Women in Bloomers Create 19th Century Uproar

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Public relations portrait of Amelia Bloomer as used in the History of Woman Suffrage by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Volume I, published in 1881.

Bloomers, a women’s clothing style made popular by suffragist Amelia Bloomer, defied 19th century tradition. The style faded away after public disapproval.

Interest in women’s fashion was high in the 19th century. That was especially true of the apparel worn by women suffragists. Their leader Susan B. Anthony, working to focus attention on women’s suffrage, was irritated that so much attention was paid to what she wore. Like other women, Anthony struggled with fashions of the time that were uncomfortable and impractical. Dresses had tightly fitted bodices and layers of petticoats beneath heavy, floor-length skirts. To emphasize the ideal of an hourglass figure, a tightly laced corset confined the torso. Skirt bottoms often showed the results of a walk through wet, muddy streets. These heavy garments, weighing as much as 15 pounds, limited movement, making daily chores and child care awkward and burdensome. Modesty in dress was required for women, who wore dresses had long sleeves and high, uncomfortable collars, even in summer heat. Women mostly kept their complaints to themselves, however. Few defied the tradition, even women’s rights activists.

Amelia Bloomer Creates Sensation

A crack the tradition appeared in 1851. In June of that year, Elizabeth Smith Miller arrived at the home of her cousin, women’s rights advocate Elizabeth Cady Stanton, wearing long pants underneath a knee-length full skirt. She had seen the design on European women and copied it. Mrs. Stanton loved the practicality of the new outfit, made one for herself, and passed on the news through her network of sympathetic women, including fellow suffragist Amelia Bloomer. The costume caught wide attention when Bloomer published a sketch of it in her women’s advocacy publication, The Lily. She was immediately flooded with requests for the pattern, which she published in her newspaper. As the news spread, the outfit became known as bloomers.

Women Draw Ridicule, Anger

Bloomers-wearing women were surrounded by crowds who gathered to gawk and laugh. Elizabeth Cady Stanton noted that people would stare when she wore the bloomers, shouting rude remarks. A ground swell of angry voices charged that the women were unsexing themselves, costuming themselves as men, forgetting their femininity. As public attention for the new style grew, so did the critical response. After their initial excitement over the convenience of the bloomers, many women found it too embarrassing to face the snickers and sneers.

Bloomers Distract from Suffrage Campaign

After just two years of support for this comfortable clothing option, suffragist leaders reluctantly urged followers to put the bloomers away. They recognized that strong disapproval, especially from men, created a fashion controversy distracting attention from the issues and arguments for women’s suffrage. Susan B. Anthony had also sported the bloomers, appreciated their symbolism, and gave them up reluctantly. Despite the controversy, however, Amelia Bloomer continued for several years to wear the design. She would see attitudes change again by the late 19th century. By that time, as women became more physically active, the style would become popular again.

Sources:

  1. Griffith, Elisabeth. In Her Own Right, The Life Of Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Oxford University Press, 1984.
  2. Simmons, Linda. Petition of Amelia Bloomer. The National Archives. Accessed May 4,2010. nationalarchives.gov
  3. Sherr, Lynn. Failure is Impossible: Susan B. Anthony in Her Own Words. Times Books, a division of Random House. 1995.