The costume of women should be suited to her wants and necessities. It should conduce at once to her health, comfort, and usefulness; and, while it should not fail also to conduce to her personal adornment, it should make that end of secondary importance.
The author of these words was born Amelia Jenks, on May 27, 1818 in Council Bluffs, Iowa. After a modest upbringing and a few years spent as a governess, she married attorney Dexter Bloomer, and moved from her native New York to Iowa, where she wrote for several newspapers before starting her own periodical, exclusively for women. The Lily was intended for distribution among the members of another of Amelia’s pet projects, the Seneca Falls Ladies Temperance Society, and was
a needed instrument to spread abroad the truth of a new gospel to woman, and I could not withhold my hand to stay the work I had begun. I saw not the end from the beginning and dreamed where to my propositions to society would lead me.
Fortunately (I suppose, and many of you might agree) her temperance work seems to have been less than effective, but she had more success with the other subject matter covered in the periodical: women’s fashion. She leapt onto the bandwagon established by temperance and women’s’ rights crusader Libby Miller and actress Fanny Kemble, and adopted a variation of “Turkish dress”–loose trousers billowing around the legs and gathered in at the ankles. Amelia waxed lyrical about these marvelously comfy pants in The Lily, enduring much ridicule and taunting from men in the newspaper field (so, from everybody else in the newspaper field), and she eventually modified her support for the costume that had, by then, become eponymous with herself, stating her preference for the crinoline skirt instead.
It’s not that she didn’t put up a good fight. Amelia and her sisters pushed bloomers as a healthy, and more moral, alternative to the skirt, one which would “facilitate women’s efforts to engage in good works.” (?) However, bloomers continued to take one step forward, two steps back when it came to general acceptance: Dorothea Dix outlawed them from army hospitals during the Civil War. But field hospitals further west found them practical, easier, and more sanitary than skirts that flounced and dragged on the floor. Members of women’s rights organizations wore them, but then took flak from other groups who claimed that they were not “real women” because of their garb (plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose), while they were quite popular among intrepid explorers and travelers in the American West.
By about 1870, though, it appeared as though the newfangled, relaxed and comfortable women’s fashion had outlived its usefulness, and only the most outrageous and rebellious of ladies dared to defy the dictates of polite society by wearing trousers of any sort.
It took another invention, and a new craze, a couple of decades later for bloomers to make a comeback. When Annie Cohen Kopchovsky, a Latvian immigrant to the United States, made her bicycle trip around the world in 1894, wearing bloomers all the way, she energized a new generation of women, and this one didn’t blink (yes, some of us might wish things hadn’t gone as far as they have, but there it is).
And, now it’s time for me to introduce you to my Granny Louise, in a photo that was taken in about 1895, when she was a recent graduate of Professor Hubbard’s Academy for Young Lady Bicyclists, Bingley Hall, Birmingham England.
Although Granny is wearing a skirt in this picture, forward looking lady that she was, she subsequently purchased what was reputed to be the first pair of bicycle bloomers sold in Birmingham, and she never looked back.
Thank you, Amelia Bloomer, for all your efforts in promoting safe, healthy, moral and practical clothing for the ladies. Every day that I don’t have to do the Scarlett O’Hara thing with the bedpost while someone strangles my torso and straps me into my corsets and petticoats, I raise a toast to you and drink to your memory. Even if it causes you to spin in your grave.
Can’t win ’em all, you know.