A Cartoon Depicting How Masculine Women Have Become by Wearing Bloomers

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A Cartoon Depicting How Masculine Women Have Become by Wearing Bloomers


By: John Leech

Date: January 1, 1885

Source: Leech, John. "A Cartoon Depicting How Masculine Women Have Become by Wearing Bloomers." Getty Images, 1885.

About the Artist: John Leech (1817–1864) was a prominent British illustrator and caricaturist. Originally a student of medicine, Leech's talent for anatomical drawing eventually led to a career as an artist, most notably as a contributor to Punch, a British weekly magazine of humor and satire.


In the mid-1800s, leaders of the American women's rights movement attempted to use women's clothing to achieve social and political change. Instead of helping to liberate women, however, dress reform led to such a backlash that most women abandoned the effort at a new style of clothing by 1860.

For a brief period at the start of the nineteenth century, women's clothing followed the relatively lightweight, high-waisted "classical" style. This more natural style allowed women more freedom of movement. The trend reversed itself in the 1810s as fashionable clothing began to incorporate a growing number of layers. Women's attire in this era included voluminous trailing skirts that picked up dust and all manner of filth from the street, a minimum of six full petticoats, and tightly laced whalebone corsets that occasionally damaged internal organs. The entire outfit weighed between twelve and fifteen pounds, made housework a challenge, and often left the wearer gasping for breath.

By the early 1850s, many Americans had come to believe that something needed to be done about women's dress. Religious leaders, the medical establishment, and women's rights advocates increasingly condemned women's fashions as immoral and dangerous. Flamboyant and impractical styles damaged the minds and bodies of women while encouraging the sins of vanity and pride.

In 1851 Elizabeth Smith Miller, daughter of Gerrit Smith, designed a new style, a skirt that reached just below the knee worn over moderately full trousers or pantaloons that gathered above the footwear. Impressed by the freedom of Miller's attire, Amelia Bloomer published patterns in her newspaper, the Lily, for the "Turkish costume." She printed daguerreotypes of herself and Elizabeth Cady Stanton wearing it. Other papers noted the design and attributed it to Bloomer, and women from around the country wrote to her asking for precise details on how to make it.

For a few years, the key leadership of the woman's rights movement, including Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, wore bloomers and promoted dress reform. Nevertheless, bloomers proved to be a disastrous experiment and speakers at conventions were heckled simply for their appearance. Despite the eagerness of women to be rid of heavy skirts, the style lasted about three years and only enjoyed popularity among women in the more liberal Northeast and West.



See primary source image.


Dress reform is the least influential social movement of the nineteenth century. Yet, if it had succeeded, it had the potential to greatly change the lives of women. Early feminists understood that women's restrictive clothing was both a cause and effect of larger societal limitations. Extremely burdensome clothing enforced passivity and helped to oppress women. Bloomers would leave women physically and intellectually free.

The leadership of the women's movement abandoned dress reform because public ridicule drew attention from other important issues such as suffrage, marriage reform, and education. As women like Stanton and Anthony returned to their long dresses, ordinary middle-class women hesitated to follow them. Dress reform had a passionate following among ordinary women who testified in women's magazines about how a fashion reform changed their lives. Many of the women stated that bloomers allowed them to perform traditionally male tasks. However, social and family pressure made it too difficult to continue dress reform.

In the 1870s, women's clubs in the urban Northeast revived interest in dress reform. The new generation of reformers discarded the short dress and pantaloons costume in favor of promoting relatively small changes in women's undergarments. Women in great numbers did not adopt short dresses until the 1920s, while women in pants shocked the general public until the 1950s.



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

Steele, Valerie. Fashion and Eroticism: Ideals of Feminine Beauty from the Victorian Era to the Jazz Age. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.

Web sites

National Women's Hall of Fame. "Women of the Hall: Amelia Bloomer." 〈http://www.greatwomen.org/women.php/〉 (accessed March 27, 2006).

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A Cartoon Depicting How Masculine Women Have Become by Wearing Bloomers

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