Up until the mid-1800s, women fell victim to the idea of ‘modest dressing,’ a type of fashion that relied on floor-length dresses, minuscule corsets, and the layering of numerous petticoat skirts to appear put together. The side effects of this daily uniform on women? An added 15 pounds of weight, painstaking pressure on their hips, and the inability to move and breathe freely. The long fabrics posed health threats in the heat, dirty streets, and dangerous factories where many women worked. There were even complaints of women experiencing crushed organs from the handmade whalebone corsets that they were expected to wear.

While everyone was aware of the problems that women’s fashion posed for wearers during this time, few were brave enough to express their concerns and face backlash from the patriarchal society they lived in. There was one woman, though, who used her platform to spark dress reform that altered women's fashion as we know it today. Her name was Amelia Bloomer.

Amelia Bloomer International Women's Day

Bloomer? Like the pants? Exactly. Not many people know where this term comes from, but now you do! Amelia Bloomer was a feminist activist and an editor of the first women’s newspaper, The Lily, based in New York City. In 1851, Bloomer read an article about why women should start petitioning to wear shorter skirts and opt for “Turkish pantaloons” to ease their discomfort. She liked this idea but noticed that the author was a man who had outwardly opposed Bloomer and the women’s suffrage movement in recent years. Amelia took to her publication to call the man out for advocating for women’s dress reform while not supporting their equal rights as a whole. She began to draw up her ideas of dress reform and even noticed women traveling from out of state wearing the pantaloons that the article had described. So, in April 1851 Bloomer released an article about this new form of dress and how she and her comrades would start wearing loose pantaloons and knee-length skirts as a feminist movement. She immediately faced criticism and backlash from men in the media, disgusted by how she could disrupt traditional female dress and promote such liberal ideas. Women, though, were captivated by Amelia’s article and showed an outpouring of support and interest in dress reform.

“Letters came pouring in upon me by hundreds from women all over the country making inquiries about the dress and asking for patterns—showing how ready and anxious women were to throw off the burden of long, heavy skirts,” Bloomer recalled. Women said they felt, “like a captive set free from his ball and chain” after making the wardrobe transition. The Lily’s audience grew by 8x the size it was before Amelia’s article was published and before she knew it, Amelia Bloomer had become the leader of a fashion revolution with her last name becoming synonymous with the clothing she had promoted. 


Celebrating International Women's Day 2024

Unfortunately, as the popularity of bloomers rose, public harassment of those wearing the pants saw a rise as well. Women faced verbal backlash from men and even other women who disagreed with their decision to ditch traditional skirts and dresses. Activist Angelina Grimke noted that this scrutiny was only prevalent because the transition to pants stemmed from the desire in women themselves. For example, she wrote that “if the Bloomer costume had come from a Paris milliner it would have been welcomed in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia.” This is an important distinction to make since it proves the fact that the outrage was never really about the pants themselves, but rather the fact that women had fulfilled their wishes and served themselves over societal expectations. Nevertheless, women continued to make their own decisions in how they dressed while blocking out the noise.

As we celebrate International Women’s Month, we owe a debt of gratitude to Amelia Bloomer and other early feminist activists for their courageous efforts in leading the dress reform movement. Their advocacy paved the way for women to have the freedom to dress as they choose, including the ability to wear pants without societal constraints. Their bravery and dedication to challenging traditional gender norms have had a lasting impact on our ability to express ourselves through clothing, and we continue to benefit from their pioneering work in breaking down barriers for women’s fashion choices.


March 06, 2024 — Jaime Schaus

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