Women in Trousers — from Bloomers to Rational Dress

Escaping ‘the kingdom of fancy, fashion and foolery’

“The 1848 Women’s Rights Convention was the first of its kind to openly advocate women’s dress reform. All of the assembled women agreed that the time had come for the simplification of the cumbrous fashions they were obliged to wear.”


The Pioneer Feminists of Seneca Falls

In the late 1840s a group of American women, many of them Quakers, made history at a small town in upstate New York called Seneca Falls. Their greater claim to long-term fame would be as founders of the American movement for women’s suffrage, but they began their activities as temperance and anti-slavery campaigners. In 1848 they held their first and now legendary Women’s Rights Convention at Seneca Falls, after which one of their leading lights Amelia Bloomer established the Lily, the first journal to be owned and run by a woman.
The journal featured regular articles by Bloomer and two of her close associates, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, on women’s suffrage, marriage and divorce reform, and temperance. But the 1848 Convention was also the first of its kind to openly advocate women’s dress reform. All of the assembled women agreed that the time had come for the simplification of the cumbrous fashions they were obliged to wear. These were often unmanageable and uncomfortable, as well as costly – with dresses often requiring 20 or 30 yards of material. Amelia Bloomer argued that women’s clothing should suit the wearer’s ‘health, comfort and usefulness’. These first women’s dress reformers proceeded to practice what they preached by rejecting the constricting corsets and tight lacing of traditional women’s fashion and wearing a type of pantaloons under a shortened and less bulky skirt. The idea had in fact not been Bloomer’s, as many people assume; it had come from Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s, feminist cousin Libby –Elizabeth Smith Miller – who had adapted her own style of pantaloons to make it easier to do gardening and other physical activities. But even Libby was not the first: she may well have got the idea from Utopian socialist communities on the East Coast, inspired by that set up by Robert Owen at New Harmony, Indiana in the 1820s.
Women smoking caricature
See page for author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The Birth of Bloomerism

Miller argued that women needed to escape ‘the kingdom of fancy and fashion and foolery’ and of all those gathered at Seneca Falls none embraced the new pantaloons with more enthusiasm than Amelia Bloomer. Pantaloons worn with a loosely belted tunic soon became a symbol of her own emancipation and Bloomer advocated their use in the Lily, averring that women ‘have been and are slaves, while man in dress and all things else is free’. So apoplectic was the inevitable response of Bloomer’s many detractors that they could not bring themselves to call what these women wore ‘trousers’. That garment was, to them, a symbol of masculinity and male domination, so they referred to them instead as ‘inexpressibles’.
It wasn’t long before these controversial garments were named after Bloomer in the popular press, although she repeatedly insisted on credit where due to Libby Miller for introducing her to them. ‘Inexpressible’ or not, the advent of bloomers caused a sensation. Their adoption by a group of courageous free-thinking women associated with the early movement for women’s rights brought down upon them the worldwide ridicule of men – and other women – alike, and opened a can of worms on issues of women’s fashion.

The Campaign for Women’s Dress Reform

The proselytisers for women’s dress reform remained undaunted, led in America by Stanton and Bloomer, who both ran the gauntlet of public derision by wearing their new ankle length bloomers and shortened skirts. Stanton pronounced the outfit to be liberating: ‘altogether a most becoming costume and exceedingly convenient for walking in all kinds of weather’:

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 was fit for any necessary locomotion. What a sense of liberty I felt with no skirts to hold or brush ready at any moment to climb a hill-top to see the sun go down or the moon rise, with no ruffles or trails imped by the dew or soiled by the grass.

Together with the abolitionist and temperance advocate Susan B. Anthony, Stanton organized an anti-slavery convention at Seneca Falls in 1851, attended by women wearing bloomers; that same year some of these women, still proudly in bloomers, came to England on a lecture tour. Inevitably, they were mercilessly parodied in the satirical press and across the lecture of halls of Britain. Punch was full of cartoons of them. Such were the persistent levels of derision wherever they went that by the mid-1850s most of the advocates of bloomers had had to abandon wearing them.

Women in Trousers in War

The outbreak of the Crimean War in 1854 had however brought with it a renewed interest in the practicality of bloomers for women on campaign with their men. When the French cantinières – a cross between a sutler and a first aid assistant – appeared on the battlefields during the war they caused quite a stir.   In their snappy military style bloomers and short skirts – a feminine version of the uniform of the regiment to which they were attached – they were in stark contrast to the bedraggled women following the British army in their heavy skirts and poke bonnets. One British officer thought it highly desirable that the British women should be ‘bloomerised’ like their French counterparts. ‘Straw bonnets and petticoats are absurd in the field’ he quite sensibly insisted.
In the ensuing American Civil War, dress reformer Dr Mary Edwards Walker followed the example of the French cantinières and wore military style trousers over a short dress when serving as a surgeon for the Union army in Washington. A keen dress reformer, Edwards also drew attention to the health aspects of women’s skirts and numerous petticoats trapping dust, dirt and germs.

The Dangers of the Crinoline

From the mid-1850s reaction to dress reform campaigning set in when the latest fashion rage for the steel-hooped crinoline swept away everything in its wake. By the late 1850s this trend had gone to extreme lengths, encouraging women to wear ever more vast, and unmanageable hooped skirts. Once again the satirists came out in force with their mocking cartoons. Voices of genuine concern were raised too, with advocates of simpler women’s dress pointing out the dangers of women in crinolines to open fires and being bowled over in high winds when wearing such clothing.
Throughout its short period of dominion over women’s fashion the crinoline was never a garment accessible to ordinary, poor and working women. It was a frippery; a temporary aberration and serious feminist campaigners did not give up arguing for dress reform. By now they were also embracing wider issues of women’s health, diet and fitness which all added fuel to the crusade for dress reform (a subject I shall return to in a future Story From the Footnotes of History). In the 1860s the dress reformers regrouped and turned their attention to the aesthetic dress movement promoted by the Pre-Raphaelites. Its languid elegance and soft, corsetless lines were epitomised in the photographs and paintings of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s muse, Janey Morris. Meanwhile a continuing campaign was being waged on medical grounds, to liberate women from the harmful long-term effects on their rib cages and internal organs of the corset and to promote public acceptance of certain decorous forms of female exercise that allowed less constricting clothes. Calisthenics and gentle gymnastics based around rhythmic exercise using dumbbells also helped promote adapted forms of the bloomer or bifurcated skirts as comfortable modes of dress for women to wear.

The Rational Dress Society

In the 1880s the women’s movement saw a glorious, concerted resurgence in its campaign for rational dress. The movement was now increasingly linked to anti-vivisection, animal rights (no feathers, leather and fur), vegetarianism and women’s health and fitness. It spawned such innovations such as Dr Jaeger’s far less constricting hygienic woollen underwear and was kick started by the foundation, in 1881 of The Rational Dress Society.  The Society had as its figurehead the gloriously eccentric Florence Wallace Pomeroy, Viscountess Harberton, who was supported in her endeavours by the feminist mothers of birth control advocate Marie Stopes and Oscar Wilde, among many leading women of the day. But it was the invention of the bicycle that dramatically changed things for women at the century’s end, literally propelling women’s dress reform toward the widespread popularisation of the ladies bifurcated trouser for recreational purposes.

The Advent of the Bicycle & Women’s Bifurcated Trousers

The bicycle craze that took hold in earnest with the invention of the safety bicycle in 1885, came at a time when a new and challenging genre of women’s fiction was also promoting the image of liberated, free thinking woman. In her real life incarnation, The New Woman of the 1890s embraced women’s emancipation and rational dress with a vengeance, particularly those eager to take up cycling, and adopted the new style knickerbockers designed to cater to this. Women’s determination to enjoy the new craze of cycling, as well as its enormously liberating potential, was a major weapon in the Rational Dress campaign. They wore their knickerbockers with pride, in the face of accusations of indecency, vulgarity and serious warnings that cycling and trousers would damage their genitals – or, as the critics euphemistically put it, ‘prevent motherhood’

The Indefatigable Lady Harberton

Lady Harberton (as she was more commonly referred to) was one of the movement’s most visible and vociferous campaigners. She despised the uncomfortable and impractical women’s fashions designed by male fashion designers such as Worth:

It is not to be wondered at that women are regarded as perpetual infants, since they voluntarily trammel and bind themselves from head to foot with the garments that the traders in clothes offer them.

She herself made a point of going about in flat shoes, voluminous knickerbockers and an impressive hat. She was one of a committee who set up a ‘Short Skirt League’ in 1893 to promote dresses five inches above the ground to make walking more practical for women. She admitted however that 5” was insufficient as it only came to the top of the instep. She wanted to see skirts 11-13” above the ground ‘but it was thought wise to begin gradually’ with their campaign. Lady H. hoped that the world would eventually see the light and ‘come to perceive that trailing garments are neither pretty nor poetical looking when covered with dust and mud, and that dress is a thing that should be adapted to the temporary occupation of the wearer.’
In 1899 Lady H. had her 15 minutes of fame when she was thrown out of the coffee room of the Hautboy Hotel in Ockham Surrey for wearing knickerbockers whilst out with the Cyclists’ Touring Club. She was told she would only be served refreshments in the bar parlour but refused. She took the Hotel to court for refusing her service, but lost. Lady H never stopped fighting and was also an active crusader for women’s suffrage. When she died in 1911 aged 67, she specified in her will that ‘no one who professes to have any affection for me shall wear mourning or make the smallest alteration in their clothing on account of my death’. Lady H’s suffragette friends mourned her loss and the passing of a colleague who ‘made a firm stand against the conventionalism which would hold women captive’.

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