Victorian Bloomers: A Pants Revolution

Bloomers. When we think of them, it's usually as an old fashioned underwear-long-frilly-pants kind of thing. Something Cinderella's mean stepsisters wore under their ball gowns.

But yet, they were so much more!

When first introduced in 1849, what we know today as "bloomers" were created as an alternative to the heavy skirts and uncomfortable, binding, and unhealthy corset. Women were looking for something practical to wear and move around in so that they could do their daily work more efficiently and, well, more comfortably.

Corsets and 15 pounds of underskirts made it kind of hard to get around, especially when you needed to breathe. And for pregnant women, well, perhaps they also contributed to both mother and infant mortality.

Oh, the things we do for fashion!

Some doctors were worried about the impact of restrictive corsets and heavy dresses on the health of a women and her child during pregnancy, which was certainly legitimate.

Then, a new fashion trend was born. Women just couldn't take it anymore.

The new fashion was inspired by Turkish pants, and consisted of loose pants to the ankle, covered by a short skirt. And by short skirt, we mean something below the knees, so not so short.

And yes, it was a scandal! At least, the men thought it was. How dare these women selfishly indulge their want of comfortable clothes! Those uppity women would be asking to vote next!

And indeed, they already were, and the bloomers were just one more indication that the attitudes of women were changing, and signaled their determination to be heard.

Of course, Turkish pants a.k.a. bloomers were initially just about being comfortable. It was really hard to do much else other than sit around and look pretty and pale (no oxygen)  in the corseted uniform of the day.

But many men found the outfit an affront to their manhood. And women jumped on that bandwagon, too, saying it was an affront to their femininity. (But I think it was more that it was just kind of ugly.)

Still other women thought the new pantaloon fashion was wonderful. They loved the idea of wearing pants. And besides, these pants were quite modest. Fashion over comfort? Not for those ladies.

Of course, this fashion came from American, not Paris, so some of the elite turned their noses up at the idea.

But the odd thing was, some men did support it. (Perhaps they thought their wives might be nicer to them if they could breathe and move more freely, but nah, that couldn't be it.) At the same time, some of these same men were wholeheartedly against the women's suffrage movement. 

The whole bru-ha-ha started when the editor of the Seneca County Courier espoused that maybe women could avoid the uncomfortable corset-and-a-million skirts thing by wearing “Turkish pantaloons and a skirt reaching a little below the knee.” Uh oh. And this editor was known to be opposed to the women's suffrage movement. Soon Amelia Bloomer, a women's rights activist and editor of The Lilly, the first women's newspaper, responded by writing a slightly scathing article that gave him a hard time for supporting dress reform while being on the wrong side of women's rights.

Then another suffragist, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who happened to be Bloomer's neighbor, saw her cousin wearing that very outfit and decided she'd wear it too. Soon, Bloomer followed suit. (Or pants. Or skirt and pants. Whatever.) Soon, by April 1851, Bloomer was writing about the new fashion in her newspaper. And yes, it was her writing and extoling of pantaloons' virtues that caused the new ladies' pants to be commonly known as "bloomers." Even though she protested that she didn't created the look, before she knew it, the public -- driven by the disapproval of men -- had made an inseparable connection between her, bloomers, and the women's suffrage movement.

The other newspapers poked fun at the idea of women's rights and this notion that they should wear pants, as if women could take on the role of men. I wonder, why ever did they think we wanted that? Equal does not mean "the same", you know, and besides that, women are so much smarter than men, why would give that up to become stodgy old stick-in-the-mud bruisers? (Just kidding, guys. Sort of.)

By 1851, pretty much all of the Suffragists were wearing those Turkish pants, now commonly known as bloomers, under those shorter skirts. It was all the rage, and the "bloomer craze" was born.

Mary Grove Nichols, a women's health advocate, created a "Declaration of Independence from the Despotism of Parisian Fashion" that many women signed. A textile mill in Lowell, Massachussetts held a banquet for their female workers who wore it. At a high-profile social event in Toledo, Ohio, 60 women showed up wearing it.

Bloomer balls and bloomer picnics abounded. Bloomer and female dress reform institutes began springing up. And in New York City, they had a huge festival for this new fashion. It was all a bit over the top, but somehow appropriate.

At first, men made fun of it. That is, until they realized it wasn't going to go away. It was now the symbol of the fight for equal rights for women. And that scared them.

So women who wore the Bloomer Costume often became chastised and began to experience discrimination. Some women -- including Amelia Bloomer -- decided it wasn't worth the trouble and went back to the old fashion.

But many women carried on, and by the end of the 19th century, the wearing of pants had become quite common, especially for women athletes. As a matter of fact, this revolutionary fashion had spread all over the world. And soon, we put those skirts aside. Women athletes started wearing them openly, even off the basketball court or gymnast mat. You just can't keep a girl down.

So there you have it, ladies. That's how ladies' pants came to be. So be sure to thank those crazy but  fashion-fearless suffragettes who just wouldn't give up.

Now you only have to wear a corset or a skirt if you want to.