Archive for April, 2006

Reformers and Rebels: Women, Pants, and Power in Nineteenth Century America

5 April, 2006

In the mid-1800s, groups of women began organizing to fight against a diversity of social ills and injustices. From abolition to temperance to suffrage, many women became activists for reform and equality, and some groups became extremely radical in their effort to effect social change. Amongst those who supported the women’s vote, were a core group of women and men who believed that the quickest route to true egalitarianism was a complete disintegration of gender roles and distinctions. Disseminating their views through circulars like Sibyl, The Water-Cure Journal, and The Lily, women’s rights radicals like Amelia Jenks Bloomer, Susan B. Anthony, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, began advocating “Dress Reform.” National societies were formed in support of “rational dress,” and, for the first time, women began to a abandon customary female dress in favor of bifurcated garments.

The earliest efforts at dress reform were rooted in arguments against the unnaturalness of corsets, hoop skirts, and other uncomfortable, and perhaps unhealthy, trappings of fashionable 19th Century dress. Some physicians agreed that whalebone corsets and even heavy petticoats were physiologically effecting women. However, instead of adopting less extravagant, more sensible dresses, leaders of the movement insisted on wearing Bloomers, two-legged garments worn under a shorter dress named for Amelia Bloomer who first proposed the costume in her periodical, or trousers. Most of these garments consisted of pants worn under a shortened and modified dress.

Interestingly, a number of utopian cults including the Owenites of New Harmony, Indiana, the Oneida Perfectionist Community of New York, and Mormons allowed and encouraged women members to abandon the traditional long dresses for pants.

The social response to these renegade women was overwhelming. Bloomers and similar costumes were the subject of a number of caricatures, cartoons, poems, songs, and pulpit complaint. Husbands, fathers, preachers, and the general male population were up in arms about the innovation and openly condemned their apparent upset of social and familial order and utter disregard for Scripture. One ditty read simply:

Female apparel now
Is gone to pot I vow, sirs,
And ladies will be fined
Who don’t wear coats and trousers;
Blucher boots and hats
And shirts with handsome stitches,–
Oh dear! What shall we do
When women wear the breeches?

–Broadsheet 1851

The verse’s sentiment is clear despite its brevity: things were changing, and onlookers were less than pleased with the results. An August 1851 cartoon in Harper’s Weekly depicts women in the masculinized bloomers. They carry men’s walking sticks, smoke cigarettes and posture themselves as men. Clearly, many members of society recognized the probable degeneration of female character and conduct if the wearing of pants was widely adopted.

Some women were arrested for wearing such garments. Perhaps no one caused a greater stir than Civil War physician, Dr. Mary Edwards Walker. She first began wearing trousers beneath a shortened dress while working as a field surgeon in Tennessee during the War. In 1866, she was arrested in Manhattan, New York for “[ap]pearing in male costume” (Fischer 150-151). After the War, she became increasingly masculine in her dress and finally abandoned any vestige of female attire, wearing men’s suits and a top hat. She left her husband and is historically interpreted as a lesbian in many popular histories of homosexuality in America.

Mrs. Bloomer blasted the sermon of one Rev. Dr. Talmage who appealed to Christian women to refrain from the abomination of “wearing that which pertaineth unto a man.” In her review of the reverend’s message, it is clear that these women were completely willing to deny the authority of not only the man of God but the Word of God itself. She flagrantly wrote:

. . . how can Mr. Talmage set up the claim that men have a right to any particular style, and that if women dare to approach that style they break divine law and commit great sin and wrong? It is a presumption and insult which women everywhere should resent. It matters not to us what Moses had to say to the men and women of his time about what they should wear . . . Common sense teaches us that the dress which is the most convenient, and best adapted to our needs, is the proper dress for both men and women to wear. (Bloomer 77)

Showing her outright rebelliousness, Amelia Bloomer concluded: “No sensible woman can sit under such preaching. Would that women had the independence to act out the right in defiance of such sermons, and in disregard of all laws that condemn her to the slavery of a barbarous age” (Bloomer 79).

The Dress Reform movement eventually faded, and that early generation did little to lastingly effect the dress of women; however, a cross-section of readings on both sides of the issue reveals that the most elemental motive behind the movement was an effort to disrupt traditional patriarchy. The desire to wear trousers was most certainly couched in a vitriolic war against male authority in both society and church; and for modern Pentecostals, who are often treated as pariahs because of our insistence on gender-specific dress, the logical meaning of the precedent historical episode is clear: women in pants symbolize usurpation and the confusion of natural order. While the social milieu has certainly changed, the rich cultural assignations of dresses for women and pants for men endure, and the appeal to Mosaic Law as a fundamental principle for distinct male/female dress is as valid today as it was in Ancient Israel or Nineteenth Century America.

Bloomer, D.C. Life and Writings of Amelia Bloomer. New York: Schocken Books, 1975.

Fischer, Gayle V. Pantaloons & Power: a Nineteenth-Century Dress Reform in the United States. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 2001.