By Susan Jarrett
This research was originally presented at The Costume Society of America’s regional symposium in Nashville, TN in 2014.
In the autumn of 1825, a fair haired 30 year old Scottish- born expatriate used her personal fortune to purchase virgin land in the Western Tennessee wilderness to carve out a community where her ideas about emancipation and equality for the citizens of humanity could unfold. It was a community called Nashoba, a Chickasaw word for WOLF.
Frances Wright (called Fannie by her closest friends), was lauded as a beautiful, wealthy woman with a stately carriage, lovely ringlets and a rich resonant voice (Martin). Fervent, charismatic, and altruistic, Wright was a passionate champion of equality for enslaved Americans. In an effort to rid the world of what she called a sin against humanity, she developed a plan to end slavery through her Nashoba community. She believed that the races should be equal; the prejudices of color…. as absurd as the European prejudice of birth (Kolmerten 126).
She also renounced the societal restraints placed upon women, writing society condemned [its daughters] to the unnatural repression of feelings and desires inherent in their very organization (Kolmerten 126). She called for marriage that required the joining together of two people without the loss of individual rights and even proposed interracial love. She encouraged women to find empowerment through their sexuality and strove to move American society toward utopia.
Her ideas were blasphemous. In many towns, politicians forbade her to speak. Opponents tried to demolish her podium and over turned her carriage to prevent her escape. Undeterred, Fannie found fields from which to deliver her message. Conservative enemies were forced to play pranks during her lectures in an effort to undercut her effectiveness (Martin 274). On one occasion, a barrel full of trash covered with turpentine was set on fire and rolled into the audience. On another occasion, the gas lights were turned off on a crowd of nearly 2,000 people in an attempt to disperse the gathering. The sensationalism associated with her lectures made her so popular, she had to be accompanied by bodyguards (Martin 274).
DRESS AND REFORM
But it was not her ideology that would incite the most degradation from her contemporaries. It was her chosen manner of dress. Described as a loose, long sleeved tunic of some very fine material, bound at the waist with a flowing sash and reaching only to the knee; and below it a pair of Turkish trousers… (Lane, 3), she must have evoked a shocking visage. The press quickly dubbed her The Great Red Harlot of Infidelity, The Whore of Babylon, The Voluptuous Preacher of Licentiousness, The Priestess of Beelzebub, Miss Epicene Wright, and a female monster. By 1836, Fannie Wright was the most infamous woman in America (Crawley).
A stark contrast to the fashion of her day, Wright’s use of bifurcated trousers and tunic- garments considered masculine or affiliated with the exotic opened a pandora’s box in the timeline of history. Tunics were not new to women’s fashion, but her public use of trousers was insidious. By donning the tunic and trousers, Wright made her stance on the side of reform. Her adoption of the new plain dress reinforced her staunch objections to the restraints placed on women through marriage and the frivilous dictates of high fashion.
As Gayle Fischer points out in her article ‘PANTALETS’ AND ‘TURKISH TROWSERS’, by wearing pants of any kind, women appropriated male dress, and, by association, male privilege and power. Evidence of this is found in Jane Clay’s recollection of Frances Wright upon her visit to Monticello in 1824: In person she was masculine, measuring at least 5 ft 11 inches and wearing her hair a la Ninon in close curls, her large blue eyes and blonde aspect were thoroughly English and she always seemed to wear the wrong attire. And also, The Frenchmen told many instances of her masculine proclivites- on occasion she would harrangue the men in the public room of a hotel and the like. (monticello.org)
If Wright’s use of bifurcated trousers was an attempt to harness the power of the male gender, it referred only to the power and priviledges affiliated with the freedoms men enjoyed. In no way was Wright attempting to emasculate women’s clothing. On the contrary, Turkish trousers, often affiliated with the eroticism of the East, instead harnessed the power of the feminine mystique. In her quest to adopt a style of dress that was distinctly different from mainstream fashion, she could thus throw off the proverbial corsets of societal constraint.
In 1717, Lady Mary Wortley Montague, who lived in the Middle East while her husband served as an ambassador, wrote of the freedom she enjoyed wearing her pants… “the first part of my dress is a pair of drawers, very full, that reach to my shoes, and conceal the legs more modestly than your petticoats.” But the physical release of the body implied a sensuality, stereotypically associated with Eastern culture, that was not possible for a body confined in stays and long skirts (Fischer). What other garment besides Turkish trousers could embody Wright’s ideas about female equality.
There is no known record of Wright’s extant garments still in existence. All we are left with are the written accounts left by others, a roughly drawn sketch, and formal portraits of Wright showing her dressed in the modern fashion of the day. So how then are we to envision Frances Wright’s reform garment?
Drawing from the world in which she lived, along with our knowledge of period clothing and textiles, we can piece together an image of the garment she might have worn. We can draw from the Orientalist movement in art. These images draw a clear portrait of how the West interpreted Eastern garments.
We can also look at the clothing of the period. There is speculation that Robert Owen took his ideas of dress reform from the clothing styles of children. While I doubt Wright would have taken kindly to dressing like a child, we can assume the freedom of movement affiliated with children’s clothing relevant.
And finally, we can turn back the pages of time to the Directorate period when long, loose fitting tunics were worn as layers atop sheer muslin gowns. This silhouette is an image that serves as a beacon of Post revolutionary France- a time in which Wright was heavily influenced.*
In December of 1825, with the aid of Andrew Jackson, Frances Wright purchased 320 acres of rolling, swamp land on the Wolf River in Southwest Tennessee. It was her hope to build a community based upon united labor where every individual member of either sex is secured the protection and friendly aid of all (NHG Feb 6, 1828). Construction of houses, which she placed within a quarter mile from the bank of the… river (Kolmerten 118) began first. Wright planned to construct a washhouse and bathhouse on the river, to add a dairy, to open up some beautiful wooded pastures and retired walks extending our meadows along the….. watery bottoms” (Kolmerten 118), and to add a school where both white and black children could become educated together. But those dreams never came to fruition.
Upon her arrival, Wright quickly found she was unprepared for the wilderness. She writes of riding up to 40 miles per day and “Sleeping with my saddle for a pillow” as she oversaw the construction of her community. In letter written by the Marquis de LaFayette to Thomas Jefferson on October 1, 1824, he writes:
“It was not anticipated that one born in the lap of wealthy aristocracy, who probably had never kneaded bread, churned butter or perchance put a stitch in a garment should without the pressure of necessity, voluntarily turn woodman….. But she did it, and might be seen with her swarthy companions, piling brush, rolling logs, etc. from dawn to dusky eve. As a specimen of her application to business, she left in the morning twilight in search of their cows, and returned in the evening twilight having traversed the forest a whole day without a mouthful of food. Several times she went alone on horseback from Tennessee to New Harmony, Indiana through a wilderness country with several rivers of swimming depth (Elliot).**
Four years after Frances Wright began her great experiment, Nashoba consisted of nothing more than three or four log houses and a few small cabins for the slaves (Kolmerten 119). Upon her visit in 1828, Frances Trollope describes the scene:
“On reaching Nashoba I found it so infinitely more dreadful that I ever imagined possible that I almost immediately decided upon not suffering my children to breathe the pestilential atmosphere more than a day or two- it is impossible to give you an idea of their miserable and melancholy mode of life while I was there. Whitby and his wife [Camilla] both look like spectres from fever and ague. Lolotte the New Orleans washerwoman and her three children, full of wretched regret and repining. This was the whole community, except the slaves- whom we only saw when they brought logs for the fires. The food was scanty and far from wholesome- no milk or butter- bad water- very little bread- and no meat but pork. In short I left them in ten days (Domestic Manners).
A horrified Trollope writes Miss Wright’s cabin had no ceiling and the floor consisted of planks laid loosely upon piles (Crawley 60). The total Nashoba school population consisted of “three yellow children running wild in the swamps” (Kolmerten 120). By 1828, even Lafayette who had always been a champion of Wright, begged her to see a conclusion to [her] philanthropic adventure” (Crawley 61).
From these accounts, we can get a clear picture of what life was like in Nashoba. It was hardly place suited for long skirts, corsets, and petticoats. As historians, we can assume Wright most likely modified her attire in one way or another out of necessity. In order to adapt to a lifestyle heavy with physical labor and short on the comforts of life, she may have shortened her skirts and loosened her bodice simply to perform the tasks of day to day living in the American wilderness. Perhaps she adopted the loose fitting frocks of the farmers of England and France as a way to keep the dirt and muck from staining the clothing she did have. Maybe she found the use of a bifurcated trousers entirely more decent and practical. Perhaps forced to deal with the intrepid heat and humidity of the American South, she was moved to adopt clothing styles more suited for European watering holes for garments worn in the Indies. These are all plausible speculations.
More concrete evidence of the reasoning for her antifashion can be found in her connections with New Harmony. Various accounts from visitors and members of the community describe the uniform or new plain dress as pants and a tunic of inexpensive American made material; an over jacket reaching to the knees; a dress similar to that of an Indian, the gown reaching to the knees with pantalettes on the legs; the female dress being a pair of undertrowsers tied around the ankles over which is an exceedingly full slip reaching to the knees, though some have made them longer and also to have the sleeves long (Kolmerten 56, 78, 94); is of black and white striped cotton (Fischer 39).
Owen believed by enforcing uniform (and somewhat androgynous) clothing, he could enhance his egalitarian society. But Wright had her own ideas about how a costume of equality should look. Frances Trollope describes Wright’s attire as distinctly different, being ….of plain white muslin which hung around her in folds that recalled the drapery of a Grecian statue (Fischer 37). The reform dress at New Harmony was meant to liberate women but there was a great deal of resistance to accept the radical mode of dress amongst the married women in the community.
Both Nashoba and the New Harmony communities failed within 5 years of their inception. Robert Owen’s attempt at women’s dress reform failed because he only succeeded in liberating women for the purpose carrying out greater physical labor. Wright’s insensitivity toward the traditional female role isolated her from the very sex she was trying to liberate.
However by creating her own version of the New Harmony dress, Wright sent a clear message she was not just a follower of Robert Owen but a social reformer in her own right. She laid the groundwork for future movements toward equality. Her Tunic and turkish trousers the prototype for reform. Thirty years later, another dress reform movement would find greater success. The world in which Frances Wright lived was not yet ready for her ideas.
- Conservatives reacted stronger to her mode of dress than her reform rhetoric.
- While she may have been influenced by Owens ideas about dress reform at New Harmony, she took inspiration and ownership (just as she had with many other ideas- i.e. Jefferson, etc.) It is speculated she may have been the force behind The New Harmony Gazette.
- She set the tone for later reform movements. The Aesthetic Movement of the 1880s brought fruition to many of her ideas about dress reform and white muslin gowns were worn by all races and classes of Suffragettes during the early 20th century.
*Wright was an avid follower of Byron. His use of the exotic and his rejection of traditional values struck a chord with her at a young age. Byronic heroes appear larger than life and dress and style themselves in elaborate costumes for the purpose of making themselves as different from others as possible. Her manner of dress was the product of English/French Romanticism and preceded the women’s equal rights and Suffragette movement.
**Wright was the daughter of wealthy Scottish political radicals who championed The French Revolution.
Wright was simultaneously a product of her time and a woman before her time. The world in which she lived was not ready for her ideas. She used her manner of dress as a tool of empowerment. It would be 30 more years before bifurcated garments for women would be successfully implemented as reform dress and nearly one hundred and forty years before they were accepted into mainstream society. Frances Wright, one the most infamous women in contemporary America, was written into obscurity- her groundbreaking new ideas only to be attributed to others.
- Crawley, Erin. A Courage Untempered by Prudence: The Writings, Reforms, and Lectures of Frances Wright. Constructing the Past, 2007; Vol. 8 Issue 1, pg 49-70.
- Elliot, Helen. Frances Wrights Experiment with Negro Emancipation. Indiana Magazine of History, 1939; Vol 35, Issue 2, pg 141-157.
- Fischer, Gayle V. Pantaloons and Power- A 19th century Dress Reform in the United States, 2001.
- Frances Wright. www.monticello.org/research-and-collections
- Kolmerten, Carol A. Women in Utopia: The Ideology of Gender in the American Owenite Communities. Indiana University Press, 1990.
- Lane, Margaret. Frances Wright and the Great Experiment. Manchester University Press. 1972.
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