The Nineteenth Century "Cult of the Lady"

The nineteenth century, most of which historians have designated as the Victorian Age, was an era in which the idealization of women was developed into an art. No longer were women enjoined to simply live out their lives in dutiful labor for their families. Instead, an intricate and complicated ideology promoting the sacredness of hearth and home developed and came into its own during the years between 1830 and 1860. Women's lives for the rest of the nineteenth and on into the twentieth centuries came to be defined by and compared to this idea.

Women's fashions and the "cult of the Lady" reflected this ideology of domesticity. Although only wealthy women could aspire to be truly fashionable, the development of periodical literature which specialized in the "female concerns" of fashion, etiquette, and the home came to disseminate the current mode to an ever increasing and literate audience. Furthermore, these magazines, such as Godey's Ladies Book, presented the domestic ideal to which many aspired but only the upper and middle classes could actually attain.

Sometime during the late 1820's and early 30's, "Home" became the catchword of the day. Home became the haven from the rough world for men and children and was maintained by the smiling demure thing in spreading skirts and with folded hands. In her book on the developing technologies of housework, Ruth Schwartz Cowan remarks that the whole transition into industrialized society had a great impact upon the behavioral, moral, emotional, and political consequences of the ideology of the home. She concludes:

`Home' came to be associated with a particular sex, `women'; with a particular emotional tone, `warmth'... and
with a particular form of behavior, `passivity'; while at the very same time, `work' became associated with `men',
`hardheartedness', `excitement', `aggression', and `immorality.'1
The necessity for a refuge from the cruel word was so highly perceived, that by 1850, the home was considered to be the mainstay of national culture.2 The cardinal virtues of the woman's sphere of domesticity became a model which the middle class extolled and hoped to provide as a role model for the teeming lower classes the mid nineteenth century. "Piety, purity, and submissiveness" became the pillars of what became known as the "cult of true womanhood."3

Although this separation of spheres seems rigid and very restrictive by modern standards, by the very fact that women were confined to the home, it became wholly theirs. The presumed expertise of women in homemaking and childrearing produced a domestic sphere that was entirely feminine.4 This encouraged a kind of "professionalization" of the home and it came to be a rallying point for social change. One historian asserts that the development of separate spheres was important for it accompanied the evolution from patriarchal family relationships to more compassionate ones.5 Furthermore, women's growing assertiveness in the private world (i.e. the incidence of a decline in birthrate probably resulting from the practice of birth control) helped smooth the path towards popular acceptance of extrafamilial activity.6

Catherine Beecher, sister of Harriet Beecher Stowe, wrote about the influential possibilities of female social interests. Catherine Beecher used the home to call for the opening up of the profession of teaching to women and to also allow women to become guardians of Public welfare.7 However, she stressed the development of women's inherent capabilities for nurturing to effect change in American Society instead of seeking such male prerogatives as voting.8 She emphasized a more "feminine" method of working quietly behind the scenes in order to effect a desired change.

Although it would be an extreme generalization to declare that all Victorian women followed fashion, many aspects of the nineteenth century made fashion trends more available to a wider circle of people. Furthermore, popular culture rejoiced that is was a woman's duty "to beautify the earth and to counteract any sordid or unlovely interests that are ever struggling for mastery."9 Indeed, by 1852, Godey's Ladies Book could declare, "it is a woman's business to be of some kind is so much the attribute of the sex, that a woman can hardly be said to feel herself a woman who has not...felt herself to be fair."10 The pursuance of beauty, for those who took it seriously, could expand into a full time job.

By the mid-nineteenth century, male domination came to its high water mark. In such periods of patriarchy, the clothing of the two sexes are as clearly delineated as possible.11 So markedly contrasted were they that "a visitor from Mars contemplating a man in a frock coat and top had and a woman in a crinoline might have supposed that they belonged to a different species."12 With the extreme separation of men's and women's spheres, Americans came to view the inculcation of beauty as being within the center of women's culture. By following the latest fashions, tight lacing their corsets, and wearing tiny shoes, they participated in rituals which historian Lois Banner identifies as being "as central to women's separate existence of life as childbirth or the domestic chores upon which historians
have usually focused."13

The word "fashion itself refers not just to high fashion, but more importantly, to a regular pattern of style change.
Therefore, almost all middle and even most working class people can be said to have worn the fashion of the day. The very fashionable lady was "the tip of the iceberg."14 Those who actually wore fashion is based on differing definitions of "fashion". Although it is well agreed that only a minority wore "high fashion", the best indicators of the current mode, fashion plates do not always give an accurate depiction of what most people wore.

The clothes the fashion plates portray are not fictitious. Rather, they served as a form of "propaganda" for the current or coming mode.15 Today, relatively few people wear the actual clothes depicted in Vogue magazine. Indeed, a high fashion model would turn many heads if she were to walk down the streets of Sherman, Texas. The high fashions of the nineteenth century were, like those of today were "stylized both to correspond to the viewers' conceptions of fashionable beauty and to exaggerate the most important features of the current mode."16

The "ultra" fashion follower managed to be the prime displayer of her husband, father, or brother's wealth and status through her physical approximation of an upper-class ideal and by the leisure of her life. Ideally, her features were refined, her hands small, and her waist slim reflecting the luxury of a social class that did not have to live on a heavy starch diet.17 Not only appearance conveyed the desired social placement; women's skirts trailed the ground, according to Harriet Beecher Stowe, "so that the well-to-do could demonstrate by their clean hems that they used carriages."18

The changing styles of the 1830's, 40's and 50's also came to reflect the separateness of the women's sphere. After the classically inspired and rather daring high-waisted clothing of the Early Republic, the flamboyant and fussy dress of the early 1830's was a drastic change. Heavy petticoats obscured the natural outlines which had shocked the fashion world of 1800.19 With spreading skirts, huge hats, and leg-o-mutton sleeves, women seemed lost in a plethora of frills and frippery. One costume history remarks "it was at this time that we begin to have the image of the sighing, swooning female who often needed smelling salts to revive her."20 (Cost H & Style p. 342) Already women were nurturing the frail feminine ideal through their actions and physical appearance. This seems light years away from the resourceful colonial women of the century before.

However, these inflated fashions began to go through several changes by 1836-1838. In one fashion writer's description:
The fashion silhouette, like a melting wax doll, started to droop downward; hair was plastered into drooping wings...beneath chaste bonnets; sleeves deflated and sank over wrists; defeated shoulders slid forlornly to the ground where they huddled...All in all, just the outfit for Tennyson's meek, unconscious dove.21

To further the impression of a docile pet, the bright colors prevalent in the 1830's gave way to mousey browns and greens.22 The bonnets too took on a modest character for they acted as blinders by not allowing the wearer to see anything but what was directly ahead of them.23

The eminent costume historian James Laver once remarked "there was never a period when women, with the exception of the straight across décolleté in the evening, were more completely covered up."24 However, through this covering, the hips and bosom were well delineated both as a contrast to the corseted, pointed waist, and the fullness of the skirt at the hips. Male notables of the time remarked that "the charm of the full skirt as deriving in part from its role as the pedestal from which the woman's head and torso stood becomingly.25

Modern costume historians argue over the interpretations of Victorian fashion. Many traditionalists emphasize "prudery" or that the clothes reflected the "consciousness of female inferiority conveyed by means styles."26 One fashion historian described early Victorian fashion in terms of "a flight from corporeality."27 Indeed, nineteenth century clothing hid far more than it revealed. In her highly acclaimed book Fashion and Eroticism, Valerie Steele breaks down Victorian sexual mores and, hence, Victorian fashion, as a reflection of bourgeoisie capitalism. She sees them as "associated with capitalist economy and centered on sexual continence (saving) except for procreation (spending)."28 Deviators were theoretically found only in the very lowest or highest strata of society. Steele further asserts that by the early nineteenth century, the body ceased to be perceived as an "instrument of pleasure" and became only an "instrument of production"--albeit one invested in "erotic capital"29

Thus, the mid-Victorian woman, though she could not lift her arms because of the restrictiveness of her dress nor could she move her legs freely because of many petticoats, was placed both theoretically and visually upon a pedestal. The pretty ornament who graced the home was physically able to little but fancy embroidery because her clothes dictated her actions. If she were to follow fashions, as many women did, about all she could do was to lead a domesticated life.

The ideal of the "perfect lady", the resultant image of the "cult of domesticity", was the epitome of the perfect female form. She was "not to walk the streets alone like a prostitute, not to scrub floors like a servant, and not to let [her] children play in the streets as the working class woman did."30 Obviously, it was impossible for the "lady" to be self supporting for she needed the monetary support only achievable by a man to realize the life which is delineated above.

So powerful was the image of the "lady" that the woman who possessed and exhibited the accepted code of behavior could redeem an entire family from common origins or low beginnings.31 Once achieved, the lady "stood far above the common woman and shared with her male partner the comforting certainty that she was superior to the masses...[however] she was beholden to act generously and charitably towards the poor and helpless."32 Furthermore, the ideal of the "perfect lady" was constantly promoted by the magazines. The living up to this ideal in manners and dress became a time consuming occupation of "upwardly mobile" women for with the labor intensive sewing and embroidery required to remain fashionable, Victorian women had their work cut out for them.33

The advent of such fashion magazines as Godey's Ladies Book made a great impact upon American fashion. Before these periodicals, American women had to rely on European dressmakers and other correspondents to send dolls dressed in the latest fashions to keep up with the continental mode.34 Furthermore, as the magazines came to take hold, an American style developed which held its own with the European fashion. The styles depicted in the magazines, in conjunction with the increasingly available sewing machine and paper patterns, spread the realm of fashion to the home sewer.35

Godey's Ladies Book was founded in 1830 by Louis Godey, a man who had a good eye for fashion. However, after 1836, the year in which he had acquired the remarkable and talented Sarah Josepha Hale as an editor36, his influence dropped significantly. Indeed, after about 1845, the magazine could have been retitled Mrs. Hale's Ladies Book. For over forty years, Mrs. Hale had a tremendous influence over a magazine whose national circulation was so large that by its peak year of 1864, it had reached a subscription of 1,512,000.37 It grew to become so popular that during the civil war, groups of soldiers subscribed to it as a kind of early pin up.38 Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote about Ma and neighbor Mrs. Heulett exchanging the latest news in Godey's on the Wisconsin frontier in her book Little House in the Big Woods.39

Although Godey's Ladies Book contained many plates of the latest styles and trends, under Mrs. Hale's direction it also offered a "moral critique of fashion as hypocrisy and vanity, stressing that `character', `virtue', and `transparent sincerity' alone constituted beauty."40 Thus the character of true womanhood was ennobled and given praise over transient fad and vanity. This emphasis of sincerity and honest so integrated itself with the American character, that many of the magazine's readers professed to "prefer daguerreotypes over painted portraits, on the grounds that their rather harsh `realism' did not `flatter' the sitter."41

Godey's Ladies Book is today remembered as a fashion magazine. However, under Mrs. Hale's direction, it also carried stories, articles, poems and book reviews of a substantial nature. It was Mr. Godey who encouraged the fashion plates.42 Although Mrs. Hale vocally opposed Women's suffrage and believed fervently in the separation of the female sphere, she advocated many improvements in women's status. She campaigned for better and higher education for women, for the admission of women into the medical profession, and for property rights for married women.43 Clearly, she did not interpret the domesticated woman as being powerless nor idle. Furthermore, because of Godey's Ladies Book 's widespread circulation, she was able to transfer her vision of domesticity into the homes and minds of millions of people.

Although "cult of domesticity" is generally attributed to the Victorian era, it was no longer quite as prevalent in the years following the Civil War. Social upheaval moderated in varying degrees the adherence to the ideology. Although many women still thought of themselves as ladies, the woman of the "Gilded Age" was no longer tied to the home in the same way her sister of twenty years before was. By the late 1860's, the fashionables gave up their spreading skirts for bustles and the curiass form which delineated the female figure to a degree not seen since the 1810's.44

The "cult of domesticity" and the "lady" provided a sense of security for many nineteenth century Americans. In that rapidly changing industrial era, the engendering of a safe haven guarded by a quiet female seemed the epitome of security. The raising of this vision to an ideology uplifted the mundane domestic duties of the housewife to a realization of the beauty of women's seperate sphere. Although in order to live this life a woman needed to be supported by a man, her task of providing a home elevated her social role. Indeed, by her very words, actions, an d dress, she could convey the status of her family. The "cult of domesticity", though it was pervasive in the thirty years before the Civil War, became an integral part of the history of women in America.


1Ruth Schwartz Cowan, More Work For Mother: The Ironies of Household Technology from the Open Hearth to the Microwave (New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1983), pp. 18-19.
2Glenna Matthews, Just A Housewife: The Rise and Fall of Domesticity in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), p. 4.
3Linda K. Kerber, "Seperate Spheres, Female Worlds, Woman's Place: The Rhetoric of Women's History," Journal of American History 75 (June 1988): 11.
4Nancy Cott and Elizabeth Peck, A Heritage of Her Own: Toward a New Social History of American Women (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1979), p. 145.
5Kerber, "Separate Spheres," Journal of American History, p.17.
7Matthews, Just a Housewife, p. 44.
8Berkin & Norton, Women of America, p. 145.
9Lois W. Banner, American Beauty (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), p. 9.
10Sarah Josepha Hale, ed., Godey's Ladies Book 46 (July 1852): 105.
11James Laver, Costume and Fashion: A Concise History (London: Thames and Hudson, 1982), p. 184.
13Banner, American Beauty, p. 14.
14Valerie Steele, Fashion and Eroticism: Ideals of Feminine Beauty from the Victorian Era to the Jazz Age (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), p. 84.
15Ibid., p. 83.
16Ibid., p. 84.
17Banner, American Beauty, p.53.
18Ibid., p. 54.
19Annagret S. Ogden, The Great American Housewife: From Helpmeet to Wage Earner 1776-1986 (Westport, Conneticut: Greenwood Press, 1986), p. 48.
20Douglas A. Russell, Costume History & Style (Englewood Cliff, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1983), p. 342.
21Michael and Ariane Batterberry, Mirror, Mirror: A Social History of Fashion (New York: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston, 1977), p. 221
.22Laver, Costume & History p. 168.
23Russell, Costume History & Style, p. 343.
24Laver, Costume & History p.172.
25Steele, Fashion & Eroticism, p. 67.
26Ogden, The Great American Housewife, p. 50.
27Steele, Fashion & Eroticism, p.85.
28Ibid., p.87.
29Ibid., p.89.
30Christine Stansell, "Revisiting the Angel of the House: Revisions of Victorian Womanhood," New England Quarterly 60 (September 1987): 477.
31Ogden, The Great American Housewife, p.33.
32Ibid., p. 35.
33Ibid., p. 48.
34Banner, American Beauty, p.67.
35Steele, Fashion & Eroticism, p.83.
36Matthews, Just a Housewife, p. 43.
37Ernest P. Earnest, The American Eve in Fact and Fiction 1775-1914 (Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 1974), p. 95.
39Laura Ingalls Wilder, Little House in the Big Woods (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1932), p. 180.
40Steele, Fashion & Eroticism, p.125.
42Earnest, American Eve, p. 95.
43Matthews, Just a Housewife, p. 43.
44Steele, Fashion & Eroticism, p.195.


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