Looking back at bloomers

To the Editor,

As one of the foremost crusaders for woman’s rights during the 19th century, Amelia Bloomer championed causes such as women’s suffrage, temperance and a greater role for women in the everyday affairs of running the nation. She became the deputy postmaster of Seneca Falls, N.Y., in 1849 to demonstrate a woman’s right to fill any place for which she had the capacity.

But it is not as an activist she is best remembered.

If any person can be viewed as the progenitor of a sensible mode of dress for women, that person is Amelia Bloomer. Disaffected with petticoats, hoop skirts, bustles and constricting corsets, she endorsed a far more practical outfit which enjoyed a popularity as the fashion vogue during the 1850s.

A short skirt in combination with a pair of baggy trousers deservedly became known as “bloomers.” The trousers, voluminously fabricated from yards of stuff, reached all the way down to the ankles, and in its entirety, the outfit received wide acclaim by women for its comfort. In stark contrast, the hoop-skirted attire with its encumbering trappings weighed as much as 12 pounds. Bloomer wearers realized additional comfort when it became evident that the tucked-in trousers afforded much better warmth than did petticoats or hoop skirts. The latter failed to prevent cold, blustery wind from sweeping up the capacious skirt and blowing tempestuously about a woman’s nether regions.

Unfortunately, men ridiculed the bloomer costume and not only did it become a symbol of radicalism, but both the garment and its wearer became objects of ribaldry and derision. Ministers railed from pulpits on the evils of women who wore bifurcated dresses. Elections were lost by politicians unfortunate enough to be married to such women, with many an erstwhile supporter emphatically declaring in no way could he vote for a man whose wife wore bloomers. Street urchins opportunistically heckled the “carrion crows” as the passerby bloomer wearers came to be known. With devilish glee, less sophisticated vulgarians derided the baggy, tucked-at-the-ankle bloomers as “thirty-day poopers.”

Miraculously the bloomers survived these onslaughts. But long skirts minus the trappings made a comeback while Amelia’s bloomers underwent diminution. As dresses got longer and longer, the bloomers got shorter and shorter, until they could no longer be seen and became women’s most intimate apparel. Then after many long years of being ignominiously banished from the public eye, the bloomers peeped mischievously into the world with the advent of the miniskirt.

Bloomers most certainly have evolved. Cloths embroidered with nice little pink flowers are widely known today as “panties.”

Amelia Jenks Bloomer died in 1894. A pedantic catalogue of facts sadly falls short of garnering the full measure of posthumous acclaim due her for her priceless legacies. May she always be remembered with light-heartedness and affection and may present-day feminists fare as well as that illustrious lady.

Gail A. Wickstrom



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