Tuesday, June 10, 2008

From Reform Dress to Bloomers

Today women enjoy the freedom of being able to wear pants on just about any occasion. It wasn’t so when I went to college. The school I was going to in the 1960s didn’t allow women to wear pants until it was zero degrees! That meant it was COLD walking to class much of the winter. Just a few years later the culture changed dramatically and everyone wore jeans to class. Life can be so unfair sometimes!

It was a long struggle before women had this freedom of dress. The National Dress Reform Association was founded in 1856. The outfit they recommended included pants with sturdy boots instead of the usual insubstantial shoes. Sometimes the pants were baggy with a narrow cuff at the ankle. These were popularized by suffragette Amelia Bloomer.

The dress worn over the pants was fashionable for the time other than being shortened to about halfway between the knee and the foot. Attempts were made to make the outfit as feminine as possible including the use of womanly accessories and fabrics.

Yet the press had a heyday with this costume making fun of it and implying these women really wanted to be men. The satiric picture shown above is a great example of this. As a result few women adopted this way of dress and many who did wore the outfit only because they were doing farm work or other labor in which traditional women’s garb was a hindrance.

By the end of the 19th century “bloomers” were acceptable for sports and activities like bicycling. This newer “pants” outfit was derived from the knickerbockers worn by men. The advantage of knickerbockers was that they came just below the knee preventing accidents by those riding the ever more popular bicycle. Women’s bloomers were cut fuller and were worn with a feminine blouse and jacket.

Gradually women began to wear pants for sports and other active pursuits. But it was a long time before they were acceptable for school or work much less for church or going out.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons)