We Believe In First-Rate Fashion

Anna Jenness Miller preached the gospel of sensible dress for women

Anna Jenness Miller preached the gospel of sensible dress for women

It is possible that when Anna Jenness Miller made a featured appearance at the Wells Corset Studio at 13th and G streets NW in November 1918 — during the foundation garment shop’s annual sale — some in Washington did not remember her. The newspaper ad announcing her presence noted helpfully that she was an “authority on matters of feminine interest.”

She was much more than that. At the turn of the 19th century, Jenness Miller was one of the most interesting women in America: an author, a lecturer, a suffragist, a publisher, an inventor, a leader in the effort to free women from restrictive clothing, a business executive and a real estate magnate. She developed elegant buildings in some of the priciest neighborhoods in the District.

And yet, had you ever heard of her? Answer Man had not, until he heard from Chris Leinberger, who lives in a handsome building developed by Jenness Miller at 2339 Massachusetts Avenue NW. Lamented Leinberger: “She has been lost to history, but what a lady.”

Indeed. Anna Jenness — her family called her “Annie” — was born in 1859 in New Hampshire. She came from distinguished stock, related on her mother’s side to Oliver Wendell Holmes (senior and junior) and abolitionist Wendell Phillips. She attended Emerson College.

Jenness Miller was someone who wondered why things were the way they were and what it would take to change them. For example, why were American women encouraged to torture themselves with cage-like corsets, don yards of cumbersome cloth and carry around a heavy protuberance called a bustle?

She crisscrossed the country lecturing on the topic of “dress reform,” posing such rhetorical questions as: “What is there about this burdensome aggregation of long skirts worn by women of every social grade, with endless complications of loops, puffs and a weight that is death to health and happiness, and to prolonged usefulness, that women should continue in this bondage?”

Jenness Miller was among reformers who attacked the problem from the inside out. She advocated changes in women’s underwear, recommending more pliable corsets. Better yet, women could ditch the corset entirely in favor of one-piece union suits.

As for outerwear, she designed split skirts. Her sister, Mabel Jenness, wore one in 1890 on a much-publicized horse ride in New York City. Mabel refused to ride side saddle — it was bad for the spine, she argued — so she dressed in a “bifurcated” skirt, mounted her horse like a man. Some onlookers were shocked.

Anna married an Indiana dry goods merchant named Conrad Miller. But rather than jettison her name, she just added his. And it appears that when his company went bankrupt, she gave him a job in her growing publishing business. In 1887, she founded a magazine that covered sensible fashion and other topics, eventually naming it after herself: Jenness Miller Monthly.

She received a patent for a way of lacing boots that did away with the fidgety button-and-hook method. Then she designed a type of low boot she claimed would help women with “tender” feet. A newspaper ad in The Washington Post noted: “They are shaped and sloped to allow the ball of the foot to rest flat and give free play to the joints and muscles, and afford just the exact width and length to save binding the foot or cramping the toes.”

Jenness Miller wrote at least eight books, including one called “Mother and Babe.” This contained general parental advice, along with patterns mothers could use to sew their own maternity clothes. She was a mother herself, of a daughter named Vivian, who posed for photos wearing Jenness Miller’s creations.

Readers might have been surprised to find amid the diet and exercise tips in “Mother and Babe” a chapter titled “When Women Should Refuse Motherhood.” In it, Jenness Miller outlined various scenarios in which a woman might not want to have children, including “when she does not love her husband” and “when her husband’s approaches arouse instinctive protest.”

Wrote Jenness Miller: “No man has the right to force childbearing upon a woman because she is his wife. Wifehood is a sacred obligation, and the marriage bond is degraded when it becomes a slave’s chain to drag a woman’s spirit and body into unwilling captivity.”

Jenness Miller became a widow in 1910. She continued to be active in the suffrage movement, participating in the 1913 suffrage demonstration in Washington that was disrupted by male hooligans. (She later testified to Congress that the D.C. police had refused her request to protect the voting rights demonstrators.)

And Jenness Miller bought and sold property along Embassy Row. She acquired some houses after they were constructed. Others she developed herself. They included one at 23rd Street and Massachusetts Avenue NW, near Sheridan Circle, called Wendell Mansions. The name of the fancy building, today a co-op, comes from that illustrious branch of her family.

Jenness Miller died in 1935 in New York City. One hopes she would be pleased with the strides women have made since then, though it is likely she would still find room for improvement.