In early 1915, a young woman in New York City began to plot a modest revolution. Not the kind that involved bomb-throwing, riots or assassinations, like the one that had sparked a world war the previous summer — hers was to be a social revolution, a stone heaved in a lake that would ripple out and change the world for women. Mildred Johnston Landone, described by a Boston Evening Globe reporter as “a slender, pink-cheeked young woman with a thick pile of ash-blonde hair and a dreamy smile,” was preoccupied with the problem of what women wore — and by extension, how they were able to move through the world. She was not alone in her concerns. Five years ahead of the national suffrage victory, the question of where women belonged, in public and professional life, and how they should be treated there, was an urgent one.
Mildred Johnston Landone’s scheme to draw attention to the problem and find a solution was to hold a nationwide design contest for a universal women’s garment. According to a booklet she wrote in 1914 to publicize her scheme, the garment should be “built on feministic lines made to conform with our best esthetic standards of beauty,” and it should work for women the way a suit worked for a man — allowing her to go anywhere and be anyone. Landone christened the hypothetical dress “the Polymuriel,” and it would, she believed, spell freedom for women. To encourage the creativity of revolution-minded designers across the country, she formed a committee that offered a prize of $150 to the winning pattern — the equivalent of nearly $4,000 today.
Landone’s explanation for the Polymuriel’s odd name was that it applied the prefix “poly-,” meaning “many,” to the name of her little sister Muriel, although one newspaper suggested, inaccurately, that it was a combination of the names of her two daughters, Polly and Muriel. Whatever the exact provenance, throughout 1915 Landone promoted the Polymuriel like a dedicated stage mother. In her booklet, she outlined all of the benefits of the yet-to-be-created dress, calling it both “a stable commodity” and “a friend in need” — something to rely on that wouldn’t go out of fashion after a season. Men’s clothing had evolved, she wrote, from “baby blue, lace, flounces, ruffles” to the simplicity and uniformity of the Enlightenment era, which valued intellect over appearance, and now women’s fashion needed to do the same. Uniformity was convenient, and it could be charming too — she cited European national costumes and Chinese and Japanese styles of dress, which were all the rage at the time. Those benefits, she believed, would radiate outward, helping to end the exploitation of immigrant women and children in the garment industry, while liberating women and men alike to forge a freer, more egalitarian society. In terms used widely by feminists at the time, she declared that, “As long as we are slaves to clothes, we are slaves.”
In 1915, this kind of hyperbole was not unusual. Debates over women’s clothing had been fierce for years: Corsets, in particular, were a daily physical reminder of the restrictiveness of life as a woman. Refusing to wear one was still a shocking choice, shorthand for rebellious feminist beliefs, the way “bra-burning” would become in the 1970s. Pants, meanwhile, had been controversial at least since suffragist Amelia Bloomer lent her name to a style of loose trousers in the 1850s. But women’s lives, and their wardrobes, were starting to evolve, out of necessity as well as political conviction. Since the 1890s, recognition of the health benefits of physical exercise helped fuel crazes for cycling, gymnastics, dance, golf and other active pursuits, which required shorter skirts and lighter undergarments. Women designed and sewed their own clothes for these activities, and the appeal of this active wear spread rapidly, like modern “athleisure” styles, from the world of sports to everyday fashion.
The concerns expressed in Landone’s booklet about the production conditions of the garment industry were widely shared. Just four years before the Polymuriel contest, New York and the nation had been horrified by the spectacle of the deadly fire at the Triangle Waist Company in Washington Square, which killed 146 people, mostly young immigrant women. The fire drew attention to the brutal, overcrowded working conditions in garment factories, but also to the deadliness of fashion: The “shirtwaist” style that was being manufactured by Triangle in 1911 was falling out of vogue, so the company responded by slashing prices, ramping up production, and cutting corners on worker safety. The fire helped make labor reform an urgent cause among women across the social spectrum, and it was a further catalyst for the suffrage movement. Before women won the vote, the ability to exert boycott pressure on manufacturers who did not treat their workers well was one of the few forms of political agency open to middle-class women. Landone believed that the Polymuriel was political statement against the rapacious fashion industry that was helping to fuel the abysmal factory conditions. In her idealistic vision, the Polymuriel’s existence would free women from having to keep up with changing dress styles, allowing its production to be slower and less exploitative, which she hoped might eventually become the model across the industry.
Nevertheless, when Landone first proposed the Polymuriel contest, she found it hard to get interest. According to a report in Leslie’s Weekly, she wrote to “hundreds” of women of the plentiful charitable-reformer class, asking them to serve on a committee to evaluate the Polymuriel designs, but all of them “declined the invitation.” Perhaps it was because she was otherwise unknown within these socially elite circles, which put heavy stock in pedigree and status. Perhaps, the report suggested, these women believed that the scheme was doomed to fail because women enjoyed fashion too much. But eventually Landone managed to enlist a group of supporters with a pedigree no one could challenge.
The Polymuriel committee was made up of three charity-minded women, one veteran painter, and a stylish young bohemian who was on her way to becoming one of America’s richest artists. Florence Guernsey, Roberta Palmer and Emma Chapman were the kind of women who belonged to social clubs and worked for good causes, women with stout lace-front bosoms who, before they could vote, exercised the power they did have at their disposal — money, energy, time and social pressure — to improve society. They were drawn to the Polymuriel for the way it might make life easier for women of their class, allowing them to move between teas, concerts, meetings, dinners and other social engagements without the need for expensive and time-consuming costume changes. Mrs. Palmer, in particular, wanted an inclusive style that would suit women of all shapes, sizes and ages. A widely syndicated article about the contest quoted her requirements in detail: “Its silhouette should not too strongly suggest an umbrella, a knitting needle, an hour glass, a pyramid, inverted or otherwise, or other of the geometric forms into which women have from time to time tortured their bodies.” In The New York Times a few weeks later, she made a demand that still resonates today; when asked what she most wanted in the Polymuriel, she said: “Let’s have pockets.”
Roberta Palmer, wife of the future attorney general under President Wilson, A. Mitchell Palmer, had a longstanding interest in reforming women’s dress. Since the late 19th century, she had been president of the Rainy Day Club, a group that promoted shorter skirts for women on the grounds that they did not soak up water and cling to the ankles, exposing the wearer to chills. Shorter skirts had the added benefit, for the “New Women” of the era, of declaring the wearer’s boldness and modern spirit. They also, as The New York Times observed in a satirical article in 1905, just happened to show off women’s ankles in a way that was especially alluring to men. As with casting off corsets, the desire for shorter skirts and less restrictive clothing was always tangled up with sexuality and the signals that women’s clothing was sending to men, by accident or design. Part of the appeal of a universal garment was the promise that such signals would be muted: In uniform, a woman (in theory) couldn’t be accused of “asking for it.”
Serving on the committee along with Mrs. Palmer were Florence Guernsey, a rich spinster in her late 50s who was a childhood neighbor of Edith Wharton’s, and Emma Chapman, president of the Rubinstein Club, a women’s choral society founded in 1887 by Chapman’s musician husband, William. The artistic arm of the Polymuriel committee included William Merritt Chase, an elder statesman of American painting who had founded the New York art school that eventually became Parsons School of Design — where Georgia O’Keeffe was one of his students. He was 65 at that point and would live only another year after the Polymuriel project, and was presumably there to lend gravitas rather than fashion expertise. The real coup of the committee, and the real visionary behind its design competition, was Rose O’Neill, a well-known bohemian, suffrage activist and self-taught artist.
Born in Nebraska in 1874, O’Neill moved to New York at the age of 19 and began picking up work and building a reputation as a quick and versatile illustrator, eventually landing at Puck magazine, where she was the only woman on staff. But her real fame and fortune lay in her invention, in 1909, of a tribe of whimsical cartoon characters she called “Kewpies,” a play on “cupid,” babyish creatures she described as a kind of “benevolent elf.” The Kewpies were first manufactured as porcelain dolls in 1912, and by holding on to her copyrights O’Neill became a millionaire. Once her creatures were a craze, O’Neill frequently deployed them to promote women’s suffrage, producing cartoons where they marched in line holding signs begging for the vote for their mothers. By making suffrage cute and family-friendly, O’Neill helped defang misogynist mockery of suffragists as bitter, ugly spinsters. By 1915, when she was promoting the Polymuriel, O’Neill could declare in The New York Times that she wanted women “as free as Kewpies at waist line and knee” — with no explanation or introduction necessary.
Rose O’Neill’s association with the Polymuriel drew attention to the clothes she wore herself. In the same article that quoted Mrs. Palmer’s rejection of body-torturing styles, the artist described her homemade everyday outfit in enough detail that a reader with basic sewing skills would be able to reproduce it. It consisted of a “foundation garment” made of “one long, broad piece of cloth” with an opening cut in the middle for the neck, and the edges “joined at the side by a seam, leaving a long opening for the arms.” The garment was fastened “at the neck or bosom by a cord or clasp,” and a second tunic, in a contrasting fabric, might be slipped over the top for decoration. “Presto, I have dressed in less than a minute,” she declared. Needless to say, there was no corset.
O’Neill’s vision for the Polymuriel, however, was rather different. She suggested a combination of Greek drapery and Turkish “pantalettes” gathered at the ankle, which would, she argued, be healthier and more practical than skirts, and prevent rheumatism. (Like Mrs. Palmer and the members of the Rainy Day Club, she apparently shared the belief of the day that chronic sickness began with wet ankles.) Similar to her own outfit, it would consist of a practical base overlaid with something more decorative. “When a woman enters a room,” she said, “there should be a vision of floating things, of draperies swirling about her as clouds float in the heavens.” The three qualities O’Neill was looking for, united in the Polymuriel, were “beauty, suitability, and freedom.”
When the contest was announced in the spring of 1915, there was considerable debate and excitement across the country. The contest organizers were keen to emphasize that artistic flair wasn’t the deciding factor: They were happy to accept a “crude sketch” and a short description, no more than 200 words, in order to ensure a wide range of entries from nonprofessionals — and they were open to entries from both men and women. The important thing was the idea. By the time the competition closed on May 31, an estimated 3,000 entries had been received, of which 500 had been passed to the committee for further consideration. Roughly half of the entries came from New York, although there was interest further afield. “In one mail I got designs from Hawaii and Monte Carlo,” Mildred told The Independent. There was a parallel contest to design a “universal hat,” with a $50 prize, at a time when the frivolity and frippery of women’s headwear was constantly under attack.
On June 15, 1915, at Florence Guernsey’s home on 108th Street, the Polymuriel Prize Committee gathered to award the prize for the winning design to a 20-year-old named Jessie Rosefield, described in a New York Times report on her victory as “an enterprising young lady in business for herself as a designer and illustrator of costumes for dressmakers, magazines, newspapers and advertising agencies.” Rosefield lived with her family in upper Manhattan and worked out of a studio on Fifth Avenue at 31st Street, at the southeastern corner of the Garment District. Her father, a German immigrant, had to accompany the underage Jessie to the prize-giving ceremony to sign over the rights to her design to the Polymuriel committee. The details of the design could not be revealed, but the whispered question was asked out loud: Did it have pants? The answers from the committee were unequivocal. As the Times reported: “‘No pants,’ replied Mrs. Palmer in deep, severe tones. ‘Nor trousers,’ chimed in Miss Guernsey, with looks almost as dark at the unfortunate questioner. ‘We wouldn’t wear ’em.’” The most the committee would concede was that the design might be called a “bifurcated garment.”
Both the committee members and Jessie Rosefield herself stated firmly that it was their support for suffrage that drove their opposition to pants — not, as we might expect, the other way round. The Washington Post went to interview Rosefield at her studio a few days after her victory, where she declared, “We are all ardent suffragists and refuse to copy the men at all.” She quickly clarified that she and her fellow designers were not man-haters. “We love the men, of course, but then we want to be original.” It was a tricky line to walk, and it demonstrated the difficulty of declaring oneself a feminist revolutionary without incurring the risk of being judged to be unfeminine. For a young woman trying to establish herself as a fashion designer, too much rebellion could be a commercial risk.
Jessie Rosefield’s prizewinning design was finally revealed in December 1915. Its major selling point seems to have been its versatility and adaptability. The garment consisted of two pieces: a divided underskirt and (echoing Rose O’Neill) a tunic over the top that was reversible, with a plain side and a more decorative one. By December, according to the trade paper Women’s Wear, it was available at Wanamaker’s department store, in crepe Georgette and charmeuse fabrics, in several colors: “Copenhagen [sage green], rose, black, navy, or beige” for $50 — at the upper end of what the committee had suggested, but less wealthy women could buy cheaper fabric and make the dress themselves. And in addition to the reversibility of the tunic, there were numerous other possible adjustments: The sleeve length and belt position could be changed, the collar and flouncy underskirt could be removed, and the “pantalettes [could be] used for dancing.”
But there’s little indication that the style or the values of the Polymuriel caught on more widely after the excitement of the contest died down. Newspapers noted that there was little evidence of its influence in the fall fashion shows at the end of the year — perhaps because, in striving to be everything, the garment ended up being nothing much in itself. Whether it was a triumph of individualism or a failure of revolution, women would continue to have to navigate the world of fashion by themselves.
Like the Polymuriel, Mildred Johnston Landone herself appeared out of nowhere, dominated the news for a few months, then disappeared again. She was described in the Leslie’s article as a “writer, lecturer, and dramatist,” but the traces she left are thinner, and stranger, than those of anyone else in this story. The claim that the Polymuriel was named for her little sister is complicated by the fact that no family in the United States fit the requisite names and age range of these sisters — both of these names spiked in popularity in the late 19th century and then all but disappeared, hinting only that the sisters were born of rather fashion-conscious parents. The alternative origin story for the Polymuriel — that it was the product of two daughters named Polly and Muriel — is likely inaccurate, but it does seem that Mildred had a daughter named Pauline, commonly shortened to Polly at this time.
The Polymuriel designs were to be sent to Landone’s own address, 528 Riverside Drive in Manhattan, where she lived with her husband, Robert Johnston Landone (the newspapers appear to have assumed, incorrectly, that Johnston was her maiden name, rather than part of her husband’s surname, and refer to her as Mrs. Landone). According to the state census, in 1915, Mildred — 34 years old to her husband’s 28 — also lived with Edgar and Pauline Felix, ages 17 and 18, identified as the son and daughter of the household. Biologically, they could have been Mildred’s children — barely — but not Robert’s, so perhaps she diplomatically shaved a few years off of her age, making the age difference with her second husband less pronounced. This theory is backed up by a ship’s manifest from 1904 that lists a Mildred Felix, age 30, arriving with 9-year-old Pauline and 6-year-old Edgar from Germany — making her 41, not 34, in 1915. If Mildred Felix left a husband in Germany and returned to New York to become, at some point in the early 1910s, Mildred Johnston Landone, she might have been trying to establish herself in the social space eventually occupied by her Polymuriel committee. If that was her long-term aim, it seems to have been unsuccessful. After a year in which she was all over the papers as an idealistic feminist revolutionary, the historical traces of Mildred Johnston Landone all but disappear. In 1916 she is listed in the telephone directory in her own right, as the head of the household at Riverside Drive, implying that she has separated from her husband. From there, however, the trail goes cold.
Whatever became of her personally, Mildred Johnston Landone’s mission to simplify women’s dress has left a legacy beyond the specific Polymuriel contest. Her efforts drew attention to the larger question of where women belonged in public life. In American cities in the early 20th century, companies began to demand the presence of legions of clerks, stenographers, secretaries and assistants, and the office was no longer a purely masculine realm. The question of how to balance professionalism and fashion, femininity and anonymity, has preoccupied working women ever since. Today, to walk through midtown Manhattan on a summer weekday is to be struck by the uniformity of men’s business clothing — shirts in 50 shades of blue. By contrast, womenswear is all diversity: subtle calibrations of formality, coverage and color. A work uniform for women is still elusive, perhaps because there is no outfit that will make a woman disappear. Equal treatment in the office, in the street, in politics, and in private life, is a matter of more than clothes.
Joanna Scutts is a writer and historian and the author of The Extra Woman: How Marjorie Hillis Led a Generation of Women to Live Alone and Like It (Liveright/W.W. Norton, 2017). She is a regular contributor to the Washington Post Book World and has written for The New Yorker, New Republic, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, and Slate, among many other venues.