Bloomers and Reformers

The bloomer--turkish trousers over which a short skirt or long tunic top was worn--made its first appearance around 1850. This event marked the beginnings of the Victorian dress reform movement. Amelia Bloomer, an American, did not actually invent the bloomer, but she supported in it her temperance magazine The Lily. The New York Tribune noted her promotion of the costume and labelled it the 'bloomer'.

The failure of the bloomer

[walker] The British LibraryCover of The Lady's Own Paper showing Dr. Mary Walker wearing bloomers. The paper reported that Dr. Walker felt it was not safe or hygienic to practice medicine in long dresses and that she believes 'that long dresses are killing women; and she attributes the failure of the Bloomer movement, some years ago, to the circumstance that the ladies who favoured it then were for the most part incapable of appreciating and explaining the physiological, hygienic, and moral bearings of the question'.

Back in Britain The World of Fashion magazine covered the invention of the bloomer in a comic piece entitled 'The Adventures of Isabel Fitzbloomer, A Confidential Communication to Kate Norton' in 1851. This early piece associates dress reformers with advocates of women's rights. The speaker of the piece adopts the bloomer, becomes 'manly and commanding' and is mistaken for a man. This was to become the standard response for the rest of the century. Despite the fact that bloomers allowed for greater ease of movement, and were undoubtedly more comfortable than traditional dress, both the public and the press mocked and scorned them.

The most famous early wearer of the bloomer after Amelia Bloomer was Dr. Mary Walker who was taken prisoner during the American Civil War. In a lead piece on her in The Lady's Own Paper (1866) the writer acknowledged that the 'dress question' had been a great trial to her. The illustration shows her standing resolute and confident in her study--an image of a professional woman announcing her intention to stand firm on a controversial issue. In a concession to the readership, the writer skilfully acknowledged that they may indeed object to her attire, but claims that they cannot fail to admire her courage in the face of 'a great social anomaly'.

Fashion versus health

Thus, for the first generation of Victorian dress reformers, fashion and health were set in opposition. Many Victorian feminists perceived fashion as a domineering monarch 'whose throne is now so firmly established' (Ellen Barlee, 'Cheap Clothing', Alexandra Magazine, 1865). In the third issue of The Rational Dress Society's Gazette (1888) an article 'On Fashion' talks about the empire of fashion:

She extends her authority to the minutest details of our lives; tells us when we must eat and when we must strive to amuse ourselves. She turns day into night, ignores our comforts, disposes of our money and our time, and engages in successful war even with Nature itself.

Fashion was like a vampire, feeding on her victims who then in turn become addicted to her pleasures and her charms. Fashion was also seen as an exploiter of the workers who produced it, namely seamstresses, and many written essays and articles as well as paintings testify to this. By the 1880s, the victims of this exploitation were widened to include animals and birds. The reformers placed this exploitation at the centre of their critique of the fashion system, and even many fashion and general commercial magazines lamented the excessive use of ostrich feathers.

The official mouthpiece of the Rational Dress Society, The Rational Dress Society's Gazette, was a non-profit making enterprise. Only six issues were produced between 1888 and 1889. Constance Wilde, Oscar's wife, edited most if not all of it, and both the Wildes were known for their support of rational dress. Oscar advocated Dr Jaeger's hygienic woollen underwear--wool was considered to be cooler than any other material, and Dr Jaeger's clothes were worn by many intellectuals of the time. The Rational Dress Society did not have a regular meeting place but relied on the financial and practical support of its core membership, which included Lady Harberton, Charlotte Stopes, Emily King and Ada Ballin. It did have a London depot where potential customers could view the goods it promoted. The society was against the weight and discomfort of contemporary fashions and advocated rational clothes, boots, baby clothes and even cremations. It is not surprising that many of the supporters of rational dress were also involved in other progressive movements such as vegetarianism, animal rights and anti-vivisection.

In addition to The Gazette, the Rational Dress Society gained significant coverage from feminist journals including Shafts, Women's Penny Paper, and Woman's Signal. The society paper, The Queen, leader of fashion, did cover some of the meetings organised by the society, but the paper did not ever advocate rational dress as any kind of serious alternative to high fashion. The cheap domestic weeklies such as Home Chat and Home Notes did not show much interest in the topic.

[Shafts] The British LibraryThe front cover of Shafts.
Shafts gave a lot of support to the reformers, and the cover page of this paper showed the spectacle of the advanced woman, in this instance Artemis, the virginal huntress (signifying social purity) who vowed no allegiance to any male. Dressed in flowing and unrestricted Greek robes, she aims her arrow, predator-like, at her adversaries. Unlike the model of the fashion plate she is not static, frozen and on display but is paused for action, possibly even battle. The sub-title, 'Light comes to those who dare to think', refers to clarity, courage and intellect. These key principles were taken up by the reformers in the call for action.

To understand the nature of the movement towards reformed dress, it is useful to examine its name--The Rational Dress Society. To be rational is to use reason or logic, and this emphasis can be traced back an early London-based feminist group known as the Langham Place Circle, and their writing on dress reform in The Englishwoman's Journal and related publications in the 1850s and 1860s.

Freeing the body, freeing the mind

The Langham Place Circle viewed dress-reform as both healthy and conducive to emancipation, and in the 1850s published a significant number of articles on dress and on travel. The bound feet of Chinese women became a common symbol of the repression of fashion, and many considered the tight corset a similar instrument of torture. For the Rational Dress Society the inferiority of women lay in their dress, and in the article about their annual meeting in Women's Penny Paper, Lady Harberton was reported as saying

'When men saw the way we mismanaged affairs in which we had free action and which were peculiarly our own, what wonder that they were against giving us the franchise and regarded us as inferior beings'.

The Langham Place Circle

The Langham Place Circle, the first organised feminist movement, came together in Kensington, London in 1856. The movement gathered around Bessie Rayner Parkes and Barbara Leigh Smith (later Bodichon), two liberals who as young women had been allowed to go on an unchaperoned Continental tour together. The group met to discuss various issues affecting women, particularly the reform of the legal position of married women. In 1859 the Society for Promoting the Employment of Women was founded, with offices in the same building in Langham Place, and from this sprang a Ladies Institute with a reading room and small club. Langham Place acted as a recruitment centre for other women, most notably Emily Davies, the leader of the campaign to open higher education to girls, and Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, the first English woman to qualify as a doctor. They were also active in the early suffrage movement in the 1860s.

The reformers were disappointed that whilst intellectual opportunities for women were greater than they had ever been before, notions of dress were relatively backward. They argued in The Rational Dress Society's Gazette that women should 'free their bodies and render them fit companions for their enlarged minds' (1888).

The majority of the mainstream press remained hostile to rational dress as a serious alternative to contemporary fashion, and the reformers were often lampooned for allegedly wishing to dress like men. An article in Women's Penny Paper (1889) asserted that the 'manly young lady' is quite different from:

the woman who advocates the Suffrage. To imitate is to admit superiority and by dressing like a man, and trying to speak like a man, and generally aping manly ways, the manly young lady shows in the most sincere of possible ways that she thinks herself inferior to the being she apes.

There were a few exceptions such as The Woman's World which published an article on 'Women Wearers of Men's Clothes' which, whilst not advocating rational dress, did state that a woman could still look womanly in men's clothes. But the most interesting part of the piece was the assertion that all women who had dressed like men, including Amelia Bloomer and Dr Mary Walker, had been hindered in their careers. For The Rational Dress Society's Gazette, women ought to be allowed the comfort and practicality of men's clothes, whilst still looking distinct from men--that is, in divided petticoats or trouser dresses. They had to make clear time and again that they did not support the wearing of men's clothes but that 'God has made us with two legs and not one, and we wish for freedom to use these legs'.

The exploitation of workers and of animals by the fashion industry caused controversy in Victorian times. If anything, such issues are even more contentious today. Think about how the nature of that exploitation has changed over the last 100 years.


"Locating the Victorians" conference in July 2001, Kay Boardman, senior lecturer in English in the department of cultural studies at the University of Central Lancashire, described and explored this complex relationship by looking at four particular items which are all related to the fashion system in one way or another: the fashion plate (a detachable, often coloured, page featuring models wearing the latest fashionable outfits), the corset, the bloomer and the bicycle.

Source: div
#Secret History of the Corset and Crinoline # Flamboyance and the Crinoline Craze
# From Crinoline, to Crinolette, to Bustle # Over-Structured Opulence to the 'Healthy Corset'
# A Turn Toward the Bust: Early 20th Century # All Tied-Up: The Corset in Contemporary Fashion

#Fashion | Page 2 # Charles Frederick Worth # Court Fashion # Fashion Plates
# Dress, Fashion and Modernity # Corset Controversy # Bloomers and Reformers # Bicycles

Victorian Age Fashion Galleries
# 1837-40 # 1840 # 1850 # 1860
# 1870 # 1880 # 1890 # 1900


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