1890s Business Women Challenged Fashion Standards

Several unidentified women sitting at typewriters in Omaha, Douglas County, Nebraska, in 1939.

 

The invention of the typewriter changed the way American business and government prepared written materials. Jobs for “typewriters,” as operators of the new machine were first called, were soon created, and women were quick to apply for and fill them. These first female typists found that entering the business world changed their job expectations, home duties, and even their mode of dress. The Lincoln Daily Call, on June 24, 1891, reported a fashion innovation for businesswomen in an article titled “Women in Trousers.” The Call told its Nebraska readers: “At a recent meeting of the Woman’s National Council at Indianapolis it was resolved that the women in business, the typewriters, should have a change in dress and the discussion showed that the bloomer costume was to be outdone if the expressed sentiment of those present counted for anything.

The New York Tribune draws this picture of the coming reform.

We fear that we should not touch on the question of the business dress for women, resolved on at Indianapolis, but as it seems probable that there is to be a radical change, the matter is too important to pass over in silence. The typical business woman is the typewriter, and the executive board of the conclave at Indianapolis, has declared that her dress must be changed, and has appointed a committee to draw up plans and specifications and report at the meeting next year. Indeed, the question was talked over in the council and a pretty accurate guess can doubtless be made as to what the report of the committee will be. The skirt is going to be discarded. In the council a mighty current, like an intellectual gulf stream, set from skirts toward trousers. The committee will report next May, and a year from now, if all goes well, the business women of the country will be wearing trousers… They may be baggy trousers; there may be trimming and passementerie down the sides and accordion plaiting around the ankles; but they will be trousers nevertheless. Bright colors may be introduced: they may not be made up wholly from one kind of cloth; the two divisions into which all trousers naturally divide themselves may-we know not-be made in different colors; but they will remain trousers notwithstanding. The gentle, bewitching swish of the typewriter’s skirts is falling upon the ears of lower New York for the last times; in a few months there will be only the silent, business-like trousers. But need we repine? It does not seem necessary. It matters not how woman, business or homekeeping, is arrayed; she will remain incomparable. As well say that it affects the beauty or the fragrance of a rose to transfer it from a china to a bronze vase. We welcome business woman’s trousers. And we congratulate her; she will at last have a pocket.

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