On 31 August 1876, the Manchester Guardian published a letter from ‘Miserable Woman’ about the subject of women’s rights and fashion:
Sir, – Next week the British Association meets in Glasgow and I suppose women’s rights ladies will be having a grand field day. Do you think they could possibly be persuaded to give up this “franchise,” or something of that sort they are for ever talking about, and devote their able minds to the re-modelling of female dress? Talk of slavery! when we are going about like “hobbled” donkeys because it is the fashion.
The following day, the letters column carried a reply from correspondent ‘Women’s Rights’:
A real woman’s wrong
To the Editor of the Manchester Guardian
Sir, – Your correspondent “Miserable Woman” has struck the keynote of one of our greatest grievances when she complains of the slavery women endure from the shackles of dress. I can assure her that women who ask for the franchise do so in the hope and belief that this is the readiest and only effectual way to remove all injurious restrictions under which women suffer. We deem it a much more hopeful enterprise to persuade men to give women votes in the election of members of Parliament, and thereby recognise them as human beings, with personal rights equal to their own, than before women are so recognised to induce men to acquiesce in the removal of the shackles of drapery which bind their limbs as befits beings in a condition of social and political servitude.
Your own remarks in the letter seem to imply that men would willingly help women to dress in a rational way. If such is their object they take a singularly ill-judged method of accomplishing it. When women walk out in cumbrous lengthy skirts which sweep the ground and gather a mass of mud or dirt round the unhappy wearer, they rail at women for being so weak-minded as to be slaves to custom, and fashion. If women venture to walk out in short skirts they hoot at them for being so strong-minded as to disregard custom and fashion. If men really desire to see women adopt a rational, becoming and economical style of dress, they must hold the tongue of hostile criticism while the process of evolution is going on, and they must be prepared to tolerate the appearance of few deviations from the orthodox mode.
The long-trained skirt is perfectly appropriate for a fashionable promenade and for ladies who can ride in carriage, but is inexcusably absurd for women to wear as an ordinary walking dress when pursuing avocations which require them to carry parcel.
The progress of fashion since the extinction of of the bell crinoline - itself a merciful device to relieve the burden of huge skirts with which women were formerly laden - has been the gradual evolution of the human form from the mass of folds in which it lay hidden; the successive curtailments of superfluous “breadths” and the constant pushing back the remainder, till at present the sole excrescence of drapery remains the form of the fish tail prolongation of the lower skirt which now exercises the minds of those who love convention and cleanliness. But doubtless this is destined to disappear under the same influences that have been beneficially at work hitherto, and the superfluous excrescence may be found to have vanished next season, like the tails of tadpoles in the process of development.