(Courtesy of the Water-Cure Journal, October 1851)
"We should indeed be a free people. Freed from the petty tyranny
which now rules us with a rod of iron, we should become strong and
vigorous in body and mind, and independent and courageous in thought and
(Amelia Bloomer, in The Lily, June 1851)
During the Spring of 1851 a woman by the name of Elizabeth Smith
Miller began experimenting with a new design of women's clothing she
described as "Turkish trousers to the ankle, with a skirt reaching some
four inches below the knee" to replace the swaddling long skirts she wore
daily. The reformed style was undoubtedly more comfortable and liberating
than her previous dresses that weighed her down with nearly 35 yards of
fabric and over 10 pounds of petticoats at her waist. Along with the
corset worn by women of the era, the conventional style of women's dress
caused, "distorted spines, compressed lungs, enlarged livers, and
displacement of the whole abdominal viscera . . . a weary soul in a weary
frame" (The Lily, June 1851).
Soon after shortening her skirts and donning Turkish Trousers,
Miller visited her cousin, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, in Seneca Falls, New
York and introduced the reform dress to her. Stanton copied her cousin's
designs, and the two women then decided to inform another friend, Amelia
Jenks Bloomer, of their new style of dress. Bloomer, intrigued with the
healthier form of clothing, adapted the style to her own tastes. As editor
and publisher of The Lily, A Ladies Journal, Devoted to Temperance and
Literature, Bloomer wrote an article in the next issue advocating the
benefits of Miller's "Freedom Dress" or "Rational Dress."
It did not take long before the popular press and society began to take
hold of this reform dress and rename it the "Bloomer Costume" or
"Bloomers," after the woman who first publicized the style. Reform dress
was soon viewed as a "ridiculous and indecent dress" fit only for women
"of an abandoned class, or of those of vulgar women whose inordinate love
of notoriety is apt to display itself in ways that induce their exclusion
from respectable society" (International Monthly, November 1851). Society
feared a Dress Reform Movement would cloud the social standards that
governed feminine and masculine norms. Society was concerned that dress
reform for women was only the beginning - that if the reform was
successful, social distinctions would vastly change. Would male and female
roles be reversed? Would men become subordinate and start wearing long
skirts? In the minds of people today, such reactions may seem absurd, but
during the mid-nineteenth century, the fears were all too real. This was
an era in which social laws regarding women reflected statements such as:
"It is an equivocal compliment to woman that man should treat her like a
doll he is in constant fear of breaking" (J.D. Milne).
Despite the negative reactions held by society, the Dress Reform
Movement spread and became associated with the struggle for women's
emancipation. Elizabeth Cady Stanton argued that: "Woman will never hold
her true position, until, by a firm muscle and a steady nerve, she can
maintain the RIGHTS she claims . . . but she cannot make the first move .
. . until she casts away her swaddling clothes" (The Sibyl, February
1857). Thus, in the eyes of several female dress reformers, a reform in
women's dress was one of the first steps towards women's liberation.
The next few pages attempt to provide a variety of images seen in
both the popular press and reality in regards to the nineteenth century
Dress Reform Movement. It is also important to note that not every
woman wore shortened skirts and trousers for the same reasons, and not
all women wore the same style of reform dress. The variety is remarkable,
and that is why I created this web site - to provide a link to the history
and progress of the nineteenth century Dress Reform Movement. Because I
focus almost exclusively on images throughout these pages, please check
out my References and Links page for more historical documentation. Enjoy,
and please feel free to email me at
any comments or suggestions you may have.
Possible Inspirations for the
(Courtesy of Graham's Illustrated Magazine, August 1858)
historians argue that Western society was fascinated with Middle Eastern
styles of clothing throughout the early nineteenth century, especially the
pantaloons, which became known as "Turkish trousers." Magazine
illustrations, such as the one above, depicted Eastern women wearing their
traditional pantaloons, and may have been the model for many women trying
to design trousers for their rational dress.
(Courtesy of Catherine Smith, co-author of Women in Pants, Harry N.
Abrams, Inc., Publishers)
Here is a
carte-de-visite image of two women wearing "Turkish trousers," c. 1860-70.
(Courtesy of the Oneida Community Mansion House, and Courtesy of
Catherine Smith, co-author of Women in Pants, Harry N. Abrams, Inc.,
the early ninteenth century, some religious affiliations and utopian
societies (including the Oneida Community and New Harmony) advocated a
"simple dress" for their female members that would promote better health
and freedom. The young women pictured above don the characteristic dress
that many women of the Oneida Community in New York wore.
(Courtesy of the State
Historical Society of Wisconsin)
Some of the most typical wearers of the rational dress were neither
feminists nor members of a particular religious community. Instead, they
wore the dress for practical and health reasons. It was much easier for
women to complete tasks or work while clothed in trousers rather than long
skirts. Pioneer women, such as the one pictured above, who traveled West
to create new lives for themselves and their families found reform dress
to be a necessity.
(Courtesy of Water-Cure Journal, January 1852)
Gaining popularity in
the early nineteenth century, hydropathic therapy consisted of applying
cold water to various parts of the body via showers, baths, or compresses.
These precursors to modern day spas promoted healthy living, and the
isolated locations of the spas made them perfect environments for women
experimenting with dress reform. Anyone interested in hydropathy would
have had easy access to information on the rational dress by simply
reading the Water-Cure Journal or visiting one of the spas.
Construction of the "Bloomer Costume"
(Courtesy of the Kean Archives in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania)
I have been researching the history of nineteenth
century dress reform for quite some time, but there has always been one
aspect of the history that is difficult to thoroughly document. This
"difficulty" includes how the rational dress of the 1850s was originally
constructed. Because each dress reformer was responsible for designing her
own clothing to her personal tastes, it is nearly impossible to say that a
strict guideline exists for the construction of the dress. Primary
documentation, such as newspaper or journal articles, diaries, and
letters, can give us some glimpse into the past, but there are very few
original "Bloomer Costumes" that still exist from that period in history.
What I have decided to do with this page is create some very broad
guidelines for the construction of the rational dress based on my own
research of primary sources (mainly original articles from The Lily and
The Sibyl as well as illustrations and other photographs). If you have any
suggestions, comments, or see anything that might be wrong with my
interpretation of the documentation, please feel free to email me at