A La Mode – Part Two

The Bloomer Suit

In the 19th century women’s attire, at least amongst the better sorts, consisted of long, weighty skirts and restrictive boned fashion bodices. They were restrictive but for the male they served the purpose of protecting the modesty of the fairer sex.

Women wearing trousers was a known phenomenon, being a popular and immensely practical garb in the Middle East, earning them the sobriquet of Turkish trousers. Some American utopian communities, starting with the Community of Equality in Indiana’s New Harmony, espoused the wearing of straight-legged trousers under knee-length skirts. Similarly, trousers were recommended for women engaging in callisthenic exercise or taking cures at sanatoria. The fact that they were worn in closed communities provoked little public comment.

The game changed, though, in early 1851 thanks to the efforts of three women’s rights activists, Elizabeth Candy Stanton, Elizabeth Smith Miller and the editor of the Lily, a Ladies’ Journal devoted to Temperance and Literature, Amelia Jenks Bloomer. Bloomer used the pages of her journal to expound the virtues of a new form of dress, the invention of which she attributed to Miller, although history has bestowed them with her surname.

In the May edition, Bloomer wrote, “Our skirts have been robbed of about a foot of their former length, and a pair of loose trousers of the same material as the dress, substituted. These latter extend from the waist to the ankle, and may be gathered into a band … We make our dress the same as usual, except that we wear no bodice, or a very slight one, the waist is loose and easy, and without whalebones … Our skirt is full, and falls a little below the knee.”

They were an overnight sensation, selling out, particularly after the three ladies sported them on the streets of Seneca Falls in New York State. The Richmond Dispatch of 8th July 1851 gives a sense of the reaction wearing the attire caused; “Yesterday afternoon, Main street was thrown into intense commotion by the sudden appearance … of a pretty young woman, rigged out in the Bloomer costume-her dress being composed of a pink silk cap, pink skirt reaching to the knees and large white silk trousers, fitting compactly around the ankle, and pink coloured gaiters…. Old and young, grave and gay, descended into the street to catch a glimpse of the Bloomer as she passed leisurely and gracefully down the street…” The journo could not resist commenting that she was a fourth-rate actress.

The Rational Dress Reform Society, amongst other more radical women’s groups, adopted the bloomer but soon found it was rather counterproductive, their garments capturing all the attention rather than their rationale for the improvement of the woman’s lot. So by the mid-1850s it had fallen somewhat out of favour, the death knell perhaps being sounded in 1858 by Amelia Bloomer’s decision to forsake the trousers that bore her name for the new-fangled cage crinoline which eliminated the need for heavy petticoats.

What gave women’s trousers a second wind was the uptake in cycling as a pastime in the late 19th century. As early as 1880 The Girl’s Own Paper was recommending that for tricycle dress, there must no trailing garments to get entangled in the cog wheels of the cycle. The obvious solution was to wear trousers or at least bloomers and by 1895 they were accepted as the garb of choice for the enterprising female cyclist. The front cover of the Girl’s Own Paper in 1897 featured women cyclists wearing bloomers. Trousers had arrived but even their association was restricted to the narrow world of cycling.

It is remarkable to note that it was only in the mid-1960s that women wearing trousers became generally accepted.