Women’s rights advocate Amelia Bloomer is the woman you can thank for your Tomboy jeans and your white pantsuit. Ok, maybe not directly, but she did pioneer the way in liberating women from the restrictive, patriarchal enslavement of women’s nineteenth century dress. As a bold leader within the suffragist movement, she was both celebrated and heavily ridiculed for her opinions – as all outspoken and badass women are – and her words carry a timeless truth. In honor of Women’s History Month, meet the woman who said NO to the dress.
Throughout history, women have been socially confined to some very uncomfortable (and impractical) modes of dress. The fashion of Bloomer’s time dictated that women be weighted down by thick, long, cumbersome skirts that dragged the floor, underneath which stiff petticoats added even more weight. Worse was the corset that encumbered the top half of the body, made up of stiff whalebone that drew in the organs so tightly that they were pushed into unnatural internal positions (and here I thought a bra was too much to bear). All of this greatly restricted movement, and please let this next point sink in –restricted movement ultimately means restricted behavior. The political agenda (gender roles) behind why women were burdened by such weighty costume is directly correlated to female subjugation by men. Bloomer, in her quest to literally unravel those heavy threads, revealed how women must break free from male bondage.
Amelia Bloomer was born in Homer New York in 1818, and worked as a governess in her youth before marrying attorney Dexter Bloomer of Seneca Falls at the age of twenty-two. In 1849, with her husband’s encouragement, she began editing “The Lily,” a newspaper for women that was circulated to members of the Seneca Falls Ladies Temperance society. The subject of temperance was a part of an overall belief and dedication to women’s reform that guided Bloomer’s passion concerning women’s suffrage. She firmly believed, quite logically, in the importance of freedom and fairness in all aspects of life, and that it begins in the home. After all, how could women face the world if their spouses were squandering money on booze? Then there was also the violence she felt it triggered in the imbiber. It wasn’t with radical intentions that she wrote about the matter, but a few years into her editorial stint at “The Lily,” which lasted until 1853, she radicalized. Basically, she decided women needed to literally start “wearing the pants,” as the expression goes. Maybe that idiom should at least in part be attributed to her work.
Expanding outside of the topic of temperance, Bloomer began to write about all matters of women’s suffrage, and that included fashion. Somewhat surprisingly, it was the subject of dress reform that sparked the most controversy, but it also turned heads (today we would say it drove more traffic to the site).”The Lily” went from a readership of 500 per month to 4000 when she introduced the nation to a pants and tunic sort of costume that has since claimed its place in history as the ‘bloomer.”
Bloomer herself was not actually the clothing’s original designer, however. She saw the outfit, which was simply a Turkish-inspired pair of pantaloons with a knee-length skirt worn over top, by fellow women’s rights activist Elizabeth Smith Miller, who had spotted it while traveling in Europe. Several women of social standing quickly adopted the dress, including Susan B. Anthony, actress Fanny Kemble, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. But it was Bloomer who spread the word, and set off the so-called “bloomer craze” of 1851.
Of course, not everyone appreciated the trend of what was then considered to be a style of dress that too closely resembled men’s pants. Critics, both male and female, called the new fashion “unladylike” and “scandalous.” Newspapers and churches condemned her, as wearing bloomers made a statement about liberation that ruffled the feathers of politicians, journalists, and clergymen. Nevertheless, she persisted! The comfy, non-restrictive pantaloons called bloomers began to grace shop windows and were worn in high society parties for several years.
True to the nature of all fashion trends, bloomers fell out of favor, and women returned to standard corsets and long skirts. This was just as well, because Bloomer felt that the scandal surrounding the dress was taking away attention from much more important causes pertaining to women’s rights. The costume did make a comeback (as fashion trends are wont to do) forty years later, just as Amelia Bloomer passed away in 1894. Her name, most commonly associated with the daring, gender non-conforming bloomer fashion, also carries with it a legacy of someone who wasn’t afraid to stand out – in style.
As Coco Chanel once said, “The most courageous act is still to think for yourself. Aloud.”