I admit it: I’ve been wanting an excuse to make Dianna Walla’s Aspen leg warmers since I first saw them on Instagram. I initially schemed about doing a post on the history of long underwear just so I could feel justified in adding the Aspens to my to-knit list. As soon as I started digging, though, the leg warmers became a bonus on top of a fascinating history lesson about a fertile moment in fashion history. Emerging in the early 1880s, the Sanitary Woolen System and the Rational Dress Movement both called for practicality and health in everyday dress. Variously rooted in the vagaries of pseudoscience on the one hand and radical feminism on the other, their joint legacy includes such a seemingly mundane garment as long underwear.
First, the Woolen System. Those of us who are spinners, weavers, knitters, and crocheters are well versed in the wonders of wool. But it was news to me that, more than a century ago, there arose an influential school of thought that wool is not only a practical material but also a supremely healthful one. In 1880, Dr. Gustav Jaeger (sometimes Jäger) published Standardized Apparel For Health Protection on the health benefits of wearing wool, and he followed it up with Health-Culture (<– how great/vague is that title?!) in 1887.
Jaeger, a naturalist and zoologist, produced a number of provocative theories in his time, on such now-established principles as heredity and pheromones, but it is his wool hypotheses that made his name famous.
Playwright George Bernard Shaw (1856–1950) (L) and explorer Ernest Shackleton (1974–1922) (R), fans of the Jaeger woolen system
In fact, the name Jaeger probably sounds familiar to you, too—the luxury fashion brand still exists today. The company owes its heritage to “Dr. Jaeger’s Sanitary Woollen [sic] System,” a scientific theory that caught the interest of businessman Lewis Tomalin, who licensed the brand in London in 1884. The Jaeger company promoted the use of animal fibers (especially wool, but also alpaca and even camel hair) in all fabrics that come into contact with the skin, from long johns and dressing gowns to bedsheets and sleeping bags. Promotional materials for Jaeger’s original garments tout the fiber’s salutary properties, calling their clothing “the most comfortable and hygienic clothing for the human body.”
The 1887 illustrated Jaeger catalog opens with a guarantee that their garments “consist throughout of animal fiber (animal wool, hair, feathers), without any mixture of vegetable fiber ; also that articles described to be of the natural color are free from dye, and that dyed articles are only treated with genuine and harmless dyes.” The catalog borrows from Dr. Jaeger’s essays in order to make a case for the healthfulness of animal fiber in contrast with the “indisputably pernicious effects” of what they call “ordinary clothing.” The woolen constructions of the Jaeger company were said to have a curative effect by “stimulating” the skin, generating (but not conducting) electricity or heat, resisting moisture, and regulating the body’s temperature.
These seem like reasonable claims and, in fact, echo what we think of as wool’s virtues today. Some of Jaeger’s claims are a bit more hyperbolic though, like his assertion that woolen garments can prevent otherwise “inevitable and eradicable” ailments like “corpulence, asthma, pulmonary complaints, diseases of the digestive organs, gout, rheumatism, &c.” He also claimed that swathing oneself in animal fiber can “prevent the setting in of lung disease, hemorrhoids, spitting of blood, and other fluxions of blood.” Mmm, fluxions…
Anyway, at the same time as Dr. Jaeger was extolling the virtues of animal wool for its “scientific or practical basis,” a group of reformers in London waged war on the impractical conventions of women’s clothing by founding the Rational Dress Society. In a manifesto of sorts published in the Rational Dress Society Gazette in 1889, members protested against “any fashion in dress that either deforms the figure, impedes the movements of the body, or in any way tends to injure the health.” While Jaeger’s garments were marketed to people of any age and gender on the basis of science, the recommendations of the Rational Dress Society bore a social message as well, as they were part of a larger feminist movement to free women from restrictive and often immobilizing fashions. Still, while its main focus was on women, the Rational Dress Society helped popularize wool undergarments for both sexes.
And, speaking of undergarments, the Rational Dress Society was inspired in part by the infamous Lily Bloomer, an American temperance journalist who wore and promoted what we now call “bloomers”—long, baggy underpants worn under a skirt. Bloomers were one of the first Western examples of women wearing a divided lower garment, i.e., pants. Earlier versions of women’s undergarments were, in fact, two pieces that tied together at the waist, which is why we say a “pair” of underwear!
So, while I was drawn to the Aspen leg warmers because they just look so cozy and seem like an interesting knit, it turns out that those woolen leg warmers are part of a long tradition of rational, animal-based dress, with a healthy dose of feminism thrown in. Now I’m even more excited to make them! I’m planning to knit the footless version (seems more versatile—nay, rational—right?) and, seeing as I don’t have easy access to camel-hair yarn, I will most certainly be using 100% pure, undyed wool. Here’s hoping they keep my fluxions in check. Stay tuned…