19th Century Dress Reform in Pictures

By: Britta Arendt



(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 action."
(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 Bloomerite@hotmail.com with any comments or suggestions you may have.

Possible Inspirations for the "Bloomer Costume"

(Courtesy of Graham's Illustrated Magazine, August 1858)

Some 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., Publishers, respectively)

In 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 Bloomerite@hotmail.com. Thank you!

  • The Dress:

    • May be made by shortening the skirt of a previously worn conventional dress only a few inches or up to the knees

    • May consist of a frock worn with a blouse underneath and a skirt

    • Is not worn with a corset, because this only defeats the purpose of the rational dress

    • Is not necessarily decorated with fancy trim, collar, or cuffs

    • Can be constructed with almost any fabric, from silk or velvet for more formal occasions to cotton or wool for more casual occasions or working environments

    • Styles do not necessarily reflect the "fashions" of the time. For example, some of Dr. Hasbrouck's rational dresses

    •  reflected styles of earlier decades (such as neck lines, waist lines, trim, fabric)


    Notice that the bodice of this rational dress is similar to the bodices of conventional dresses for women of the mid-nineteenth century.

    The Trousers:

    • Can have straight legs
    • Can be baggy and then gather at the ankles into a cord or band that buttons in the back, and from this band there may be a small ruffle
    • Most will fasten on the right and left side of the waist with either 1, 2, or 3 buttons
    • Some may button down the center of the waist like men's trousers

    From these photos, the construction of the trousers are evident. The first photo shows how they fasten at each side of the waist via buttons. The second shows how each leg is gathered into a band at the ankle, which buttons in the rear. The last photo shows the complete trousers.

    These photos show another pair of trousers constructed in a similar manner. These trousers would be worn for more formal occasions than the ones pictured above, as they have been constructed of silk taffeta, are much more full in the leg, and have two inch ruffles around the ankles.

    The above logo was found on a business envelope from B. Salisbury & Company of Battle Creek, Michigan, c. 1890-95
    (Collection of the Webmaster)

      Examples of Original Rational Dresses:

    • An article from the Water-Cure Journal mentions that one woman wore "stout calf-skin gaiters; white trousers made after the Eastern style, loose, and confined at the ankle with a cord; a green kilt, reaching nearly to the knees, . . . confined at the waist with a scarlet sash tied upon one side, with short sleeves for summer, and long sleeves for winter, . . . a green turban made in the Turkish mode."
    • In 1851 San Francisco, a woman was seen wearing a dress of "green merino . . . reaching below the knee some 3 or 4 inches . . . [and] loose, flowing trowsers of pink satin, fastened below the ankle."
    • A letter written on 5 August 1851 describes a woman who attended a festival at Glen Haven Water Cure wearing "a short green tunic not reaching to the knee, and white linen drilling trousers made a la masculine [not gathered at the ankles and cut similarly to men's styles]."
    • For the September 1892 issue of Arena, Elizabeth Smith Miller wrote an article reflecting on her days as a dress reformer. In it, she also described one of the dresses she wore during the winters of 1852 and 1853: "My street dress was a dark brown corded silk, short skirt and straight trousers; a short but graceful and richly trimmed French cloak of black velvet with drooping sleeves, called a cantatrice; a sable tippet, and a low-crowned hat with a long plume."
    • The New York Times, in a 8 February 1853 article, reports that at a temperance convention in New York, "Mrs. [Amelia] Bloomer was attired in a suit of brown satin cut, of course, in the most approved style of her costume. Miss [Susan B.] Anthony was dressed in similar costume - material black silk."
    • The Illustrated News, in a 28 May 1853 article, has an illustration of Lucy Stone wearing a "Bloomer Costume" of "black silk and velvet."
    • In 1854 Maj. Edwin A. Sherman wrote that he saw "two ladies dressed in brown linen 'bloomers.'"
    • The Northern Islander, in a 9 August 1855 article, mentions that a Mormon woman wore "full-length calico-pantalets, covered by a matching straight-waisted dress reaching down to the knees."
    • The women's gymnastics uniform at Vassar College in 1865 consisted of a "dress of gray flannel, high necked, long sleeved, and ankle length skirts, with bloomers under the skirt."