Fashion, Women & Automobiles

This article was published in the March 20, 1910 Indianapolis Star. It concerns an inflection point for the evolution of the automobile, the fashion of motoring apparel and the influence of women on both. It is only tangential to motorsport but I like to include pieces like this to paint the larger contextual picture of the early days of both automobiles and racing them.
The article is a great piece that marks a milestone of automobile development as the industry transitioned from its beginnings into what is today called the "Brass Era." The opening paragraph is evidence of this: "Time was when the mere mention of 'automobilist' conjured up the vision of a red 'devil-wagon' being propelled madly through space by some weird and unrecognizable something, with glass eyes, crouching over a wheel; and as for the woman motorist - well, it seemed that her original was the gorgon of unblessed memory."
A gorgon, by the way, was a monstous female creature of ancient mythology. Meanwhile the automobile of 1910 is described as, "a perfectly appointed car of graceful contour, in which one can be taken comfortably home from the opera in evening garb, and even play bridge on the - a car, in many cases, equipped with a cellarette, and table crystal vases holding flowers, tea baskets, so wonderful in construction that one may serve a perfectly appointed five o'clock in the midst of a wheat field, or on the crest of a mountain - and if need be suffer no real hardship if forced to live in the car for days."
In the earliest days the challenge of automobile constructors was to simply produce a functioning vehicle. It was high technology and largely in the hands of engineers and mechanics. As the machines evolved, engines became more powerful and smoother running and manufacturers proliferated. Competition heated up and the savvier companies differentiated and advertised their products. The need to appeal not just to the man of the house but his wife became necessary to win sales.
The article points to women becoming increasingly interested and knowledgable about car construction and features as a factor in family purchases. (Further evidence of this is the Indianapolis Automobile Trade Association (IATA) creating positions for women as judges at the 1910 Indianapolis Automobile Show.) Features such as luggage space, comfortable seating, low doors and unobstructed entrances in town cars and limousines were deemed essential to "the fairer sex." While the article continues with its observations about the automobile, noting a quiter, more powerful engine it also discusses its societal impact on fashion.
There is something more that comes through in articles of this period that I think offer historical insight to the times and is worth mentioning. The writing reflects a classical education with an obvious study of Roman and Greek history and literature as in the gorgon reference above. Another example comes in making reference to how the advent of the automobile affected fashion as all large-scale societal developments have throughout history. The writer cites the culture of Byzantium, and ancient Greek city.
Check this exerpt: "When we study the history of the dress, we find that Byzance took the simply draped Roman robes and adapting them to its mode of thought, turned them into rich hierarchical garments, heavily embroidered and stiffened with gems and bullion, the stola or Roman robe, becoming the stole and the graceful Roman wrap being finally twisted into a mere broad band of embroidery, and Ceasar's laurel wreath into a coronet of beaten gold and jewels. Not all who wore the modified laurel wreath could claim to be a Roman emperor assuredly."
Understanding that despite all the design progress most cars were still open air designs and roads were still largely unimproved from their original purpose of providing pathways for horse-drawn wagons and therefore presenting a dirt or at best stone surface. This meant protection from dust, wind, sun, rain and splattering mud was largely left to apparel. As it seems it has always been fashion leadership concentrated on females. With respect to men some of the typical elements of attire are listed: fur-lined boots, fur-lined motoring gloves, fur motoring coats, goggles, gloves know as the "lobster mitt," white wool coats and white rubber coats, adjustable motor caps were available in a variety of designs and colors.
The article continues to state its case concerning developments throughout history affecting fashion, citing that Napoleon's soldiers returned from the Orient with shawls as well as the "twisted turban." Napoleon's wife Josephine is credited with introducing the cameo and the "pseudo-classical" robe from Italy.
The article gives us insight to social structure and hierarchy with commentary about the resistance of chauffeurs to wearing the "livery" of the servant class, feeling they had earned distinction as skilled mechanics. An interesting description paints the picture of the chauffeur's garb: "...heavy box cloth in a maroon shade, fastened with deep horn buttons, 'wind cuff,' have a strap attachment to draw them in about the wrists, and the collar is made to fit snugly about the neck. The cap is the regulation shape, with a patent leather visor. Heavy gauntlets of black kid, lined with fleece or lamb, and puttees of black pigskins complete. Black is preferred to tan. A knickerbocker suit for summer wear is made with semi-Norfolk coat, while the summer gauntlets are of kid unlined, with palm, thumb and forefinger reinforced. For winter coonskin makes an admirable coat, with which there is furnished a coonskin cap, black calfskin boots lined with fleece. Of necessity, many of the accessories of automobile costume are used by both master and driver."
The article provides even greater detail concerning the styles for women but most interesting is a description of the latest design in goggles. What I think is significant about this is how it underscores the fact that cars still provided little protection from the elements. Imagine driving in a downpour and depending on clothing and goggles to shield you from the wet: "A new design in goggles, made especially for bad weather, has a metal hood which domes out over the glass, keeping it free from rain, sleet or snow. There is a ventilation between the hood and the goggle itself, so that sweating is impossible. The shield is of leather, its edges padded in plush."
Finally, women are again cited as the inspiration for "luxurious adjuncts to motor travel." Among such features listed is a red leather-lined wicker tea basket - convenient, the article insists for tete-a-tete parties in the heart of the country. Inside were a teapot, tea set and alcohol lamp.
Also there is something called the "motor restaurant" as well as a black leather tire box with all the provisions for a wayside meal complete with a table. A full array of dishware included thermos bottles, unbreakable plates, knives, forks, spoons, small jars and pots for butter, preserves, sauces, salt and pepper. Tumblers were stored and protected in wicker covers with care from the jolts of the craggy roads and tire failures of the day.
For asthetics and comfort the cars were designed with gold-trimmed crystal vases, down cushions covered with purple leather complete with pockets to store magazines and letters. A tiny footstool about six inches tall and a foot long added comfort. The cars also boasted a revolving campstool as another accessory. A portable "dressing case," complete with easel so it could stand up such as in a camping situation was offered.
This, too, reflects the context of the times as even during the burgeoning industrial revolution many Americans were still living in rural communities or were the sons and daughters of farmers in the countryside. This gave them, through the habits of lifestyle and upbringing, a greater connection with undeveloped terrain or what some might simply describe as "nature." The dressing case contained some essentials of comfort and hygiene such as brushes for clothes, hair and teeth.
The advent of cars gave the urban people of the day with means relatively quick access to countryside retreats. Today's camping advocates can relate to that soul-satisfying outdoors experience. Think Bass Pro Shops. Finally, a cabinet referred to curiously as a "collarette" is described as something that fit into the doors of the car between the two windows in front and being about four feet tall. This storage space had a glass top, sliding shelves and removable trays, humidors, liquor bottles, thermos bottles as well as chocolate and boullion cups.

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