Bloomers were baggy underpants for women, usually made of cotton, which gathered at the waist and below at the knees. Because they were worn under long, slightly loose A-line skirts and dresses, the leggings also could hang on the legs in an ungathered fashion, falling halfway between the knees and the ankles. They were worn by women during the early decades of the twentieth century but went out of style when skirt lengths became shorter at the end of the 1910s.
The term bloomer is derived from a nineteenth-century garment worn by American women's rights activist Amelia Jenks Bloomer (1818–1894). Bloomer wanted women to wear clothing that promoted freedom of movement, so she appeared in public in knee-length, loose-fitting pants. During her lifetime, most people made fun of Bloomer's progressive fashion statement. When bloomers were introduced to mainstream women as a form of comfortable undergarment in the late 1800s, the reception at first was controversial. Many men and women viewed the underwear as unnatural to a woman's form, as it had separate leg coverings. These critics preferred that women wear only layers of petticoats around their bodies.
Eventually, women were attracted to the comfort and warmth of bloomers. As women became more active in sports, and as they ventured from the home into the workforce, they also were drawn to the practicality of bloomers. As skirts became less full and flowed more in tune with the natural shape of a woman, items such as bloomers served as modest undergarments that moved along with the curves of the lower body. By the early 1900s bloomers had become common undergarments for women.
At this time bloomers also were worn as outer garments by outgoing, sporting women. They were mass manufactured in durable heavy cotton for schoolgirls to wear while playing sports in school gymnasiums. Outerwear bloomers particularly were scoffed at when worn by women who were enjoying the controversial new sport of bicycling. At that time the idea of a woman wearing a split-legged pants-type garment in public was considered by many to be indecent.
Bloomers were made of various fabrics. Working women and schoolgirls wore lightweight cotton bloomers in warm weather and heavier flannel bloomers in the cold. Bloomers for the wealthier classes were made of white or pastel silk; some were hand-laced or embroidered. In the days before rubberized fabrics such as elastic, the gatherings at the waist and knees were accomplished by tying ribbons or fastening buttons to the garment. The knee borders of bloomers were often given decorative trim such as lace or crocheted fabric through which colorful ribbons ran. To make using the bathroom easier some styles of bloomers were split at the crotch, while others had back seat flaps that were fastened to the main garment with buttons.
Along with bloomers, women wore several other undergarments during this period. On their upper bodies they wore chemises, loose-fitting undershirts of soft cotton or silk. Atop the bloomers and chemise came the corset, which covered the breasts down to the hips. By 1908 cumbersome corsets were being replaced by less restrictive brassieres that supported only the breasts.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Cunnington, C. Willett, and Phyllis Cunnington. The History of Underclothes. New York: Gordon Press, 1979.
[See also Volume 3, Seventeenth Century: Petticoats ; Volume 3, Eighteenth Century: Corsets ; Volume 4, 1900–18: Brassiere ]
Long, loose pants that are gathered at the ankle, bloomers were worn by women during the nineteenth century both as outer-wear and as underwear. Bloomers were part of a movement toward more practical clothing for women, and soon became closely identified with suffragists (women working for women's right to vote) and feminists (women working to improve the status of women). Many men were angry with the suffragists, and did not like women wearing pants, so they often ridiculed the new bloomer outfits.
As early as the 1820s some women had designed and worn a practical garment for traveling and other activities. This garment consisted of a knee-length dress over a loose pair of trousers gathered at the waist and ankle. The "bloomer dress" as it would come to be called, covered the wearer completely so that it provided the modesty that the times required. At the same time, it provided much more freedom of movement than the tight corsets and trailing skirts that most women wore.
In the mid-1800s, feminist writer and editor Amelia Bloomer (1818–1894) wrote favorably about the new outfit in her newspaper The Lily, and soon the new pants were dubbed "bloomers." Many men and women laughed at the new fashion, but some women found it very comfortable and sensible for such activities as bicycling, playing tennis, and travelling. In the United States, many women who traveled to the undeveloped West in wagon trains wore bloomers.
Though bloomers were not widely accepted as outerwear in the nineteenth century, they did become popular underpants for women and girls, and by the late 1800s, most women wore long, loose cotton bloomers under their long skirts instead of petticoats.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Bloomer, Amelia. "True History of the So-Called Bloomer Costume." Religio-Philosophical Journal. December 28, 1889. On Ephemera. http://www.spirithistory.com/blomer.html (accessed on August 6, 2003).
Gattey, Charles Nelson. The Bloomer Girls. New York: Coward-McCann, 1967.
BLOOMERS was the term given to a woman's garment credited to Elizabeth Smith Miller that involved baggy, pantaloon-style pants cinched at the ankle and a matching overblouse that came down to the knees. Miller had purchased the garment in Switzerland, where it was made for women to wear while hiking at health resorts. In 1851 she brought it with her on a visit to her cousin Elizabeth Cady Stanton in Seneca Falls, New York. Stanton made others like it, which she wore around town to
the embarrassment of her father, Judge Cady, and her son. Stanton showed it to Amelia Bloomer, who was then editor of The Lily, a woman's journal. Like Stanton, Bloomer embraced the idea that it freed women to wear looser clothing than the corsets, petticoats, and long dresses they were enduring at the time. She featured a picture of it in The Lily, and hundreds of women wrote in asking for patterns on how to make it. Newspaper reporters gave the term "bloomers" to the garment after Amelia Bloomer who had popularized it.
Bloomers not only brought new physical freedom and comfort in daily life for women in the mid-nineteenth century, but they also served as a vehicle for opening discussion of other women's issues such as suffrage and property rights. Subscriptions to The Lily increased, and activists such as Elizabeth Stanton and Susan B. Anthony wore the new garment on their lecture tours. Despite their popularity, bloomers outraged many men and women at the time, who thought them vulgar and unladylike.
Bloomer, Amelia Jenks. Hear Me Patiently: The Reform Speeches of Amelia Jenks Bloomer. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994.