Fashions in the mid to late 19th century were largely known for its ridiculous wide expanses of skirts, and tightened stays and corsets around the waistline. This is mostly due to the influence of Queen Victoria, who chose to wear dresses that flattered her short, curvaceous figure. In short, Queen Victoria wore garments that cinched tightly at the waist and curved out generously in the back via petticoats and hoops. This style contrasted strongly against and eventually took over the soft lines and loose-waisted, empire bust gowns of the Regency period during the 1820s.
Hoopskirts and crinolines started to come back into fashion during the 1830s, and the width of the skirts gradually grew wider and wider until they hit their maximum width. During the 1850s, the hoops were worn in a bell shape, but during the 1860s, the shape of the crinoline changed, flattening the front and moving most of the volume to the back which would later develop into the early bustle, which causes the skirts to shrink back down from their massive size. Corsets were also heavily used alongside the huge crinolines, and cinched the lady’s waist to what was deemed an attractive size. The added corset would also add extra support to the hips as they were being weighed down by layers of petticoats or a steel crinoline.
Amelia Bloomer saw the appeal of soft folds in women’s wear, and in the early 1850s, advocated Elizabeth Miller’s “bloomer” costume by wearing it out into the streets and advertising it in her magazine. Amelia Bloomer was interested in the idea of functional clothing, since during the 1850s, wide skirts were achieved by way of many layers of starched petticoats, or with a steel cage crinoline, putting much weight and pressure around the hips of all the “proper” young ladies. The bloomer costume was made less about aesthetics and more for comfort and sensibility of daily wear. The harem trousers of the costume provided modesty and mobility for young ladies, while the shortened skirts donned over the trousers did not require the volume given by as many as ten petticoats. The whole point of the costume was for it to be functional without being hindering in both movement and activity. The skirts, being so huge, would cause the ladies wearing them to unknowingly knock things over with the skirt, or get their dresses caught in doors or carriage wheels, or in some instances, even catch on fire, since the width of the skirts made it difficult to control and pay attention to them at all times.
It must also be said that Bloomer had no intent in setting a trend in fashion in the first place; the original intent in which she donned the Bloomer costume was, so to speak, “practice what she had preached” as she had recently written an article on the topic of women’s rights and women’s dress. She had “no idea of fully adopting the style; no thought of setting a fashion; no thought that [her] action would create an excitement throughout the civilized world, and give to the style [her] name and the credit due Mrs. Miller.” (Fashion Foundations, 61) She then also mentions that had it not been for Mrs Miller approaching both herself and Mrs. Elizabeth Cady Stanton in the original costume, it is in all likelihood that “[n]either Mrs. Stanton or [her]self would have donned [the dress]”. (Fashion Foundations, 61) As it was, Ms. Bloomer and her Turkish pantaloons went “viral”, as put into modern terms, and Bloomer received many subscriptions to her magazine and many letters and inquiries about the dress and it’s pattern. Bloomer continued to wear the costume for a good “six or eight years, so long as [she] remained in active life and until the papers had ceased writing squibs at [her] expense, [she] wore no other costume”. (Fashion Foundations, 62) She deemed the costume to be “comfortable, light, easy and convenient, and well adapted to the needs of [her] busy life.” (Fashion Foundations, 62)
The influences made by Bloomer spread far and wide. The Bloomer costume became almost synonymous with the woman’s rights issues during her time period; several other influential women such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucy Stone also became leading demonstrators of the Bloomer fashion. Stanton wore the pantaloons and dress combination “at home and abroad, on the lecture platform and in the social parlor, for two or three years”, (Fashion Foundations, 62) until pressure from friends and family resulted in Stanton once more donning her longer skirts. Lucy Stone would end up doing the same thing after a few years, as “the dress was drawing attention from…[the] greater importance – the question of woman’s right to better education, to a wider field of employment, to better remuneration for her labor, and to the ballot for the protection of her rights. In the minds of some people, the short dress and woman’s rights were inseparably connected. With us, the dress was but an incident, and we were not willing to sacrifice greater questions to it.” Too much synonymity was being linked between the Bloomer costume and women’s right’s movement, which was fine for the publicity, but not as important than the true core of the feminism matter. It was for these reasons Bloomer also dropped the costume around the 1860s.
Bloomer was concerned first and foremost, with the advocation of women’s rights and the effect the Bloomer costume had on the cause rather than with fashion. The most important part of dressing, in Bloomer’s words, is that “the costume of woman 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.” (Fashion Foundations, 62) Her ideals are rooted firmly within the issue of women’s rights and the suffragist movement.
It’s interesting to see the two contrasting styles of dress at the same time, and to see what the influence politics had on something such as dress reformation, and vice versa.
“Health Issues and Dress Reform,” in Fashion Foundations, Kim K.P. Johnson, Susan J. Torntore, and Joanne B. Eicher, eds. (London: Berg, 2003) 51-68.)
Stern, Radu. Against Fashion: Clothing as Art, 1850-1930. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2004.