“Dear me! How stupid the fashionable world is!”: Frances Willard and Dress Reform

The Willard Dress. A dress pattern requested by Francis Willard to be made available for purchase by the members of the WCTU.


In Frances Willard’s book, How to Win: A Book for Girls, she quoted an article from a “trustworthy New York authority” that she particularly enjoyed. The article stated, “Don’t try to reason logically about fashion, nearly all the fashion which have become popular in civilized countries have simply been the result of an accident.” It then related a story about how the Countess of Dudley was invited to an important dinner one night and decided to have a special costume made. The dress was not ready in time, but the Countess desperately wanted to wear it, so she sewed on the sleeves in a hurry, and “a week from that time puckered sleeves were all the rage in London…Dear me! How stupid the fashionable world is!”[1]

Like the article, Willard viewed much of mainstream fashion as absurd. However, this was not just because of the whimsy of the changing trends, but because fashion was sometimes hazardous to women’s health. Tight-lacing corsets, for example, contorted a woman’s body into the fashionable shape of the moment, but in so doing they caused long term effects like deforming a woman’s skeletal structure, along with shifting her internal organs into places not large enough to give adequate space to function (i.e. lungs).  Long hemlines that dragged dirt and mud from the street into the house were also considered health hazardous.  As part of the Dress Reform movement that arose in America from around the 1850s to the 1920s, Willard sought to address these issues.

Both men and women advocated for dress reform, as seen when Willard calls to the men of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) to help women out of the “tyranny of fashion” saying, “We must urge the growing army of the White Cross Knights to lift their sisters above the servility that makes them bow down to the decrees of arbitrary fashion mongers and thus trample the laws of health and wholesomeness under their tortured, because distorted, feet.” [2]

Willard felt strongly about the reform of dress for women and her life-long interest and activism of the subject helped to encourage women to be active, healthy, and free. For more information on Dress Reform and how Frances Willard executed it within her own life and members of the WCTU, click here.

Guest blog by Andrea Martinez, a senior at DePaul University studying Public History with a minor in American Studies. 


  1. Frances Willard, How to Win: A Book for Girls (New York: Funk & Wagnalls,

1887), 78-81.

  1. Frances Willard, “The Relation of Dress to Vice” (Chicago: Woman’s

Temperance Publishing Association, undated), 2.


web design by cpe design