When American Suffragists Tried to ‘Wear the Pants’

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tags: gender, feminism, suffragists, womens movement

Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell is a fashion historian based in Los Angeles and the author of Fashion Victims: Dress at the Court of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette.

In 19th-century America, the struggle for women’s rights—including the right to vote, enshrined nearly 100 years ago in the Nineteenth Amendment—often went hand in hand with other social and political goals: from abolishing slavery and securing Native American land rights to promoting temperance and championing the dress-reform movement. Dress reformers proposed comfortable and healthful alternatives to confining garments such as corsets and crinolines, the cagelike steel underskirts that characterized female fashion at the time.

Chafing against clothing norms was, of course, not quite the same thing as rebelling against the patriarchy, but the two issues frequently overlapped, starting in the mid-1800s. Women demanded physical freedom along with other, less tangible liberties, and many early feminists embraced what was euphemistically known as “freedom dress”—or, in other words, pants. But rather than spurring the suffrage movement forward, the garment prompted widespread backlash from a society that saw it as a sign of moral decay and a threat to male power.

At a time when long, voluminous skirts were standard, pants for women existed only on the fringes of fashion, in utopian communes and health resorts. They might have stayed there if not for Elizabeth Smith Miller. The daughter of wealthy abolitionists, Miller had the confidence to break the rules and the privilege to get away with it. In an 1892 essay published in The Arena, she recalled an experience she had in the spring of 1851:

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.

Shortly thereafter, Miller wore this unconventional costume on a visit to Seneca Falls, New York, where she stayed with her cousin Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Stanton and her friend and neighbor Amelia Bloomer “at once joined me in wearing the new costume,” Miller recalled. Bloomer, a temperance activist and abolitionist, had launched a newspaper for women, The Lily, following the first women’s-rights convention, which was held in Seneca Falls in 1848. When Bloomer published an editorial in praise of the new outfit in the April 1851 issue, circulation soared, and she was inundated with requests for patterns from around the country. Thus, the “freedom dress” got a new name: the bloomer.

Today the term bloomer is usually applied to baggy, bifurcated undergarments. But the original bloomer costume was a two-piece ensemble resembling the shalwar kameez of Central and South Asia. Shortly after the bloomer’s appearance in The Lily, the British humor magazine Punch described it “as a sort of shemale dress … trousers tight at ankles, and for [the] most part frilled; tunic descending with some degree of brevity perhaps to [the] knees, ascending to [the] throat.” Though this “masquerade frippery” was a dangerous harbinger of “female radicalisms,” in Punch’s words, the magazine acknowledged that it had some merits: Namely, it freed women from disfiguring corsets and crinolines. But while health concerns were a socially acceptable reason for reforming fashion, for many, political ideology was not.

Within weeks of its first appearance in The Lily, the bloomer reportedly spread as far as California and Texas. The American suffragist Hannah Tracy Cutler introduced the bloomer to Britain when she wore it at the World’s Peace Congress in London in August 1851. The bloomer also conquered popular culture in the form of caricaturessongs, and plays praising or mocking it—and usually misrepresenting its appearance. The term bloomerism came to be inevitably—if incorrectly—associated not just with wearing trousers but also with other supposedly deviant (for women) behaviors, such as smoking, drinking, gambling, serving in the military, and abandoning husbands and children. As Bloomer herself pointed out, wearing traditionally male garments suggested an across-the-board “usurpation of the rights of man”—notably, the right to vote.

Read entire article at The Atlantic