The class divide was very prominent through the clothing women wore since it was expensive and time-consuming to keep up to date on the fashions. Upper-class and middle-class woman had different goals on why they dressed the way they did. An upper-class woman's primary function was to "display... her husband's wealth," for "idleness ... had become a status symbol.”1 Meanwhile, middle-class women's purpose of dressing extravagantly was to "elevate the status of [their] families]" through "setting 'proper' standards of behavior, dress, and literary tastes.”2 Women were eager to dress this way because they could try to “enter a high social circle through marriage” and they would “emulate the fashions of those above them society so that they could be perceived as belonging to that group.”
A woman’s clothing gave her a sense of “superiority and lifted her out of the doldrums.”4 Dressing better than others made her feel better about her social standing and projected to society that she was better than other women.
If a woman was unable to afford the expensive fabric or hire a dressmaker to make a perfect dress, she tried to hide that fact with ornaments and details, like ruffles, braiding and soutache. In the 1880s wool became a popular fabric, but it was expensive. One way that lower-class women tried to compete with upper-class women was by having the dress made from cheaper fabric and then “disguising it with excessive ornamentation”5 to make it look more expensive. 

Figure 1

Woman were also expected to dress this way to help fulfill the “fantasy of achieving the American Dream of wealth and prosperity.”6 Women were trying to live the life they dreamed through attempting to copy the clothing of the wealthy. Fashion became an endless game of follow-the-leader. Women in higher classes wanted to show off the society the clothing that they could afford. Women of the middle classes to attempted dress extravagantly to evaluate their families’ status and try to find husbands of the desired social class.
Often women would rework their old out-of-style dresses because fabric was expensive, and difficult to acquire. There were fashion plates in women’s magazines that helped women know what styles they should be wearing. However, as noted in Lady’s book of Perfect Gentility, the style of a garment was more important than the fabric used. So women of was advised to spend more time and money on the fit of her dress and less on the fabric. No matter how expensive the fabric is, an ill-fitting garment would never look adequate in their view. 

Figure 2

The color of a women’s dress also demonstrated what social class she was from, as patterns hid dirt better so they were often worn as work or house dresses. This can be seen in the 1885-1890 work dress with stylized flowers [Figure 1]. It is of darker material that is more durable than other dresses. This dress as compared to the 1875 Dolly Varden dress differs quite a bit. The Dolly Varden, which is a dress styled from an outfit worn by a Charles Dickinson character, is made of white, sheer, delicate fabric [Figure 2]. Woven in it are delicate pink flowers that would not hide a stain or tear. That would not be an ideal dress to do domestic work in because its pattern and fabric would not withstand the strain of work. The work dress hid both stains and tears better than the Dolly Varden dress could.

1 Cruea, Susan M. “Changing Ideals of Womanhood During the Nineteenth-Century Woman 64 Movement.” Master's thesis, Bowling Green State University, 2005. . General Studies Writing Faculty Publications. 189. 
2.Cruea, 189.

3 Schulle, Jennifer Marie. “Fashion and Fallen Women: The Apparel Industry, the Retail Trade, 
Fashion, and Prostitution in Late 19th Century St. Louis.” Master's thesis. 12.

4  Langner, Lawrence, and Julian Robinson. The Importance of Wearing Clothes. Los Angeles, 67
CA.: Elysium Growth Press, 1991. 11.
5 Johnson, Lacey. “The Evolution of Fashion: Clothing of Upper Class American Women from 62
1865 to 1920.” Master's thesis, Ouachita Baptist University, 2014. 29.

6 Cunningham, Patricia A. Reforming Womens Fashion, 1850-1920: Politics, Health, and Art. 68
Ashland: Kent State University Pre`ss, 2015. 12.
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