Fashion and Real Women’s Lives

One of the big fashion trends right now are shoes with 4 or 5-inch heels.   Not for me, though!  They don’t look comfortable or safe, and I can’t see how any normal, active woman of any age could wear them for even a short period of time.  Yet they are very popular, especially when paired with skinny jeans that also can be very uncomfortable. But such impractical or dangerous fashion is not new, nor are women’s attempts to introduce more comfortable clothing, starting with central New Yorker Amelia Jenks Bloomer.

Amelia Jenks was born in Homer, New York in 1818; a few years later,  her family moved to Seneca Falls, a lively and progressive small town on the major economic artery of upstate New York, the Erie Canal.   Jenks’ father was one of the few fathers who believed his daughters should be (nearly) as well educated as his sons, so Amelia attended school through her teens and later taught school for three years until she married a local lawyer, Dexter C. Bloom in 1840.

Seneca Falls was, and still is, a small town, so Amelia and her husband quickly became acquainted with a newly married couple who had just moved to Seneca Falls from the Boston area – Henry and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.  Amelia had already been active in the temperance movement (the first major social movement actively involving  women), but she also became part of the growing abolitionist movement through her connection to the Stantons.    Increasingly though, as her friendship with Elizabeth Cady Stanton deepened, Amelia felt that women’s rights were essential before women could have any impact on resolving other problems.

Her husband, like other prominent men in small towns across America, also published a weekly newspaper;  while he supported his wife’s various causes, Amelia concluded by 1849 that she needed a media outlet devoted just to her own causes: abolition, temperance and women’s rights.  The result was the first newspaper in the U.S. edited and published by a woman:  “The Lily.”   Contributors to Amelia’s newspaper included abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass and reformers Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.  However, what Amelia Bloom is most known for was not her abolitionist or temperance activities, but her efforts at changing what women wore.
1840s Womens dress

Women’s fashions, at least for middle-class white women, were dictated by early fashion magazines and, to an increasing degree, by textile manufacturers and the designers of women’s corsets.  The ideal women’s figure, as shown by the above illustration, was an hourglass shape with a tiny waist – 17 or 18″! That seems impossible to 21st century women, and it was nearly impossible back in the 1840s without the help of whale-bone corsets that had to be either laced or hooked around a woman’s waist.  Then, a heavy underskirt was put on, which in turn was covered by a dress that could consist of 5 or 6 yards of fabric.

Imagine the difficulty in moving up or down stairs, especially when carrying buckets of water for bathing, full chamber pots to be emptied in the back yard “privie”, or juggling a child or two!  Remember too that cooking was still done over a wood-stove or in a fireplace;  thousands of women were burned when a sleeve or a hem brushed by a flame. The 1840s was a period of transportation innovations,also, especially the railroad train.  Getting on and off a railroad car trailing yards of heavy material was hazardous, and law books are full of court cases involving women injured in doing so.

Amelia Bloomer also was concerned with the ways in which women’s fashions, especially the undergarments, impacted women’s health.  Not only did the corsets and other garments inhibit a woman’s ability to exercise, but the whalebone stays and the tightness of the lacing could cause internal damage (as Mark Twain’s wife, Olivia Langdon Clemens, experienced first-hand – she suffered throughout her life from the damages to her stomach and uterus caused by the whale-bone stays).  Bloomer decided to reform women’s dress!

The “Bloomer Dress”, as newspapers termed it, consisted of a tunic-like dress that dropped just below the knees worn over ankle-length “Turkish trousers.”  Bloomer didn’t actually invent this style, but she adapted it to meet the needs of active women like herself by adding a simple sash instead of a narrow waistline, thus eliminating the need for a corset.Bloomer Dress

This was a controversial fashion idea, and although there were “Dress-Reform Meetings” held in many northeastern cities, there were also many critics.  The Syracuse Star, a newspaper published in the 1850s, made “an eloquent appeal to the ladies of Syracuse not to ‘stultify’ themselves by adopting such a  ‘hideous’ and ‘ungraceful’ costume.”   Women who dared to wear a Bloomer Dress often were ejected from theaters or other public places, including churches.   Some advocates of the Bloomer dress were accused of immorality, or even worse,  wanting to be men!

Unfortunately, the efforts at dress reform failed, and some would say, backfired.  By the Civil War, women’s skirts were even larger and draped over a hoop or “cage”, making it even harder for women to move.   After the war, while skirts got narrower, waistlines got even narrower, now with the help of steel corsets!

The fashion ideal for women in the 20th century increasingly was based on thinness – creating a variety of negative effects.  I will look at those in the next post.

But the influence of Amelia Bloomer lingered in one way – women’s underpants (now called “panties”) were widely known as “Bloomers” well into the 20th century.  I remember my grandmother, who was born in 1903, 50 years after the Bloomer outfit was introduced, referring to her undergarments as “Bloomers”;  at that time, as a young girl, I was confused as to what was supposed to “bloom” when you wore them!




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