While doing research for my series on the suffragist movement in the United States, I came across a very interesting trend that was briefly popular during the mid-19th century. Elizabeth Smith Miller debuted the “Bloomer” costume in 1851 . Miller was working in her garden and became irritated when her long and heavy skirts got in the way of her work. As she was now thoroughly fed up, she decided to take a pair of scissors and cut the skirt to a shorter version. Underneath the skirt, she would wear a wide pair of trousers which allowed her more comfort and freedom to complete her tasks. This outfit soon became a hit among the early feminists in the budding suffragist/women’s right movement. This new fashion trend pushed the boundaries of the feminine norms of society (despite being short lived) and it is easy to see why it became popular with suffragists. The Bloomer walked so future fashion trends of the 20th century could run. I really have never looked deeply into fashion history before, but it is fascinating how through this mode of art/expression women were able to convey what they wanted and resisted against societal norms.
Elizabeth Smith Miller wore her new outfit when she went to the Seneca Falls Convention and met up with her cousin, Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Stanton loved the look and others at the convention soon began to take notice as well. Most importantly, Amelia Bloomer (where the fashion trend took its name from) , who was the editor and writer of The Lily. The newspaper was dedicated to the women’s rights and temperance movements and was run completely by women. After meeting Miller, Bloomer began to write about how impressed she was by the invention and how she had adopted the style. She printed descriptions and instructions on how others could make the Bloomer. Eventually, the media was calling the style the “Bloomer Dress”, which shows how much influence she had on the trend.
There was an article written in The Lily (by an anonymous writer) that was titled, “Do Women Ever Do Any Hard Work? (1854):
“Go into the towns, and you will see them serving customers in all kinds of stores- attending to, working at, and carrying on all kinds of trades, sorting and packing up all sorts of goods in factories and warehouses; they do all kinds of weaving, dyeing, knitting, spinning, and sewing of all kinds of articles in use; they work at the shoe trade, and not a hat made but they have a hand at it; some you will find, keep Post offices, teach school, and preach the gospel; others employ their time in doctoring, nursing, and attending on the sick; some you will find in Bake-houses, making bread and various other things made in such places; and in butcher’s shops I have seen them cut up carcasses equal to men, and for Barbers they can’t be beat. Others go out washing clothes, and brewing beer all day long, and which are very different operations to anything you see done here; besides a great many of them have to attend to their own house affairs as well; so that woman’s work is said to be never done; and now tell me. if you don’t work hard, who does?”
I quoted this article because most women during the 19th century did not sit around doing nothing all day. They did work and, if not in a workplace, it was at home. They had to raise children, run a household, do chores, etc. The clothing of the era was modest, heavy, and restrictive. The aim of women’s dress during this era was to accent their curves, but, as a result, comfort was forgotten. Women wore many layers of clothing. The first layer a bloomer, then a chemise, followed by the tight corset, a camisole to cover the corset, a petticoat, a large and awkward hoop skirt, the over petticoat and then, lastly, the blouse/bodice and skirt. As you can see, it would take very long to get dressed in the mid-1800s and, not to mention, difficult to move. After so many layers, a tight corset, and a hoop skirt it would be difficult to complete any task. Imagine attempting to sit down or bend over in a hoop skirt or walk up stairs with layers of skirts at your ankles. It made any physical activities difficult such as bike riding, gardening, and hiking. Not only was the clothing restrictive physically, but also restricted what activities women could participate in.
The Bloomer, naturally, was an attractive option. The allowed more comfort, the ability to move more freely and participate in more activities. It also was a healthier option as the heavy use of corsets was not the best for the body. Part of the advertisement of the day was that it was good for women’s health.
The trend also was a statement. Women in trousers was unheard of and challenged the feminine norms of the time. It proved that women wanted more opportunities. Society had women trapped under the constricting social norms, no room for advancement outside of the house, and even trapped them in the acceptable clothing of the time.
In the end, the Bloomer phase was very popular with young bicyclists (especially in Europe) and early feminists, but the majority of women were not ready to take these steps. The media and public opinion made this difficult. The women who participated in the fashion statement were ridiculed and harassed. They were considered unfeminine and were viewed as resisting their own gender roles. They received so much backlash that within a few years many of the pioneers (Bloomer, Stanton, etc.) actually went back to the original style of long dresses. They did this, not because they had given up, but knew it was a distraction affecting the larger cause (votes for women, women’s rights to education and employment, etc.). Yet, Bloomers still made an important impact as fashion continued to be used to reflect a new type of woman throughout the 20th century.
In 1926, Coco Chanel came out with the original “little black dress”. Prior to the 20s, the color black was for mourning, so typically your everyday clothing would not contain this. Not only was the color different, but the style. It was very simplistic, it was short, yet elegant. It was also made for a majority of women to afford. It directly contrasted with the tight, restrictive, and over the top clothing from the prior century. The bobbed haircut was also paired with the new, liberating clothing style. It was another way to send a rebellious message. Women were ready to move past what society expected of them and take on their own destiny. At the time, despite its popularity, the bobbed hair was controversial. It was banned at certain establishments, like some schools, and highlighted as masculine in the media. It was paired with the image of an immoral woman.
In the 1920s/1930s, Chanel also designed the iconic tweed suit. She took inspiration from menswear and sportswear and then added a feminine twist. It was comfortable, but also gave a powerful look to the women who wore it. The style is still popular today. Women were beginning to take on new roles in the workforce and that was especially evident during World War II.
During the 1940s, rationing was extremely important in order to contribute to the war effort. Every resource was needed for the soldiers overseas. This included fabric, which actually led to shorter hemlines on dresses and skirts. The clothing was similar and more utilitarian. Pants and jumpsuits became more popular as women now had to work in the factories, labs , government jobs, and even in the military to fill in for the men who were now overseas. This was an accepted “sacrifice” for the war effort, but proved that women were capable of much more than society previously allowed. The change in fashion responded to the change in the expectations, yet continued to hang on to the modern day. Women made a huge impact during this period and continued to fight for more opportunities in the future.
The 1960s brought about the miniskirt which corresponded to the rebellion of the youth during this period. The miniskirt was a direct contrast to their parents fashion and their parents expectations. With changes, such as the development of the birth control pill, women were sexually empowered for the first time. The invention of the birth control pill relieved women of another restriction in their lives. This restriction included the pressures to marry quickly and settle down, to be submissive, and to remain pure. Just like men, they could finally be liberated and make their own choices. The 1960s and the miniskirt, was an era of new freedom and pushback against the social norms of the 1950s for young women.
In the 1980s, the power suit became a very popular look. You can see the influence the Bloomer and the Chanel suit had on this look. Iconic features are the padded shoulders and oversized look of the outfit. The focus now was not on the fact that the wearer was a woman, but what she could achieve and bring to the workforce. The suit represented respect and power. Women wanted to break that glass ceiling and they wanted to be successful themselves. They wanted to compete in the workforce and climb the ladder in their careers. Yet, there were barriers (that women still face today) in the corporate world that put women down due to their gender. They may find challenges getting paid what they deserve, getting that promotion that they worked hard for, or even finding opportunities in general. The suit gave the confidence needed and they felt they were dressed for the part they wanted. The power suit represents the ambition that women had to really show what they could achieve.
I do not claim to be an expert on fashion history, but, prior to this research, I never really thought about how the way we dress often coincides and aides in the social movements of the period. Women used fashion as an outlet to express what they wanted and what was missing in their lives. Without the Bloomer, could the power suit have existed?