In early 1915, a young woman in New York City began to plot a modest revolution. Not the kind that involved bomb-throwing, riots, or assassinations, like the one that had sparked a world war the previous summer — hers was to be a social revolution, a stone heaved in a lake that would ripple out and change the world for women. Mildred Johnston Landone, described by a Boston Evening Globe reporter as “a slender, pink-cheeked young woman with a thick pile of ash-blonde hair and a dreamy smile,” was preoccupied with the problem of what women wore — and by extension, how they were able to move through the world. She was not alone in her concerns. Five years ahead of the national suffrage victory, the question of where women belonged, in public and professional life, and how they should be treated there, was an urgent one.
Landone’s scheme to draw attention to the problem and find a solution was to hold a nationwide design contest for a universal women’s garment. According to a booklet she wrote in 1914 to publicize her scheme, the garment should be “built on feministic lines made to conform with our best esthetic standards of beauty,” and it should work for women the way a suit worked for a man — allowing her to go anywhere and be anyone. Landone christened the hypothetical dress “the Polymuriel,” and it would, she believed, spell freedom for women. To encourage the creativity of revolution-minded designers across the country, she formed a committee that offered a prize of $150 to the winning pattern — the equivalent of nearly $4,000 today.
Landone’s explanation for the Polymuriel’s odd name was that it applied the prefix “poly-,” meaning “many,” to the name of her little sister Muriel, although one newspaper suggested, inaccurately, that it was a combination of the names of her two daughters, Polly and Muriel. Whatever the exact provenance, throughout 1915 Landone promoted the Polymuriel like a dedicated stage mother. In her booklet, she outlined all of the benefits of the yet-to-be-created dress, calling it both “a stable commodity” and “a friend in need” — something to rely on that wouldn’t go out of fashion after a season. Men’s clothing had evolved, she wrote, from “baby blue, lace, flounces, ruffles” to the simplicity and uniformity of the Enlightenment era, which valued intellect over appearance, and now women’s fashion needed to do the same. Uniformity was convenient, and it could be charming too — she cited European national costumes and Chinese and Japanese styles of dress, which were all the rage at the time. Those benefits, she believed, would radiate outward, helping to end the exploitation of immigrant women and children in the garment industry, while liberating women and men alike to forge a freer, more egalitarian society. In terms used widely by feminists at the time, she declared that, “As long as we are slaves to clothes, we are slaves.”
In 1915, this kind of hyperbole was not unusual. Debates over women’s clothing had been fierce for years: Corsets, in particular, were a daily physical reminder of the restrictiveness of life as a woman. Refusing to wear one was still a shocking choice, shorthand for rebellious feminist beliefs, the way “bra-burning” would become in the 1970s. Pants, meanwhile, had been controversial at least since suffragist Amelia Bloomer lent her name to a style of loose trousers in the 1850s. But women’s lives, and their wardrobes, were starting to evolve, out of necessity as well as political conviction. Since the 1890s, recognition of the health benefits of physical exercise helped fuel crazes for cycling, gymnastics, dance, golf, and other active pursuits, which required shorter skirts and lighter undergarments. Women designed and sewed their own clothes for these activities, and the appeal of this active wear spread rapidly, like modern “athleisure” styles, from the world of sports to everyday fashion.
The concerns expressed in Landone’s booklet about the production conditions of the garment industry were widely shared. Just four years before the Polymuriel contest, New York and the nation had been horrified by the spectacle of the deadly fire at the Triangle Waist Company in Washington Square, which killed 146 people, mostly young immigrant women. The fire drew attention to the brutal, overcrowded working conditions in garment factories, but also to the deadliness of fashion: The “shirtwaist” style that was being manufactured by Triangle in 1911 was falling out of vogue, so the company responded by slashing prices, ramping up production, and cutting corners on worker safety. The fire helped make labor reform an urgent cause among women across the social spectrum, and it was a further catalyst for the suffrage movement. Before women won the vote, the ability to exert boycott pressure on manufacturers who did not treat their workers well was one of the few forms of political agency open to middle-class women. Landone believed that the Polymuriel was political statement against the rapacious fashion industry that was helping to fuel the abysmal factory conditions. In her idealistic vision, the Polymuriel’s existence would free women from having to keep up with changing dress styles, allowing its production to be slower and less exploitative, which she hoped might eventually become the model across the industry.
Nevertheless, when Landone first proposed the Polymuriel contest, she found it hard to get interest. According to a report in Leslie’s Weekly, she wrote to “hundreds” of women of the plentiful charitable-reformer class, asking them to serve on a committee to evaluate the Polymuriel designs, but all of them “declined the invitation.” Perhaps it was because she was otherwise unknown within these socially elite circles, which put heavy stock in pedigree and status. Perhaps, the report suggested, these women believed that the scheme was doomed to fail because women enjoyed fashion too much. But eventually Landone managed to enlist a group of supporters with a pedigree no one could challenge.
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