Dressmaking, considered a natural extension of women’s proper work in the home, was a common and lucrative employment for women in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It afforded creative expression, prestige in the community, and even the possibility of financial independence. Yet as entrepreneurs, dressmakers faced unique business pressures, and with the advent of department stores and widespread mass production of women’s clothing, most were forced out of business.Coinciding with the exhibition Cynthia Amnéus organized for the Cincinnati Art Museum, this work examines the nineteenth-century ideology of women’s separate sphere, the early feminist movement, women in the workplace, and dressmakers as artisans and professionals. More than 140 stunning custom-made garments, historical photographs, and dressmakers’ labels document the superb artistic and technical skill of the women who produced fashionable dress in Cincinnati from 1877 to 1922.Bracketing Amnéus’s incisive study are essays by Anne Bissonnette on the eccentric tea gown, Marla Miller on the pitfalls of researching women’s cultural work, and Shirley Teresa Wajda on the dressmakers’ wealthy clientele. In all, A Separate Sphere offers a careful look into the lives of women struggling with ideological boundaries. Chronicling choices made by and imposed on both working-class women and their affluent counterparts, it reveals how these women managed to enhance their prescribed sphere for themselves and for the community at large.
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Cynthia Amneus is associate curator of costumes and textiles for the Cincinnati Art Museum.
MARLA R. MILLER, a historian of early American women and work, has made a career uncovering the lives of women who left little in the way of a documentary record. Her books include "Betsy Ross and the Making of America". She is a Professor of History at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and directs the Public History program there. She has won the Organization of American Historians Lerner- Scott Prize for the best dissertation in Women s History and the 1998 Walter Muir Whitehill Prize in Colonial History.
Shirley Teresa Wajda, Ph.D., teaches in the Department of History at Kent State University, Kent, OH. She is also coordinator of the American studies program.
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