In 1851, a new word entered the fashion lexicon: the “Bloomer.” It referred not to undergarments but to what had been known previously by such names as the “reform dress” and the “Turkish dress”: essentially, a short dress paired with pantaloons, in place of the constricting women’s garments of the day. It would become associated with women’s rights activists, especially with Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Lucy Stone, and the woman who accidentally bestowed her name upon the garment, Amelia Bloomer.
Although the dress reform movement first attracted widespread public attention in 1851, it was not a new phenomenon. As early as 1826, Robert Owen had attempted to introduce the “New Harmony” costume to his utopian community in New Harmony, Indiana. Resident Sarah Pears, who was decidedly underwhelmed, wrote to her aunt on April 8, 1826, “The female dress is a pair of under-trowsers tied round the ankles over which is an exceedingly full slip reaching to the knees, though some have been so extravagant as to make them rather longer, and also to have the sleeves long. I do not know whether I can describe the men’s apparel but I will try. The pantaloons are extremely full, also tied round the ankle; the top garment also very full, bound round the waist with a very broad belt, which gives it the appearance of being all in one.”
Pears grumbled, “A fat person dressed in this elegant costume I have heard very appropriately compared to a feather bed tied in the middle.” One person who did carry off the New Harmony costume well was the tall, slender Frances “Fanny” Wright, a Scottish-born reformer who was involved with the community for a while.
The New Harmony community soon broke up. The Oneida community, however, adopted a version of reform dress in 1848, and advocates of the water-cure movement began to promote the cause of dress reform as well. In 1849, actress Fanny Kemble was criticized by the press when she supposedly appeared in Lenox, Massachusetts, in what were called “man’s clothes.” Not so, said Amelia Bloomer in her periodical The Lily: Kemble was wearing “a loose flowing dress falling a little below the knees, and loose pantalettes of drawers confined to the ankle by a band or cord. This shows how very sensitive gentlemen are in regard to any infringement on what they are pleased to consider their ‘rights.’ They need have no fears however on the subject, for we very much doubt whether even Mrs. Kemble could be willing to don their ugly dress. We wish they could be content with the right of dressing as they please, and not dictate to us what we shall or shall not wear.”
It was in Seneca Falls, however, that the dress reform movement really took off. In 1851, Elizabeth Smith Miller, the daughter of wealthy abolitionist Gerrit Smith, visited her cousin Elizabeth Cady Stanton at her home in Seneca Falls—the same small city where Stanton had famously held a convention to discuss women’s rights three years before. Stanton recalled: “Mrs. Miller came to visit me in Seneca Falls, dressed somewhat in the Turkish style–short skirt, full trousers of fine black broadcloth; a Spanish cloak, of the same material, reaching to the knee; beaver hat and feathers and dark furs; altogether a most becoming costume and exceedingly convenient for walking in all kinds of weather. To see my cousin, with a lamp in one hand and a baby in the other, walk upstairs with ease and grace, while, with flowing robes, I pulled myself up with difficulty, lamp and baby out of the question, readily convinced me that there was sore need of reform in woman’s dress, and I promptly donned a similar attire. What incredible freedom I enjoyed for two years! Like a captive set free from his ball and chain, I was always ready for a brisk walk through sleet and snow and rain, to climb a mountain, jump over a fence, work in the garden, and, in fact, for any necessary locomotion.”
Amelia Bloomer, a neighbor of Stanton, promptly adopted the new dress and began to advocate for it in the pages of The Lily, and soon the press was calling the garment the “Bloomer.” The Water-Cure Journal printed a sketch of Amelia in her eponymous garment in October 1851.
Meanwhile, Stanton found that her family did not share her enthusiasm for her new clothing. On April 11, 1851, she worried in a letter to her husband that she might not be welcome at her father’s home, “for Cousin Gerrit says that papa is so distressed about my dress.” Young Daniel Stanton begged his mother not to visit him at school “in a short dress,” to which Stanton responded on October 14, “You want me to be like other people. You do not like to have me laughed at. You must learn not to care for what foolish people say.” Most likely the lad was not comforted by this sage advice.
All through 1851, the press kept an eye out for ladies in Bloomer attire, recording sightings in city streets and town squares. The Syracuse Standard praised the costume as “feminine, graceful, convenient, tidy, and in harmony with the laws of health,” and the Wisconsin Telegraph proclaimed, “The fashion on the whole is appropriate, and has some show of common sense to back it.” The Brooklyn Evening Star reported that some factory girls in Lowell, Massachusetts had adopted it. By contrast, the reactionary New York Herald grumbled, “The attempt of a few lunatic and crotchety old maids and widows, induced by the socialist philosophers to persevere in their folly, has resulted in the putting on of breeches—called the Turkish costume—by those females who are silly enough to be led into such an absurd practice.” Satirical images abounded.
At the Woman’s Rights Convention at Syracuse, New York, in September 1852, a number of attendees appeared in the Bloomer, most notably Lucy Stone, who had started wearing the costume at home in 1850 and had gone public with it after about a year. Stanton, who had young children to care for, did not go to the convention, but her new friend Susan B. Anthony was there—the first time Anthony, active in the temperance movement, appeared at such a gathering. Stanton had not yet converted Anthony to Bloomers, but by December 1852, Anthony, writing to Lucy Stone from Stanton’s house, reported, “Well, at last I am in short skirt and trousers!” Both Stone and Anthony cut their hair as well.
But the Bloomer remained the garb of a decided minority. Not even all women’s rights activists adopted it. Lucretia Mott, one of the older women in the movement at the time, continued in her usual attire, as did Ernestine L. Rose and Lucy Stone’s close friend and future sister-in-law, Antoinette Brown (later Blackwell). Sarah Gilson, who interviewed Antoinette Brown Blackwell years later, wrote that Brown found long skirts a nuisance, but eschewed the new costume because she “believed it a mistaken emphasis to cause so much discussion about mere clothes.”
Indeed, the press became increasingly hostile to the garment, and those who wore it were subjected to street harassment and stares. Whether it was the pantaloons, the disapproval of the influential (and woman-edited) Godey’s Lady’s Book, the fear of being conspicuous, the association of the Bloomer with the unpopular women’s rights movement, or the fact that many simply found reform dress unflattering, most women continued in their long skirts.
One by one, women’s rights activists gave in to public pressure. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who had donned the Bloomer with such enthusiasm, was one of the first to abandon the garment. As she recalled ruefully, “But, while the few realized its advantages, the many laughed it to scorn, and heaped such ridicule on its wearers that they soon found that the physical freedom enjoyed did not compensate for the persistent persecution and petty annoyances suffered at every turn. To be rudely gazed at in public and private, to be the conscious subjects of criticism, and to be followed by crowds of boys in the streets, were all, to the very last degree, exasperating.”
Having purged her wardrobe of “every short skirt,” Stanton campaigned for her friends to do the same. “[L]ay aside the shorts,” she urged Lucy Stone in early 1854. “We put the dress on for greater freedom, but what is physical freedom compared with mental bondage? By all means have the new dress made long.” Both Stanton and Lucy Stone began to work on Susan B. Anthony, who in March 1854 grimly reported, “I have let down some of my dresses and am dragging around with long skirts.” She later recalled of the Bloomer, “I found it a physical comfort but a mental crucifixion. . . . The attention of my audience was fixed upon my clothes instead of my words.” Years later, Antoinette Brown Blackwell recalled, “On one occasion some years later when some of the younger women were trying to reintroduce the short dress and were advocating it at a public meeting, Miss Anthony turned to me with a queer look and whispered, ‘They may do it, but I shan’t. I’ve suffered enough.'”
Elizabeth Smith Miller, whose father and husband had heartily approved of the Bloomer, continued to wear it for some years, even though she found that sitting in such attire “produced an awkward, uncouth effect.” Giving way to her “love of the beautiful,” she finally abandoned the Bloomer, though she avoided corsets and fashion extremes. Amelia Bloomer, who claimed that she had never encountered “open opposition” while wearing her titular garment, gradually laid it aside when the invention of the hoop skirt relieved women of the need to wear “heavy underskirts.”
But despite its abandonment by its best-known advocates, the Bloomer still had its adherents. Some women in the water-cure movement continued to wear it, and health advocates went so far as to found the National Dress Reform Association. Others found the Bloomer useful on the overland trail. Versions of it were worn in gymnastics classes or as swimwear. Dr. Mary Walker, who had adopted the garment as a teacher in the early 1850s, wore it for years until finally moving in the 1870s to clothing that was little different from menswear; in her last years, she even added a top hat to her ensemble. “I don’t pretend to be a dude,” she told The Boston Globe in 1898, “and I don’t care very much about following the latest styles.”
Alice Stone Blackwell, Lucy Stone: Pioneer of Woman’s Rights.
Antoinette Brown Blackwell, typescript of memoirs recounted to Sarah Gilson (Papers of Antoinette Louisa Brown Blackwell, 1842-1921, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute).
Amelia Bloomer, “Mrs. Kemble and her New Costume,” The Lily, December 1849.
D. C. Bloomer, Life and Writings of Amelia Bloomer.
Brooklyn Daily Eagle, June 2, 1851.
Brooklyn Evening Star, June 2, 1851.
Gayle V. Fischer, Pantaloons and Power: A Nineteenth-Century Dress Reform in the United States.
Ann D. Gordon, ed., In the School of Anti-Slavery: The Selected Papers of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, vol. I.
Ida Husted Harper, The Life and Work of Susan B. Anthony.
Kenneth L. Holmes, ed., Covered Wagon Women: Diaries & Letters From the Western Trails, 1854-1860.
Amy Kesselman, “The ‘Freedom Suit’: Feminism and Dress Reform in the United States, 1848-1875, in Gender and Society, December 1991.
Sara Latta, I Could Not Do Otherwise: The Remarkable Life of Dr. Mary Edwards Walker.
New York Tribune, June 27, 1851
Thomas Clinton Pears, Jr., ed., New Harmony, An Adventure in Happiness: Papers of Thomas and Sarah Pears.
Theodore Stanton and Harriet Stanton Blatch, eds., Elizabeth Cady Stanton as Revealed in Her Letters, Diary, and Reminiscences.
“Symposium on Women’s Dress” in B. O. Flower, ed., The Arena, vol. VI, 1892.