The Victorian Bathing Suit of Winslow Homer’s “High Tide”


Winslow Homer’s Eagle Head, Manchester, Massachusetts (High Tide), which is exhibited in the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, represents a transitional period in American art, clothing and society. Embedded within the appearance of the three young women on the seashore, rendered with lively brush-strokes, is a cultural cocktail of change and modernization. When Homer displayed this particular work at the National Academy of Design in 1870, critics reacted with uncertain, if not hostile remarks about his treatment of his female subjects and his overall painting technique. What Homer captured so aptly in this painting was a cultural undercurrent that was traveling just below the surface of Victorian mainstream ideals of “modesty, moral integrity, self-control, sober earnestness and industriousness.”Under the veneer of Victorian society, a natural world was pulsing.


Homer was an American-born genre painter, who depicted every-day American life with sensitivity and vigor. Unlike his romantic predecessors who depicted highly polished interior scenes or grandiose landscapes which echoed the sanctity of a holy church, Homer turned his attention to the home-spun American scene, with a “native and personal” naturalism. His illustrations and oil paintings of Americans participating in outdoor leisure sports was a new theme in painting, and for which he produced a prolific number of examples. The fact that he was painting during the height of the Hudson River School Movement was quite influential to his work, since the Hudson River School stressed that artists should go outside of the studio to capture natural light.


However, Homer’s summary hand, and the “unfinished” look of his antebellum paintings was a departure from the Hudson River School tradition, which subsequently drew much criticism from contemporaries. Harper’s Weekly commented on Winslow Homer’s High Tide exhibited at the 1870 Academy show, stating: “The pictures are not wholly pleasing; perhaps the bathing scene—like another he has in the East Room—is not quite refined. But this picture shows a fresh eye and a wholesome independence of conventions with spirit and vigor…If the critics must gibe, it must not be at such work, however faulty, but at the hopeless, conventional, dead and buried commonplace of many of the pictures, but suggest nothing but that the painter has seen nature only in very namby-pamby engravings. In the works of Homer…you are very sure that the painter has really seen what he paints, and really tries to represent it. When he fails, he is therefore a hopeful failure.” Homer was, in fact, just painting ahead of the curve. He is considered to be one of the forerunners to Impressionism, along with Boudin in France and Fattori in Italy.


While critics picked apart the “homeliness” of his subject matter and the lack of refinement in his painting surfaces, the American public embraced his work, and the National Academy elected him an Academician when he was a young man. At least one critic had this generous statement to make about Homer’s work, “Mr. Homer goes in, as the phrase is, for perfect realism, and cares not for such fantastic hairsplitting as the distinction between beauty and ugliness. He is a genuine painter; that is to see, and reproduce what he sees.”


The swimsuits that appear in Homer’s painting, High Tide, are the result of a compromise between Victorian social mores, fashion and function. While it was considered immodest to expose the shape of the female leg, even when it was covered with stockings, weighty swathes of material made it physically impossible and dangerous for women to swim. The bathing suits popular from the mid-nineteenth century to around 1870 were a sartorial settlement between modesty and function, and were typically made of serge (a wool fabric) or flannel. The weighty material was fashioned into a paletot dress, which had a cinched bodice and short skirt that stopped at the knee. Underneath the paletot dress were ‘Turkish’ trousers, or bloomer-style pants.


Around 1848, dress reformers introduced the ‘Turkish trowser’ to lady’s fashion, in an attempt to free the female body up for engaging in more physical activities like popular “water cures”, or, in the case of Amelia Jenks Bloomer, bike riding. Just a few years prior to 1848, bifurcated undergarments had been slowly incorporated into middle-class women’s wardrobe. Such controversial undergarments made headway for bloomers or Turkish trousers.

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However, the look of women wearing trousers in the nineteenth-century did not catch on with mainstream fashion, and magazines like Punch often poked fun at women who wore such emancipated attire.  The satirical cartoons in Punch magazine were a more humorous reaction to male fear that women were “appropriating male dress, and, by association, male privilege and power.” Because the trouser for women threatened the foundational gender codes of the Victorian era, bloomers and Turkish trousers were typically only worn when pursuing genteel pursuits of recreation, and were made less threatening to the male sartorial sphere by incorporating current female fashionable silhouettes and details into the overall look of the sportswear.


Apart from the main body of the bathing dress, oiled linen caps were worn to protects the hair, while straw or sunhats hats were worn to guard the face against sunlight. In addition, lisle gloves were shown in fashion plates of the time to protect the hands from the sun, and gum shoes to protect the feet. While historians and mid-nineteenth century fashion magazines imagined Victorian women in bathing suits which covered them from head to toe, complete with black stockings, gum shoes, a linen cap, sunhats hat, gloves, bloomers or Turkish trousers and a shirt dress over a short dress, an illustration by Winslow Homer, which appeared in Harper’s Weekly in 1858, gives us another glimpse into the world of Victorian sea bathing. Women appear swimming alongside men, and bare feet, naked calves and arms and elbows can be observed bobbing out of the waters in the illustration. Although ladies wear straw hats on the shore, the women swimming in the ocean only wear their linen caps.


Patricia C. Warner uses this particular illustration by Homer to argue that contrary to some historian’s beliefs about mid-nineteenth-century sea bathing, women did not always wear every article of clothing prescribed by fashion plates from the time.  Homer, with his tradition as a genre painter and his acute eye for detail, captured the actual way in which women wore bathing suits, unencumbered by excessive articles of clothing and material, like gloves, straw hats, shoes and trousers. Furthermore, Homer was hired to record what he saw for the magazine, not reinterpret.  The fashions for bathing suits scarcely changed between the 1858 and 1870, so his illustrations of sea bathers for Harper’s Weekly and oil painting, High Tide, reaffirmed this image of young women swimming at the seaside with their bare legs exposed. Victorian art critics, viewing paintings from terra firma, may have been shocked by Homer’s realist rendering of “exceedingly red-legged and ungainly,” young women, but for enthusiast sea bathers, such opinions about the immodesty of bare skin might not have mattered. While the wearing of black stockings with a bathing suit was popular for American women from the mid-nineteenth-century and into the twentieth-century, it is highly likely that some more forward thinking or active women saw fit to remove their stockings while sea bathing.


There were two imperatives for preserving the social status of middle-class beach-going women: safeguarding white skin against sun exposure and conserving one’s modesty, by way of concealing the body’s supple contours beneath ample clothing. The breach of these two precepts in High Tide caused negative reactions in critics after he displayed the piece. In this painting, the maintenance the young lady’s lily-white skin is in jeopardy while the two figures in the foreground expose their bare legs and faces to the sun. White skin was a marker a nineteenth-century beauty and class, indicative of a life spent indoors in the domestic sphere, and also of a woman’s delicacy and refinement. Milky-white skin was preferable.  Evidence of this preference for white skin during the Victorian era can be surmised by looking at the cosmetics which were on the market during the mid-nineteenth-century, such as “Rowland’s Kalydor,” which claimed in its advertisement that it had power to “cool and refresh the face and hands of ladies and all exposed to the hot sun. It removes freckles, tan, sunburn, redness and roughness.” This Victorian beauty ideal for white skin, and a subsequent rejection of tan and red skin, explains the negative reaction one critic had to the exposed red skin of the young woman in Homer’s painting, High Tide, calling one of the figures “exceedingly red legged and ungainly.”


There is one more cultural aspect that can be ascertained from the appearance of the young ladies on the beach: the mid-nineteenth-century development of the idea of leisure time and recreation, in the wake of urbanization and an expanding middle-class. Urbanization and industrialization began to replace agrarian life in America, and thus the way in which time was spent moved away from the rhythms of the natural seasons, and became more in-tune to the rhythms of capitalist industry. The stress from “unnatural” modern life, formed by a shift from an outdoor existence to an indoor existence, created a need for leisure and recreation for the middle-class, and “natural” spaces where the bourgeoisie could retreat to became a necessity.

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By 1840, there was a boom in the creation of mountain and maritime resorts to meet the demand for recreation and leisure. It was also during the mid-nineteenth century that public parks were being constructed to better the lives of urban dwellers, as in the case of Central Park, in New York City, which was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted in 1857. Aside from creating a demand for “green spaces” and retreats to seaside resorts, modernization and industry also made it possible for more Americans to travel and visit remote wilderness areas like mountains and beaches. By 1841, an expanded national railway system enabled the American middle-class to travel to natural havens, like the seaside, in large numbers. These presumably middle-class girls which appear in Homer’s painting, High Tide, occupy the space of a beach in Massachusetts because of new middle-class concepts of leisure and recreation, and because of innovative industry and technology which allowed for extensive travel.


These three young ladies represent a number of changes occurring in America during the mid-nineteenth-century. Hidden in the contours of their bodies lies a message about the advent of impressionist painting, the introduction of active-wear for women, and the emergence of leisure and travel for a burgeoning middle-class.




Lois W, Banner. American Beauty. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 1983.


Deitz, Paula. “Parks and Public Places,” Of Gardens. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011.


Downing, Sarah Jayne. Beauty and Cosmetics: 1550-1950. Shire Publications, Oxford, 2016.


Fischer, Gayle V. “Pantalets and Turkish Trowsers: Designing Freedom in the mid-nineteenth-century United States.” Feminist Studies, Vol. 23, No. 1. Feminist Studies, Inc. 1997.


Goodrich, Lloyd. Winslow Homer Essay. George Braziller, Inc., 1959.


Goodrich, Lloyd. “Winslow Homer.” Published for the Whitney Museum of Art by MacMillan Co., New York. 1944.


Kushner, Marilyn S. and Barbara Dayer Gallati, Linda S. Ferber. Winslow Homer: Illustrating America. Brooklyn Museum of Art, George Braziller Publisher, NY, 2000.


Sandiford, Keith A.P. “The Victorians at Play: The Problems in Historiographical Methodology,” Journal of Social History, Vol. 15, No. 2. Oxford University Press, 1981.


Shrimpton, Jayne. Victorian Fashion. Bloomsbury Publishing, Oxford, 2016.


Sloan, John. “The Origin, Growth and Transformation of Maritime Resorts Since 1840,” Built Environment. Vol. 18, No.1. Alexandrine Press, 1992.


Patricia Campbell Warner, When Girls Came Out to Play: The Birth of American Sportswear. University of Massachusetts Press, Boston, 2006.


“Eagle Head, Manchester, Massachusetts (High Tide),” Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History.


“The Hudson River School”. Heilbrunn Timeline of Art and History. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. (


Winslow Homer. “The Bath at Newport,” Harper’s Weekly, September 4, 1858. Courtesy of Mount Holyoke College Special Collections and Archive.





My Muses: Erato and Anais Nin


Erato. The muse of love poetry. If I were to assign a mortal woman to Erato’s position, I can’t think of any gal more suited to inspire romance than Anais Nin—writer of erotica, memoirist of passion. Born in France to Cuban parents in 1903, Anais began her life amid the peaceful haze of the Belle Epoch (between the tumult of the Franco Prussian War and the First World War), but the modernization of post WWI west would sweep her away into a world of desire and liberation for women.


Anais was not one for conformity. She left school at age sixteen and later became an artist’s model, thumbing her nose at “lady-like” behavior. It was at this time that she also left the Catholic Church in the dust, drawn instead, perhaps, to the temple of love! However, Nin did not cultivate her sense for amore until she happened upon a tantalizing collection of French erotica, belonging to an American man (living in France). While she and her family rented this American man’s apartment for the summer, Nin could pore over steamy sentences of his naughty book collection. The fates had thrown Anais and “smutty” novels together. She would never be the same.


Beyond reading fiction, Nin cultivated a sense of her own sexuality through her various high-profile romances. She was the lover of Henry Miller, and wrote of her desire for his wife, June, in her diary. Clearly, the scope of passion and love were ever growing in Nin, as was her sense of self-possession. Anais Nin had also been keeping a diary since she was eleven years old, and would continue to keep it for over sixty years. Her penchant for writing came in handy when she was strapped for cash during the 1940’s. It was at this time that Nin, Henry Miller and her band of merry writer friends began writing erotica, for an anonymous collector, at a dollar a page. Decades later, Nin published these lust-filled narratives in two books: Delta of Venus and Little Birds.


Here are a few selected excerpts from her erotic novels:


“He was in that state of fire that she loved. She wanted to be burnt.” – Delta of Venus


“He had not touched me. He did not need to. His presence had affected me in such a way that I felt as if he had caressed me for a long time.” – Delta of Venus


“With her eyes alone she could give this response, the absolutely erotic response, as if febrile waves were trembling there, pools of madness…something devouring that could lick a man all over like a flame, annihilate him, with pleasure never before known.” – The Little Birds


Significantly, Anais Nin became the first woman to publish true, fleshy, lusty erotica in the west. As a pioneer of boundless female love in fiction, I honor her as my muse of love poetry. She is the perfect flesh and blood well-spring for inspiration in the bedroom and beyond. Causing readers to stir with lust and leave them dripping with wet anticipation, Anais Nin would make Erato proud.



My Muses: Euterpe and Sappho


Euterpe is the Greek muse of lyric poetry, and while she’s really great and all, she is made of mythic material. Sappho, on the other hand, was a real flesh and blood (well, now, soil and worms) gal who wrote honest to goodness lyric poems. Sappho was born around 630 BC, on the Isle of Lesbos. She was a Greek lyricist, and one of only a handful of female poets known to the ancient world. Supposedly, Solon (Athenian lawmaker and poet) was so moved by her work that he desired to be taught a song by Sappho “so that I may learn it and then die.” Now, Solon is either prone to emotional outbursts, or Sappho was one sweet lyricist.


Unfortunately, we may never know which of Sappho’s lyrical poems had whipped Solon into a frenzy of drama, because much of her work has been lost through neglect.  Medieval Byzantium dropped her works from their standard curriculum in the process of modernization, and copies of her poems ceased to be reproduced by scribes. As if her work hadn’t suffered enough, in an act of textual terror, copies of her poetry had been destroyed in the burning of the Library of Alexandria. Gasp!  


Here’s a lovely adaptation of a poem by Sappho, as translated by Dante Gabriel Rossetti:

One Girl
Like the sweet apple which reddens upon the topmost bough, 
Atop on the topmost twig, — which the pluckers forgot, somehow, — 
Forget it not, nay; but got it not, for none could get it till now. 
Like the wild hyacinth flower which on the hills is found, 
Which the passing feet of the shepherds for ever tear and wound, 
Until the purple blossom is trodden in the ground.


In modern times, Sappho is known less for her written work, and more for her image as a symbol of female homosexuality. Her romantic poetry, involving female subjects, has made her the darling of lesbian circles. The English words “sapphic” and “lesbian” both refer to Sappho, thus, preserving her in writing, after all. Her ability to morph herself centuries after her death into words which exist in the English language is almost as astounding as her poetry. Truly, Sappho is one inspiring babe, and she has been operating as a muse for many a year.



My Muses: Clio and Anna Comnena


I’ve already mentioned that my ability to enjoy relaxation is limited. So, in an attempt to dampen the sunny fun of my vacation, I’ve created a small project for myself. For the nine days that I’m on holiday, I will assign a real-life, honest-to-goodness lady to an appropriate Greek Muse. So far, I’ve managed to feature Bessie Stringfield as a flesh and blood version of Calliope. Today, I will be looking at the life of Anna Comnena, widely recognized as the first female historian. Appropriately, she will serve as my real-life Clio. My muse of history.


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Anna was “born and bred in the purple,” as she puts it in her historical masterpiece, the Alexiad. She came into the world on December 1st, of 1083, and grew up in the Imperial Palace of Constantinople. Anna’s mention of the luxurious color purple is a nod to her position as a Byzantine princess (her father was emperor Alexios I). In the medieval ages, the color purple was generally reserved for royalty and nobility under sumptuary law. But, even if a poor-old peasant wanted to break the law and don the color purple, the dye-stuff was too expensive and rare for a “commoner” to obtain. The reason: one of the major sources for purple dye at the time were murex snails, which populated the Mediterranean Sea. Divers were required to harvest the sea snail, and then the snail shell had to be cracked open and the hypobranchial gland removed, which secreted the blue tinted chemical, dibromo-indigotin. 10-12,000 murex snails were required to make one gram of Tyrian or royal purple dye, so you can imagine the dye was costly, at the expense of both humans and snails. (Thanks for joining me on this tangent about murex snails!)


Back at the royal palace, Anna was receiving an exemplary education, as she was prepped for rule. She studied astrology, mathematics, philosophy, literature, geography, Greek language, medicine rhetoric and…yes…history. She was a tailor-made royal. She had brains. She had ambition. But, what she didn’t have were balls. You can imagine that she was pretty peeved when her younger brother, John II, was offered the throne. She was preparing to place the royal diadem on her brow and the brow of her husband, Nikephoros Bryennios. And, because she could not tolerate B.S., she formed a conspiracy to murder and overthrow her brother. However, the plot was uncovered and poor Anna was booted out of court.


After her plot to take over the throne was thwarted, and her husband died in 1137, Anna lived out the rest of her days in the seclusion of the convent. This might sound like a grim existence, but any writer knows that living like a hermit in a cloister-like setting is ideal for producing prose. It was during Anna’s time at the convent that she finished the history of her father, Alexios I, known as the Alexiad, which her husband had started before he croaked. Beyond the document’s importance as the first known history written by a woman, the Alexiad contains rare accounts of the First Crusade from the point of view of the Byzantines. Anna’s brilliant mind and brimming ambition could not be suppressed, and the Alexiad is a testament to her glowing talent. Amongst the mortals, she is my Clio. My muse.


My Muses: Calliope and Bessie Stringfield

I’m sitting in a beach-house in Lauderdale by the Sea. It’s my break from school, and I’m having a difficult time slathering sunscreen (SPF 30) and joining my merry holiday party on the beach. Too much relaxation generally scares me, and on this trip I’m terrified. With no papers due or readings to debate, I feel as if I have been unmoored—bobbing about aimlessly in a sea of relaxation and sloth. Ah, well enough about my troubles. To remedy my fear of having fun, I decided to create a project of vacation-size proportions for myself, assigning real-life, honest to Zeus women to the nine Greek Muses: Calliope, Clio (my personal favorite), Euterpe, Erato, Melpomene, Polyhymnia, Terpsichore, Thalia and Urania. Today, I begin with Calliope:


Calliope is the Greek Muse of epic poetry. Surely, if one wants to be inspired in an epic way, the bad-ass Bessie Stringfield fits the bill. Now, any epic saga should have a hero born out of strife, and Bessie was certainly met with some hard-times. Born in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1911, her parents moved the family to Boston when she was very young, and after their unfortunate passing, Bessie was adopted by an Irish woman when she was five. She found herself an orphaned black girl, lodged in the societally sticky early 1900s. And though she was met with quite a bit of resistance from patriarchal, white-washed America, Bessie didn’t give a damn. She was a spirited lady with a motorbike.


When Bessie turned nineteen, she got herself a 1928 Indian Scout motorcycle and made several cross-country trips, funding her travels by performing motorcycle stunts in carnival shows. It might seem as if Bessie had found freedom on the open road, but she was often denied accommodations at motels because of her skin color, and had to sleep out in the open, on her motorcycle at filling stations. Because she was a female, she was many times denied the prizes that she won in flat-track races.


But, such circumstances did not keep Bessie and her motorcycle down. During WWII, she became the only woman to serve as a dispatch rider for the United States Army, delivering documents to domestic Army bases atop her breezy blue Harley Davidson. It was a grueling and dangerous job—one which bad-ass Bessie was perfectly suited for.


After the beaches of Normandy had been stormed, and WWII passed into the annals of history, Bessie’s job as a courier for the U.S. Army ended. She moved to Miami, Florida: land of sunshine and racism. Bessie was repeatedly pulled over and harassed by the Miami police. Apparently, black women weren’t allowed to ride motorcycles. But, apparently, they had never met Bessie Stringfield before.


Bessie went on down to the police station, and met with the police captain to discuss the issue of her driving her motorcycle. They convened in a nearby empty lot, where Bessie could show off her riding prowess; whereafter, the police chief gave her his approval to ride whenever she pleased, and the police never bothered her again. Decades later, I’m sitting here and wondering what exactly Bessie did to change to police chief’s mind. She must have put on one hell of a show to sway the minds of people living in an area rife with racism and sexism and sink-holes. In that moment, she broke ground for both women and African Americans who wanted to ride their motorcycles in freedom. Known as the “Motorcycle Queen of Miami,” Bessie Stringfield is an epic muse. She rode her motorcycle until the day she died.



The Public Enemy: Disenchantment With the American Dream


The Public Enemy was a terrific example of the gangster genre, which emerged in full force during the early 1930’s. As the film came out in in 1931, and was unhampered by the restrictive measures of the Hollywood Production Code, enforced in 1934, The Public Enemy retains its punchy lines, seedy settings and bawdy women: grit essential to the murky vigor of organized crime. As I was watching the film, I quickly understood why audiences, some eighty years ago, were struck by the gangster drama. As the American psyche was inextricably bound up with the accumulation of wealth and success, a story of a self-made man seems irresistible. However, The Public Enemy is, in actuality, a cautionary tale which debunks the reliability of the American Dream.


The intoxicating allure of upward social mobility was instilled in the collective American conscience by stories designed by Horation Alger, and inspired by men like Rockefeller and Carnegie. The American myth, that anyone could make it to the top if they just worked hard enough, or possessed the right character, was a misconception understood by most Americans during the 1930’s, and is a myth that stands strong to this very day. Circumstance and luck had nothing to do with success in the traditional Gilded Age understanding of the word. Just as personal success was attributed to character, so too was poverty; thus, poverty took on a meaning of laziness and personal inadequacy. However, after the fall of the stock market in 1929, around 25% of the American workers found themselves jobless and poverty was thrusted into the face of the middle-class. Poverty was too big of an issue and too close to home for average Americans to sweep under the carpet, and so poverty was beginning to be comprehended as a problem with the economic and government system, not an individual’s lack of character.


With the disillusionment of the American Dream in mind, consider the plotline of The Public Enemy. James Cagney is mesmerizing on screen as the fast talking, quick moving and unapologetically bad Tom Powers. Tom’s humble beginnings and harsh childhood allow the audience to empathize with the hero’s descent into the world of organized crime. During the 1930’s, when jobs were scarce and waist-belts were tight, audiences would have understood Tom’s involvement in the crime world as an act of survival and courage. Now, that the audience is fully empathetic to Tom, it can revel in the themes of violence, sex and money, along with Tom; hence, living vicariously through Tom. Throughout most of the movie, Tom takes what he wants, whether it’s a punch, a dame or some dough, and this is the part of the movie which served as escapist fodder for audiences. His violent and uncaring behavior is a reflection of a bloated sense of unfettered individualism and ego– a dark facet to the American Dream. It seems that Tom can ride the swell of personal success and unlimited power, doing just as he pleases without any regard for the well-being of other people. However, the principles of laissez faire society had to be tested, as seen in the concluding scenes of The Public Enemy. The ebb was coming.


As a parallel to the collapse of the economy and the integrity of the American Dream, The Public Enemy takes the audience on a thrilling ride to the top, where money sex and power are plentiful, and then rips success away from the hero; leaving him, in the final scene of the movie, as the powerless, bound and mummified remnants of a once “great” man (A misogynist murderer is certainly not my idea of a great man, but this is the dirty thirties). The shocking image of Cagney left on his mother’s doorstep, bloodied and wrapped up like a package, reminds the audience of how quickly a man can be humbled—no matter how powerful. Cagney’s character fought the stagnant world of convention and mediocrity and lost. He was a self-made man, like Rockefeller and Vanderbilt, but fell prey to the gods of circumstance and chance. Perhaps Cagney’s character reminded people facing hard times, or the threat of hard-times, that it wasn’t a person’s fault if they failed, it was merely the hand of fate. “The gangster film became a contemporary version of the Gospel of the Gilded Age. But the gangster film always dealt with both rise and fall; when the gangster, sitting “on top of the world,” dies spectacularly alone, his success proves hollow and short-lived, like the bubble of prosperity in the 1920’s.” (228, Dickstein)


Likewise, the hero’s involvement with the crooked Puttynose, illuminates not only to the ways in which environment and circumstance can forge a man’s life, but how unreliable people and organizations can be when you really need their help. While Puttynose was responsible for putting malicious ideas in the mind of Power’s character and a gun in the youth’s hand, old Puttynose failed to support the very beast he had created when it came back to his creator. This, again, parallels American society– filling youth’s heads with ideas of grandeur, informing them of the steps they need to take to be a success and then turning its back on youth when the rug of the American Dream is pulled out from under them. Just as the veteran soldiers of WWI formed the Bonus Army and trekked to Washington in search of help, only to be hosed off the pavement and whisked away by a fellow officers of the army, so too did Puttynose reject his own.


Aside from the theme of the individual being explored—an idea most cherished by American culture— the importance of community and sticking together is found throughout The Public Enemy. Take the scene in Public Enemy where Powers questions Patty’s (owner of Patty’s Pub) decision to do him a favor:

Tommy: “Why do you want to front for us? We ain’t ever done nothin’ for you.”

Patty: “Maybe not. I might need a friend sometime. I’m older than you, and I’ve learned that nobody can do much without somebody else.”


Contrary to the American ideal of self-sufficiency and individualism, the idea of needing to depend on other people for survival or success is explored in many of the Golden Era films, The Public Enemy being no exception. With a growing awareness of the fragility of the American Dream, many Americans began to look at socialist models for society as an answer to the capitalism gone amok. The American government, for the first time in its history, took responsibility for the well-being of its people through government programs, designed to support those who were less fortunate and needed financial aid. These programs were a part of the New Deal, under Franklin D. Roosevelt’s command, and acted as a buffer against the American Dream, which was chafing under weight of grief, stress, loss and despair felt by many millions of jobless Americans.


The Historic Crescendo of Indian Cotton Muslin in the West (1770-1820)


Muslin fabric was the textile of emperors.  While the Indian continent historically boasts many different varieties of textiles—from calico to ikat— it was the remarkably translucent, wonderfully white characteristics of cotton muslin that the Indian Mughal court revered. When The British East India Company received a royal charter from Queen Elizabeth I of England, in 1600, a long history of trade between Europe and India began. Cotton textiles were among the most popularly imported items from the exotic, far-reaches of India, and chief among these cotton textiles was muslin. During the eighteenth-century, the production of the cloth had reached its zenith in popularity amongst Europeans, and up until the close of that century, the quality of the fabric was far-superior to anything that Europe could produce.


            In a global sense, India had been ahead of the cotton-based textiles game for a couple millennia. Cotton had existed as a domesticated and cultivated plant on the Indian continent for thousands of years, proof of which can be found in the domesticated cotton fibers and seeds which have been found in excavation sites in Baluchistan, dating from around 6,000 BC.  By the time European companies started trading with India in the seventeenth-century, the spinners and weavers of India had the advantage of working with cotton for a long period of time.



            The cotton muslin which pre-dates the twentieth-century is much different in appearance and quality than what is modernly termed as muslin. The muslin fabrics produced in India during the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century could be defined as a plain-weave, cotton cloth with a translucent appearance. Because of its sheer and airy characteristics, it was originally named after the French word for mousse: mousseline. Later, it was adapted into the English language, and mousseline became muslin. Because the fabric was so diaphanous and sheer, it acquired other monikers which denoted the degree of the fabric’s delicacy. “Woven-wind” and “evening dew” were just a few names which were attributed to Indian cotton muslin. “In the 1760s the Dutch traveler Stavorinus wrote that ‘Bengal muslins were made so fine that a piece twenty yards in length or even longer could be put into a common pocket ‘tobacco box’”


The delicacy of the cotton thread used to construct muslin textiles and the difficulty of weaving muslin fabric allowed for India to corner-the-market on fine muslin, so to speak. The art of making a fabric which could be described to be as dainty as “spider web” required specialized skill and unique conditions. It was Dacca India which was known, during the seventeenth and eighteenth-centuries, for making the most exquisite and translucent muslin fabric. But how did a rural region which was made up of small villages produce a fabric which was unparalleled by modern western countries? Fortunately, for the western world, the answer has been preserved in a written record by the medical officer, James Taylor, who lived in Dacca India between the years 1828 and 1846. Although his report post-dates the period which has been highlighted in this paper, the slow-moving technology changes in rural India make it highly plausible that the techniques described in Taylor’s report apply to the manufacture of the fabric in the eighteenth-century.


The process for making delicate muslin begins with the cotton plant itself. In the flood-planes along the Brahmaputra River, the land is seasonally covered with a fine silt, making the soil fertile. The cotton which grows in the silty soil of the region has been cultivated to produce a boll with exceptionally long and thin fibers.  Such choice cotton bolls were cleaned in an ancient technique, where women used the small teeth attached to the jawbone of the boalee fish to comb out the seeds. To remove the dirt and knots from the processed boll, the cotton fibers were laid out into a pile. The next step to the process was quite simple, but clever. Workmen struck a large stringed bow with a wooden mallet, and set the bow against the pile of cotton, where the vibrations of the bow shook the dirt from the cotton, while simultaneously fluffing the fibers. Now, the cotton was ready for spinning.



The spinning process could not be left to just any hand. Because of their nimble young fingers and acute eye-sight, women under thirty years of age were chosen to spin the cotton yarn.  The relentless humidity of Dacca eased the stress on the fibers, making it more pliable for spinning and weaving. William Ward observed in 1818, “Women of all castes prepare the cotton thread for the weaver, spinning the thread on a piece of ware, on a very thin rod of iron with a ball of clay on one end, this they turn round with the left hand, and supply the cotton with the right.”


The weaving portion of muslin cloth production was customarily performed by men. The work of weaving required great restraint and dexterity to work with cotton yarns which were so fine. The weaving work was executed on a simple loom, where the warp yarns were strengthened through a process of soaking the yarns in rice paste. After the cloth was woven, the starchy rice paste was washed out of the fabric in a running stream, and laid out in a field to bleach in the sun. The resulting fabric appeared sheer and filmy, and as it was stretched on the ground to dry and bleach, it resembled spider webs, or in the hazy morning sun, dew.


Before the nineteenth-century, Indian cotton textile production was ordinarily carried-out in villages, and was performed at the house-hold level, where every member of the family was involved in the production process. Children would clean and card the cotton and assist the weaver, women would spin the cotton, and men would weave the fabric. Each district specialized in one textile—Dacca specializing in fine muslin. These localized centers for production were called aurangs. The cleaning, spinning and weaving processes were further specialized and determined by caste and occupational factors. In a sense, the divided labor system of the aurangs resembles an assembly line in a modern factory, where each separate “part” or step in the production was allotted to one person or group who specialized in just one task. Such aurangs in Dacca fell under the patronage of the Mughal Court, who controlled the production over the best weavers. While the Mughal Court allowed muslin to be sold to Europeans, the finest muslin was reserved for the Court. It wasn’t until the late eighteenth-century, after the British conquest of India, that the British took control over the aurangs, and, in turn, gained access to the highest-quality muslin fabrics.


You may be wondering why it was so important for the European trading companies to get their hands on fine muslin woven in Dacca. The answer has a lot to do with the changes in western philosophy, aesthetics and fashions, and the increased demand for textiles which were suited to these new ideals. During the second half of the eighteenth-century, Neoclassicism had taken a hold of western Europe. The architecture and fashion of the time had a dominant Greco-Roman appeal, spawned by the discovery of the ruins of Pompeii in 1748.  The fashion for resembling Greek marble sculpture encouraged the wearing of beautiful white fabrics in the form of the fichu, shawl and dress. It was Indian cotton muslin which was the best-suited to these Greek-goddess-inspired fashions, with its elegant, soft drape and gossamer sheerness.


By the mid 1780s, the robe en chemise became popular, after the fashion forward Queen Marie Antoinette was immortalized in a portrait by Elisabeth-Louise Vigee-Le Brun, (painted in 1783), wearing the underwear-like garment. Although the robe en chemise’s debut amongst privileged circles was shocking, it was quickly embraced by the fashionable elite. Soon, European royalty, like the Prussian princesses Friederike and Luise, and aristocrats, like Juliette de Recamier, were wearing simple white dresses made of muslin fabric.


During the first two decades of the nineteenth-century, the empire-waisted muslin dress was the reigning fashion, and can be seen being modeled in early nineteenth-century fashion-plates, and portraits of royalty and aristocrats.  Empress Josephine de Beauharnais—Napoleon Bonaparte’s first wife— cemented the look in popular fashion, reflecting her husband’s politically fashioned, Neoclassical imperial style through the white empire dress. Josephine and her fashionable friends were known to splash water on the filmy muslin material of their gowns, causing the fabric to cling to their figures, while simultaneously becoming even more transparent. Not only was the wearing of muslin fabric a political statement, but it was a seductive act, as well. The prevailing cultural climate consisting of Greco-Roman inspired Neoclassicism, “Anglomania-style,” which elevated simple country wear to high fashion, and the idea of the return-to-nature, supported by such philosophers as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, coupled with the inherent alluring qualities of the fabric all ensured the ready adaption of white dresses and accessories made from muslin into popular fashion.


Aside from the fabric’s visual appeal, muslin possessed practical qualities, as well. Not only were cotton textiles more cost-effective than textiles like silk and wool, but cotton fabric was color-fast. This meant that clothing and bedding made of cotton fabric could be dyed a color, or feature dyed popular motifs and designs, and withstand exposure to sunlight and washing. In the case of cotton muslin, it was a good choice for undergarments because the fabric could easily be washed. Because both outer-garments and undergarments made of cotton were washable, new concepts of cleanliness emerged in nineteenth-century European culture. Cotton muslin was a marvel of both beauty and hygiene.


Although Europe tried to emulate the cotton muslin fabric, they were, at first, only able to produce cruder, lower-grade muslin fabrics. It is for this reason that Indian muslin was highly sought after by European traders.  Especially during the mid-to-late eighteenth-century, the European demand for Indian cotton muslin reached its peak. In the decade between 1760 and 1770 alone, it is estimated that European companies imported around 1,400,000 pieces of Indian cotton fabrics. The exceptionally sheer and delicate muslin fabric known as jamdani was the variety which was most difficult for Europeans to replicate. Jamdani is an-ultra-fine muslin fabric which has been embellished with cotton yarns, introduced as weft threads during the weaving process, forming a white-on-white pattern. In the caste-conscious culture of India, it was the Muslim men who wove jamdani muslin, and the Hindu men who wove plain muslin.


As fine and beautiful as the hand-woven Indian cotton muslin was, the cottage industry system which ruled the production of the fabric in Dacca could not compete with the developing machinery emerging out of England at the close of the eighteenth-century. In 1779, the spinning mule was invented by Samuel Crompton, which revolutionized yarn making. The spinning mule could generate yarn that was both smooth and fine, and could be produced at a much faster rate than by hand. By 1800, English cotton mills featured steam-powered spinning mules and steam-powered looms which out-classed and out-produced weaving centers in Dacca, India. By the dawn of the nineteenth-century, the age of the machine and the Industrial Revolution had come into its own. While the Industrial Revolution began in England around 1780, it was in the year 1800 that a steady advance in efficiency and technology occurred. Machines and technology that produced textiles made up 43% of productivity advancements, which points to the importance of textiles as both utility, luxury and commodity.


 Truly, it was the sound of the steam engine’s pistons, cogs and wheels that signaled the end of the millennia-old muslin weaving tradition in Dacca, India. Around 1790, machines in England were producing most of the cotton textiles that were sought after in the commercial market, which spelled a declining demand for the Indian made muslin. While the exotic beauty and functionality of Indian cotton muslin had captivated the desire and imaginations of western Europe, beginning in the seventeenth-century, the ethereal hand-woven fabric was inevitably left behind in the annals of history as time marched forward, into the age of machines.
























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Bhatnager, Parul. “Sari-Tangil and Jamdani.”



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[1] Crill, Rosemary. “Fruit of the Loom: Cotton and Muslin in South Asia.” Center for Policy Dialogue. 2016. 2.

[2] Irwin, John and P.R. Schwartz. Studies of European Textile History. Ahmedabad, India: Calico Museum of Textiles, 1966. 1.

[3] Crill, Rosemary. “Fruit of the Loom: Cotton and Muslin in South Asia.” Center for Policy Dialogue. 2016. 2.


[4] Irwin, John and P.R. Schwartz. Studies of European Textile History. Ahmedabad, India: Calico Museum of Textiles, 1966.

[5] Berg, Maxine. Goods from the East, 1600-1800: Trading Eurasia.

Edited by Maxine Berg, Felicia Gott Mann, Hanna Hodacs, Chris Nierstrasz. U.K.: Pelgrave Macmillan, 2015. 119.

[6] Irwin, John and P.R. Schwartz. Studies of European Textile History. Ahmedabad, India: Calico Museum of Textiles, 1966.

[7] Harris, Jennifer. 5,000 Years of Textiles. London: British Museum Press, 1999. 106.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Bhadra, Siddhartha. “The Impact of British Industrial Revolution on Bengal Industry.” IOSR Joural of Humanities and Social Science, Vol. 19, No. 4, 2014. 12.

[11] Harris, Jennifer. 5,000 Years of Textiles. London: British Museum Press, 1999. 106.

[12] Irwin, John and P.R. Schwartz. Studies of European Textile History. Ahmedabad, India: Calico Museum of Textiles, 1966.

[13] Ward, W. A View of the History, Literature and Mythology of the Hindoos, Vol.1. Serempore: Mission Press, 1818. 93.

[14] Harris, Jennifer. 5,000 Years of Textiles. London: British Museum Press, 1999. 106.

[15] Bhadra, Siddhartha. “The Impact of British Industrial Revolution on Bengal Industry.” IOSR. Joural of Humanities and Social Science, Vol. 19, No. 4, 2014. 12.

[16] Berg, Maxine. Goods from the East, 1600-1800: Trading Eurasia.

Edited by Maxine Berg, Felicia Gott Mann, Hanna Hodacs, Chris Nierstrasz. U.K.: Pelgrave Macmillan, 2015. 126.

[17] Bhatnager, Parul. “Sari-Tangil and Jamdani.”

[18] Cole, Daniel James. “Hierarchy and Seduction in Regency Fashion” Jane Austen Society of North America. Vol.33, No. 1, 2012. 3.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Lubrich, Naomi. “The Little White Dress: Politics and Polyvalence in Revolutionary France.” Fashion Theory: The Journal of Dress, Body and Culture. 2015.

[21] McDowall, Carolyn. “The Fabric of India—V&A London, Showcases Indian Textiles.” The Culture Concept Circle. V&A, London, 2015.

[22] Irwin, John and P.R. Schwartz. Studies of European Textile History. Ahmedabad, India: Calico Museum of Textiles, 1966.

[23] Riello, Giorgio. “The Making of a Global Commodity: Indian Cottons and European Trade, 1450-1850.” The Proceedings of the First Congress of the Asian Association of World Historians. U.K.: University of Warwick Press, 2010. 11.

[24] Berg, Maxine. Goods from the East, 1600-1800: Trading Eurasia.

Edited by Maxine Berg, Felicia Gott Mann, Hanna Hodacs, Chris Nierstrasz. U.K.: Pelgrave Macmillan, 2015. 124.

[25] Sarkar, Suborna. “Inventive Employ of Jamdani: An Idiosyncratic Cram and Analysis.” European Journal of Business and Management, Vol.8, No.12, 2016.

[26] Crill, Rosemary. “Fruit of the Loom: Cotton and Muslin in South Asia.” Center for Policy Dialogue. 2016. 2.

[27] Bhadra, Siddhartha. “The Impact of British Industrial Revolution on Bengal Industry.” IOSR Joural of Humanities and Social Science, Vol. 19, No. 4, 2014. 13.

[28] Clark, Gregory. “The Long March of History: Farm Wages, Population and Economic Gowth, England 1209-1869.” Economic History Review. February, 2009. 122.