11. Bloomer Boom
It’s commonly thought that Amelia Bloomer invented the knee-length skirt with full Turkish-style pantaloons. The outfit originally touted as “freedom dress” and best known as a “Bloomer Costume” or “Bloomers” for short, was actually first designed in the spring of 1851 by Elizabeth “Lizzie” Smith Miller of Geneva, New York. However, we do have to thank Amelia Bloomer for popularizing the idea.
According to an essay she wrote for “The Arena” in 1892, Miller recalls creating the outfit. “While spending many hours at work in the garden, I became so thoroughly disgusted with the long skirt, that the dissatisfaction … suddenly ripened into the decision that this shackle should no longer be endured … Turkish trousers to the ankle with a skirt reaching some four inches below the knee, were substituted for the heavy, untidy, exasperating old garment.”
She wore it to visit her cousin, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who loved the practicality of it so much that she started wearing the style too. Stanton’s friend, Amelia Bloomer, editor of a woman’s journal called “The Lily,” also saw the benefits of this exciting dress reform. In April of 1851, she wrote articles about the radical new clothing option including illustrations. Requests came from all over the country asking for the pattern.
More and more women’s rights advocates started wearing “bloomers.” There was even a Bloomer Ball in Mayfair London in September of 1851; the next day, the British humorist magazine “Punch” mockingly described it as a “sort of shemale dress,” and it became the subject of ridicule. Women who dared to wear the outfit in public were harassed with rude remarks and aspersions on their character. Stanton’s own sons did not want to be seen with her in public when she wore it. People threatened to not re-elect her husband Henry to the Senate if she continued to disregard proper women’s dress. Other women's experiences were the same. Lucy Stone lamented, “We put the dress on for greater freedom, but what is physical freedom compared with mental bondage?”
Most women chose a new tactic—that of dressing extremely feminine and conforming to fashion norms in order to present themselves a less threatening and project respectability. Indeed, there eventually became two terms for women’s rights advocates: the “suffragists” who were lady-like, demure, respectable, feminine women gently asking for equal rights and the “suffragettes” who were hostile, angry, masculine women demanding it. Cartoons depicting exaggerated stereotypes of each were common. Although scholars often insist that the term “suffragette” only should be used for the British suffrage movement and specifically for Emmeline Pankhurt’s Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), both “suffragette” and “suffragist” can be found on original sources in both America and the UK. In common use, more people are hearing the term “suffragette” and using it more frequently. The same way that a brand name might become the generic name of a product i.e. band aid, q-tip, xerox. In the end, they are just terms and splitting hairs over language divides women unnecessarily and distracts from the real issues of equal rights—this still happens today when people embrace or reject the term “feminist.” It’s just a label and the only power it has is the power you give it.
This week’s song pick:
“Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” by Cyndi Lauper https://youtu.be/PIb6AZdTr-A
Episode 11 Sources: