Throughout history the expectations placed on women have changed by time period, location, and social contexts. Looking back on articles, advice columns, and journals can give some of the best personal insight on societal norms.
The sociological idea of “doing gender”1 comes into play here. People are expected to act a certain way, or “perform” their gender. This comes from long held socially acceptable cues that form our perception of what gender should look like. From this, we gather more specific expectations based on context. For example, performing gender in everyday life can be seen through small actions such as men driving, holding open doors, or being the dominant partner in a heteronormative relationship. While women can be seen “doing gender” by cleaning the house, doing laundry, or cooking dinner. These small tasks along with others add up to create and emphasize gender roles in society.
This idea contributes to societal expectations, as a community will impose a certain view on each gender, dictating how they should act, dress, and behave. In Manchester during the early 1920s, there was a heavy emphasis on women’s physical appearance.
The column discusses various topics from the importance of outfits, to how to dress for hosting a winter party, to dressing for your body type, to hats, to impressing your husband in the home. From some of these short excerpts we can gather how society viewed women, where they placed their value, and how they expected women to behave. All of the sections below showcase how women should appear, and feature advice on how to look your best, further establishing enforced gender stereotypes.
This section of the column talks about how important looks are for women. It focuses on how an outfit can shape the whole look, and first impression associated with you. This implies that in this context women will be judged first, and primarily on their physical appearance.
This section talks about how hosting an evening party is an excellent way to showcase your social skills, and wanting to be sure to dress properly for the occasion. It goes into detail saying that the host will want to keep with the Christmas spirit when planning your outfit, dressing in silk, satin, or crepe marocain or de chine. It should also be strightline style and have some decorative, embroidered flowers around the sleeves and neck to add detail. While the waistline of the dress may be low, the host will still want to utilize a simple belt of the same material. Further, the time of the day will dictate the sleeve length, if the party is an evening event, choosing to wear long sleeves may be more ideal.
This section affirms the overarching theme of attention to appearance in English society during the early 1920s. While this is a fashion advice column, the focus on party planning lies heavily on the hostesses' dress, and how to make her appear as the “perfect hostess.”
The column also calls attention to dressing for your body type. It states that everyone has different body types and women should dress to highlight her most appealing features. The author states that the cheise style does not suit everyone. Describing it as looking, “hopelessly dowdy on some figures,”2 then following up with the idea that the crossover style tends to be much more flattering on different body types. In addition to this, the style promotes a young, but sophisticated presence.
This draws the reader's focus to looking young and sophisticated, as well as exemplifying the pressures that aging women face.
The column also mentions wearing a hat is a way to express your individuality. The author specifically suggests a black velvet hat with a white plume. Saying that while these hats may be more expensive, they are classy and will work for a myriad of occasions. A woman should invest in a few beautiful, timeless classics for her wardrobe, and a hat should be one of them. The author then focuses on the importance of considering the shape of your own head and features when choosing a hat.
This section, in addition to emphasizing appearance, highlights class. The article implies that people will notice the material and the price of the hat, adding another pressure to women reading this column.
The advice column pictured and broken down above3 shows the value placed on appearance in English society during the 1920s. This reflects stereotypical gender norms, and exemplifies how gender can be performed.4 There was not the same emphasis on appearance for men. While appearance may be important for both men and women, there is a disproportionate amount of advice columns for women opposed to men. The column also talks about the importance of looking good at home for your husband. This highlights the fact that women are supposed to look good for the pleasure of men, and less for themselves. Continuing to look at these sections we can see the gender roles at play, women were expected to be beautiful, poised, and put together. While fashion trends change between seasons, gender roles tend to be more rigid, even a hundred years later there is still more of an emphasis on appearance for women than men.
“How to Dress Well.” Woman’s Outlook IV, no. 38 (December 1922): 42-.
West, Candace, and Don H. Zimmerman. “Doing Gender.” Gender and Society 1, no. 2 (1987): 125–51.
Kayley Nightingale is a sophomore at Wake Forest University from Pasadena, California. Her interests include writing, reading, and learning about the past.