Bloomerism

In the nineteenth century, as male clothing became increasingly utilitarian, certain women began to feel constrained by the fashionable clothing styles available to them. The most famous dress-reform movement was called Bloomerism. The movement was named after New York resident, Amelia Jenks Bloomer. In 1851 Bloomer published an article in the feminist publication she edited called The Lily, stressing the importance of introducing reformed garments for women. The article was later reprinted in popular American press and gained a widespread readership. Later that year, along with her friends Elizabeth Smith Miller and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, she was seen in public dressed in a shortened skirt with Turkish trousers. Although Amelia was not the first woman to wear or invent the garment, the name evolved as a consequence of her association with The Lily.

The bloomer costume consisted of loosely fitting, Turkish-style trousers that gathered and frilled at the ankle with an elasticized cuff. The trousers were worn beneath a shortened skirt that fell below the knee, and a fitted bodice. In contrast to the prevailing fashions, the outfit was claimed to be comfortable, convenient, safe, and healthy. Bloomer dress focused not on the way one looked, but rather on the way one felt. The original intention of the garment was thus not to challenge established gender boundaries, but rather to increase mobility and function.

A majority of Victorian society was highly critical of the innovative style of dress. Since trousers were considered to be a traditional symbol of masculinity, female devotees of Bloomerism were subject to ridicule and abuse. For example, satirical caricatures of Bloomers appeared in magazines such as Punch. As a consequence, most abandoned the costume after only a few months.

Amelia Bloomer had herself discarded the costume by the mid-1850s. Although the movement was short lived, it exposed entrenched gender stereotypes and challenged the dominant ideals of femininity. As a consequence the innovative costume signaled an advance in the direction of female emancipation.

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