Granted, the word, “bloomers” itself is sort of a funny word, maybe especially for Baby Boomers who think of them as long baggy underwear worn by our grandmas and great-grandmas. At age 7 we giggled about them when mentioned or when they were seen hanging out on the laundry line, filling with air as they blew in the breeze.
When “bloomers” were used as an article of women’s outer clothing back in the 1800s, however, it was revolutionary.
As discussed in our earlier post this week, Madness Monday: Clothes Make the Man- er, Woman!, modest, fashionable styles of dress back in the 1800s were really harmful to the health of women. In fact, one physician cautioned his students to NOT use female cadavers to study ‘normal’ anatomy, since corsets to elongate the torso, minimize the waist, and accentuate the bust moved women’s internal organs to places that nature had not intended!
Many of the health movements of the 1840s suggested that women should wear less restrictive dress, and some women adopted a variation of the “Turkish dress” that had a shorter skirt over baggy trousers. As the outfit became more popular, in 1851, there was a “Bloomer Craze.” Amelia Bloomer published a temperance (no alcohol) journal and lived in Seneca Falls, New York. (That place will be familiar to those who know their women’s history.) Amelia adopted the dress and it was so popular that her name started being used for it, and she included how to make it in one of her journals. The craze was on, and even included a special banquet for only the textile workers in Lowell Massachusetts who wore bloomers to work, as it increased job safety to not have long skirts among the complex machinery of a mill. There were “Bloomer picnics,” balls where women wore bloomers, and even dress reform societies and institutes were founded.
Of course, wearing bloomers became tied with the Women’s Rights movement of the mid-to late-1800s, especially when Susan B. Anthony, Lucy Stone, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton wore bloomers. Some of those in the crowds at their speeches came to see the women’s dress more than hear their words. A few years later, because they were worried about distracting from their primary message, the movement’s leaders uncomfortably returned to ‘conventional’ dress.
Others, however, felt the new style was a moral choice, as this poem illustrates:
“And now I’m dressed like a little girl, in a dress both loose and short,
Oh with what freedom I can sing, and walk all ‘round about!
And when I get a little strength, some work I think I can do,
‘Twill give me health and comfort, and make me useful too.”
— The Sibyl magazine, April 15, 1859
Of course, there were critics who felt the costume usurped male authority- and privilege.
But the bloomer dress continued to be worn, and was very useful to women in the west- even on the Iowa prairie. Wonder if some of our ancestors wore them? And, could our own Lynette Payne and her good friend Charmian Kittredge (who later married Jack London, the author) have been among the ‘natty’ ladies in bloomers that the 1895 Berkeley newspaper mentions? They both were living in Berkeley that year, and Lynette was just 16.
During the Civil War, some of the nurses wore bloomers as well- it was very useful for working in the field as well as hospitals. We do have a Civil War nurse in the family, Helen (Merrill) [Burkett] Burnell, who married Kingsley Abner Burnell after his first wife- our ancestor- passed away. Perhaps Helen wore the new dress to avoid long skirts dragging through pools of blood and other bodily fluids while working in a hospital or in the field. (Of course, they did not understand the germ theory of disease back then, so the long conventional dresses were not seen as a bad thing.)
Overall though, the bloomer dress went out of fashion after the Civil War, but was revived in the late 1880s and during the 1890s when it was realized that women needed healthy exercise, plus the bicycle came into fashion.
There were probably many accidents with long skirts caught up in spokes and chains and gears… so the bloomer dress became useful and more acceptable again.
Of course, bloomers were still scandalous…
Of course, some women could not bring themselves to adopt the new fashion. It must have been very challenging to ride a bicycle in a long dress.
There were versions of bloomers for athletics and different versions for cycling, and another to wear out in public for comfort. By about 1900, some versions of bloomers eliminated the overskirt, and bloomer pants became shorter in the late 1920s. In the 1930s, women were allowed to wear shorter and tighter pants, more like men’s styles.
Those of us ‘of an age’ will remember the baggy bloomer-type gym shorts/jumpsuits required for PE in the 50s, 60s, and even into the 70s. Also, girls/women were not allowed to wear pants to school, work, or church until the 1970s or 80s. (In the winter girls could wear pants under their dresses to get to school, but had to remove them for the rest of the day until returning home.) Even in the mid-1970s, women in the military did not have a dress uniform that included pants, and the short skirts of the day had to be worn on watch even in the coldest of duty stations. Frost-bite, anyone?
We’ve come a long way, baby!
Notes, Sources, and References:
- Illustrations from Wikipedia Commons, all public domain. See links for interesting commentary:
- Bloomers (clothing entry- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bloomers_(clothing)
- Madness Monday: Clothes Make the Man- er, Woman!- heritageramblings.net/…/madness-monday-clothes-make-the-man-er-woman
- “You’ve come a long way, baby!” was a promotional campaign for Virginia Slims cigarettes, marketed to women in the 1970s. One ad’s copy went on to say, “Virginia Slims – Slimmer than the fat cigarettes men smoke.”
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