociological.
Scholars in disciplines cognate to sociology have championed Gilman, but with mixed results—sometimes damning Gilman with faint or convoluted praise. Carl Degler (1966) and William O’Neill (1972) are prime examples: these male historians kept Gilman’s books alive in the 1960s and 1970s, but Lois N. Magner (1978: 70) shows that Degler exhibits an apparent “compulsion to issue warnings about taking her [Gilman’s] claims to scientific background too seriously.” Analogously, O’Neill (1972: xviii) condescendingly wrote that “Mrs. Gilman was, in her prime, the cleverest phrasemaker among leading feminists.” Despite these limitations, however, O’Neill and Degler significantly contributed to Gilman scholarship by incorporating her in their other writings. O’Neill (1967) analyzed Gilman’s role in changing ideas about divorce, the family, and the home. Degler (1989) re-introduced Gilman’s social thought to a new generation of scholars. Andrew Sinclair (1966: 272), by contrast, is a stronger ally. He boldly and unambiguously claimed that Gilman was the “Marx and Veblen” of the woman’s movement. Among other writers in cognate disciplines, Polly Wynn Allen’s (1988) treatise on Gilman’s architectural and domestic theories holds particular relevance for the social sciences.
Recent, specifically sociological writing on Gilman began with Alice S. Rossi (1973: 566–72) who, in The Feminist Papers, underscored Gilman’s social critiques. Mary Jo Deegan (1981: 16) noted the influence on Gilman of the first president of the American Sociological Society, Lester Ward, and documented Gilman’s early participation in the Society (now the American Sociological Association). James L. Terry (1983) argued for including Gilman’s work in the sociology curriculum. Deegan (1987) included Gilman in a list of the top twenty-five most important women sociologists, noted Gilman’s professional and personal friendship with Jane Addams, a Chicago sociologist (Deegan 1988: 229), and located Gilman’s mature professional sociological career within the Golden Era of Women in Sociology (1890–1920), and her eclipse, after 1920, during the subsequent Dark Era of Patriarchal Ascendancy in which many women sociologists in the United States were reduced to near oblivion, at least within disciplinary sociology (Deegan 1991: 15–21). Bruce Keith (1991) succinctly surveyed Gilman’s sociological contributions. Lemert (1997: 15–17) turned a sociological eye toward Gilman’s early classic, The Yellow Wall-Paper. Pat Lengermann and Jill Niebrugge (1998: 105–48) devote a full chapter of their text/reader to Gilman’s treatment of gender and social structure. Michael R. Hill (1996) sketches the sociological dimensions of Herland, and Deegan (1997) details at some length the philosophical and theoretical framework of With Her in Ourland: Sequel to Herland. R. A. Sydie and Bert Adams (forthcoming) offer a critical comparison between the sociologies of Gilman and Beatrice Webb. Deegan and Christopher Podeschi (forthcoming) document that Gilman was an historical founder of “ecofeminist pragmatism” who anticipated many positions found in ecofeminist writing today. In short, several sociologists are taking Charlotte Perkins Gilman seriously, as a sociologist. Gilman was a well-known sociologist in her era. She presented review papers at the annual meetings of the American Sociological Society (Gilman 1907a, b), an organization of which she was a duespaying member, and published full-length articles in the American Journal of Sociology (Gilman 1908, 1909). Leading American sociologists— Lester Ward, Edward A. Ross, Jane Addams, and others—considered her a friend and a colleague (Deegan 1997: 12–26). As a pedagogue, however, Gilman pursued the popular lecture circuit and the lay press rather than the classroom or the specialist textbook market. She taught sociology through novels, short stories, and punchy essays. Gilman did speak on college and university campuses, giving guest lectures, and she wrote several nonfiction, full-length treatises, of which Women and Economics (1898) is the best known, but her most recognized forte was the short, surgical essay and serialized works, offered on the monthly installment plan, such as Herland, With Her in Ourland, and The Dress of Women. The use of fiction to teach sociological ideas to a mass, literate audience has a major precursor in the didactic novels of Harriet Martineau (Hill 1989a, 1991) and, subsequently, in the sociological novels of Mari Sandoz (Hill 1987, 1989b), thus linking Gilman to a tradition of female sociological novelists. Working largely outside the academy, Gilman sought to make sociology relevant and intelligible to the lives of everyday men and women.