American History · art history · history

Fashion Statement: The Bloomer and its Impact on the Women’s Movement

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.

Bloomers - Wikipedia
Bloomer

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.

bloomers | The Vintage Traveler

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.

Amelia Bloomer, Originator of the New Dress, 1842 | Amelia bloomer,  Fashion, Fashion history

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.

Vogue featured Coco Chanel's LBD, or little black dress. | MakersValley Blog

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.

Why the Chanel Suit is So Iconic - The History Behind the Chanel Suit

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.

1960's mini skirts - Google Search | 1960s fashion, 60s fashion, Mod fashion

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.

Is power-dressing a thing of the past? Womenswear | Dazed
The Look Of Power: How Women Have Dressed For Success : NPR

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?

Sources:

https://vintagefashionguild.org/fashion-timeline/

https://www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/february-2017/clothes-as-historical-sources-what-bloomers-reveal-about-the-women-who-wore-them

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/amelia-bloomer-didnt-mean-start-fashion-revolution-her-name-became-synonymous-trousers-180969164/

https://www.saturdayeveningpost.com/2018/02/bloomers-pantsuits-brief-history-womens-dress-reform/

https://www.huffpost.com/entry/women-and-pants-fashion-liberation_l_5c7ec7f7e4b0e62f69e729ec

https://www.bustle.com/articles/191181-how-women-have-used-fashion-as-a-feminist-tool-throughout-history

https://www.americahousekyiv.org/ah-blog/2020/2/12/american-fashion-trends-through-the-decades

https://history.howstuffworks.com/historical-figures/coco-chanel.htm

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/why-coco-chanel-created-lbd-180965024/

https://www.vogue.com/article/from-the-archives-ten-vogue-firsts

https://www.nps.gov/wori/learn/historyculture/amelia-bloomer.htm

https://www.historytoday.com/miscellanies/lily-liberty-amelia-bloomer-200

https://nhdcivilwarclothing.weebly.com/layer-by-layer.html

https://blog.makersvalley.net/history-of-the-little-black-dress

https://www.crfashionbook.com/fashion/a26551426/history-of-chanel-tweed-suit/

https://fashionista.com/2017/04/bob-short-haircut-hairstyle-history

https://www.designer-vintage.com/en/stories/chanel-suit

https://bellatory.com/fashion-industry/Fashion-History-Design-Trends-of-the-1040s

https://www.bbc.com/culture/article/20140523-short-but-sweet-the-miniskirt

https://www.per-spex.com/articles/2019/3/17/the-importance-of-the-1980s-power-suit

https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2017/12/the-power-suits-subversive-legacy/549200/

https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/pill-mrs-america-womens-roles-1950s/

American History · biography · history

Timeline of Women’s Suffrage : 1848-1920. Part 2

See Part 1 : historynavigator.org/2020/09/03/timeline-of-womens-suffrage-1848-1920-part-1/

New Women

Today in history…27 February | english3batz

The turn of the century brought about a new era of suffragists. The previous generation attempted to fight for their suffrage rights while still trying to fit into the roles that society made for them. They wanted to fight for progress, but also could not afford to stand out in ways that may look badly on the cause as they would lose support. For this reason, the old generation of suffragists did not encourage street speaking, marches, or acts of civil disobedience. Victoria Woodhull (a woman who I profiled two years ago: historynavigator.org/2018/06/18/victoria-woodhull-first-female-presidential-candidate-and-activist/ ) was a woman ahead of her time and was a very popular figure. She was bold and headstrong. She even announced her candidacy for president in 1870 (prior to women receiving the vote!). Woodhull was a divorcee and lectured about women’s rights and their sexual freedom. It was the free love portion and her spiritualism beliefs that cause the suffragists to want to disassociate from Woodhull’s brand. They knew that this would be a discouragement to any politician who may have sided with their cause. Society was not ready to accept women’s suffrage AND their sexual freedom. Just like with the temperance movement, the women of the older generation were still very concerned with appearances despite their activism.

Yet, in the wake of the 20th century, the world was changing. In Great Britain, the “suffragettes” were making loud scenes to get what they wanted. The suffragettes held parades, gave speeches, performed skits, participated in hunger strikes , and , sometimes, even performed acts of violence. American suffragists, like Harriot Stanton Blatch (daughter of Cady Stanton) , traveled to Great Britain and were influenced by what they saw there.

Continue reading “Timeline of Women’s Suffrage : 1848-1920. Part 2”
American History · biography · history

Timeline of Women’s Suffrage : 1848-1920. Part 1

Last week, we celebrated the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage in America. It is an amazing milestone to hit and to honor, but, on the other hand, it is shocking to think that the female citizens of this country have only had the right to vote for one hundred years. There are so many stories, people, and events that went into the long fight for the 19th Amendment, but in these next two posts I have compiled the events and stories that I feel were most important and encapsulated the movement.

Seneca Falls Convention, July 1848

 The Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 sparked the women’s suffrage movement in America. The event was organized by five women: Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Mary M’Clintock, Martha Coffin Wright, and Jane Hunt. It took place in the small town of Seneca Falls, New York. This convention was an early introductions, worldwide, of the concept of women’s suffrage. But how did this convention suddenly come about?

The abolition of slavery was one of the first political movements that women participated in and were able to exercise political agency. Beginning in the 1830s, American women were speaking out against slavery in public lectures. A woman’s role, during this period, was to be stowed away in the “private sphere”. They were to be dutiful wives and take care of the children.  Being regulated to the household, women never had a chance to reach out further and participate in the public sphere. They were barred from taking an active role in politics. To society, their opinions were unimportant. After a woman married (which was expected of them) they would lose any few freedoms they had and were dependent on their husbands. Married women had virtually no property or financial rights and the option of divorce was near impossible. The ideal “True Womanhood” of the period was a wife/mother who was pious and submissive. By the eyes of the law, women were dependents rather than a true citizen.   

Continue reading “Timeline of Women’s Suffrage : 1848-1920. Part 1”
American History · biography · history

Arrested for Voting: Susan B. Anthony’s Fight for Suffrage

August 2020 marks 100 years since the 19th Amendment was passed. This amendment provided women with the right to vote in the United States. It is hard to believe that it was not until 1920 that the female citizens of America received a right that should have been automatic as a citizen of the country. This right is often taken for granted today and it can be difficult to imagine a time when a woman would actually be arrested for voting in an election! It is important to remember this anniversary and to remember how hard the women who came before us fought. They fought so we could participate in government and in the decision making of this country. It is critical that we exercise this right every opportunity we have. During August (and likely the months beyond), I would like to highlight some of the tactics the suffragettes used to have their voice heard, famous standouts, and highlight how much hard work was put into the movement.

Continue reading “Arrested for Voting: Susan B. Anthony’s Fight for Suffrage”

American History · biography · history

Victoria Woodhull: First Female Presidential Candidate and Activist

Victoria Claflin was born on September 23, 1838 in Homer, Ohio. She was the seventh of ten children and was closest to her youngest sister, Tennessee. She grew up in a very rural area and her parents were considered “undesirable” in society. Her father was a con man and her mother a religious fanatic. Victoria would learn the valuable trade of fortune telling and how to be a medium through her mother. Victoria had to drop out of school after only three years of elementary school in order to earn income for her poor family. She earned this through fortune telling. The family was exiled from Homer after her father burned down their gristmill to try and cash in on the insurance policy. From this moment on Victoria spent much of her time traveling with her family attempting to earn money. Through her difficult childhood, Victoria learned to be independent and find strength within herself.

Image result for victoria woodhull

Continue reading “Victoria Woodhull: First Female Presidential Candidate and Activist”