Tuesday, May 27, 2014

It Was All About the Bloomers

Amelia Bloomer modeled the Turkish Dress.

Amelia Bloomer should be remembered as one of the founding sisterhood of the women’s movement as an attendee of the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention, a lifelong suffrage and temperance reformer,  a pioneering female journalist, and the first American woman to own and publish a newspaper.  But she is not.  Instead she is remembered for a fashion fad or, if you prefer, a radical attempt to reform women’s clothing that she neither invented nor was the first to wear.
Amelia Jenks was born on May 27, 1818 Homer, New York on the southern end of the Finger Lakes District.  Her family were respectable people of limited income but who encouraged all of their children to get some education.  Amelia, a very bright child, got a rudimentary education in local schools.  At the age of 17 she was among the first generation of young women who for whatever reason did not immediately marry, but became school teachers.
After a year, she relocated to Waterloo, New York, seat of Seneca County where she lived with her newly married older sister before taking a job as a live-in governess to the Oren Chamberlain family.
In 1840 Amelia married attorney Dexter Bloomer and moved to a large, comfortable home in nearby Seneca Falls.  There her life, you should pardon the pun, began to blossom.  Not only was she now a member of the comfortable and respectable middle class with a fine husband and growing family, that husband was unusually supportive of her expanding her universe.  Dexter recognized her keen natural intelligence and encouraged her to read widely and acquire in that way the education she had missed.  He also made pains to include her in conversations about the politics and current affairs in which he was interested.
In addition to his law practice Bloomer published the local newspaper, the Seneca Falls County Courier.  He encouraged Amelia to become a contributor to its columns and as time went by and as he was increasingly engaged in his law practice, she informally assumed some editorial duties.
Amelia also found a close, supportive circle of friends.  It was an unusually sophisticated group, going beyond the swapping of recipients, embroidery parties, quilting bees, prayer meetings, and gossip sessions that were the expected preview of “hen parities.”  The women, mostly Quakers and Universalists, were widely read and included active reformers interested in abolition of slavery, temperance, and, increasingly, the rights of women.  The group included Elizabeth Caddy Stanton, an attractive young mother about Amelia’s age who had even ventured to far off London to attend an anti-slavery convention only to be debarred from participating on account of her sex.  On her return Stanton and her close friend, Quaker Mary Ann began to focus discussions in the group more closely on women’s issues.
In the summer of 1848 Stanton and McClintock, leaders of the Western New York Anti-Slavery Society, decided to hold a hastily called convention to discuss women’s rights and take advantage of a visit by the well know Quaker lay minister and reformer Lucricia Mott’s visit to the area. 
Although Bloomer, whose own activism had to this point been concentrated in Temperance work, was not one of the core organizers, she made sure that Stanton’s call to convention was published in the Courier and by exchange in most of the newspapers in Upstate New York.  When the Convention convened on July 19 Bloomer does not seem to have been in attendance.  Perhaps she was among those who could not squeeze into the Wesleyan Methodist Chapel, which was mobbed by an unexpectedly large crowd of both women and men.  But Bloomer did manage to find a seat in the balcony on the second day and thus got to hear the debate about the Declaration of Sentiments.  All but a final demand added personally by Stanton—one calling for the extension of suffrage to women—passed unanimously, but that clause stirred vigorous debate.  Even Lucricia Mott opposed it.  Stanton argued passionately for it was eloquently defended by Fredrick Douglas.  She also heard Mott’s stirring speech that night.  She was both impressed by it all and more determined to make the cause of women her own.
Shortly after the convention the Seneca Falls Ladies Temperance Society was founded and launched a newspaper for “private circulation to members.”  From the beginning, Bloomer assumed editorial direction of The Lily.  At first, aside from Temperance appeals, the paper copied other publications for the ladies and included recipients, homemaking tips, and advise for domestic tranquility.  But Bloomer was soon turning more of its pages over to women’s issues.  She invited Stanton and Susan B. Anthony to contribute.
By 1850, perhaps because some members of the Temperance Society were uncomfortable by the new direction, the Society dropped its sponsorship.  Bloomer assumed ownership and total editorial control.  She became, almost accidently, the first woman to publish a newspaper in the United States.  And it was successful.  Circulation climbed to more than 4,000 copies, many of them being sent by mail all over New York state and into New England.  Its influence grew.
Bloomer later described why she shifted the focus of The Lily to women’s rights,
It was a needed instrument to spread abroad the truth of a new gospel to woman, and I could not withhold my hand to stay the work I had begun. I saw not the end from the beginning and dreamed where to my propositions to society would lead me.
The fortune of the newspaper and Bloomer’s fame took an unexpected turn in 1851.  Temperance activist Libby Miller that year adopted the fashion first suggested in the health fad magazine the Water-Cure Journal in 1849.  Miller considered it a more rational costume for women who were encumbered by acres of cloth skirts and layers of petticoats.   The loose trousers, similar to those worn in the Middle East and Central Asia were gathered at the ankles, topped by a short dress or skirt and vest were first called Turkish Dress.   Miller’s campaign to have the outfit adopted widely received a boost when the famed English actress and abolitionist Fanny Kemble began to wear it publicly.
Stanton was an early adopter of the fashion and wore it on a visit to Bloomer that year accompanied by Miller, probably with copy in hand for The Lilly.  Bloomer’s first reaction was unadulterated joy at the liberation of the new style.  She quickly adopted it as her own and began to vigorously advocate it in her publication.
Her articles were picked up by other publications, including Horace Greeley’s sympathetic New York Tribune.  From the Tribune the subject of “pantaloons for ladies” for ladies went the 19th Century equivalent of viral.  Unfortunately most of the press was not as supportive as Greeley.  They mocked the fashion and all who wore them, singling out Bloomer for scorn.  Soon they were calling the outfit itself Bloomers.  Reaction ranged from bemusement, to savage satire in editorial cartoons, to the expected thundering of preachers denouncing the “debauchery of our daughters.”
Bloomer was a bit mortified by the attention but refused, at least at first, to back down. 
The costume of women 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.
Despite the scorn and criticism, Bloomers did take off, at least among independent minded women, including the first generation of female college students.  A Bloomer Ball for elegant ladies was organized in New York City.  And the fashion was readily adopted by female travelers and in the west where commodious skirts were an impairment and inconvenience. 
Who was the typical Bloomer wearer?  I picture spunky young Louisa May Alcott, a grown up Tomboy who wanted to carve out an independent career as a professional writer.
By the end of the 1850’s the fad, never widely adopted by respectable middle class women was dying out.  Even Bloomer herself was having second thoughts.  She believed that the wide spread introduction of crinoline, which made those layers of petticoats lighter in weight and less uncomfortable in oppressive summer heat, made Bloomers obsolete.
The Civil War revived some interest as some nurses adopted the costume—although not those under the command of notoriously prudish Dorothy Dix.  Later in the century they were adapted as undergarments to replace petticoats and in a simplified form as athletic wear for college girls.  There was a revival of interest during the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago where suffragist Lucy Stone extolled them in a speech at the Women’s Pavilion and a fashion show displayed up-dated versions.
Still, it took Hollywood icons like Gloria Swanson, Gene Harlow, Greta Garbo, and Katherine Hepburn being photographed in slacks to begin to make pants acceptable on women.  They really took off during home front and uniformed service during World War II and became fashion standard wear for everyday by most women by the ’60’s and ‘70’s.
But arguably none of that might have come about without Amelia Bloomer’s earnest advocacy.
As for Bloomer herself, in 1853 she closed The Lily and moved with her husband and family to Ohio and then to Council Bluff, Iowa two years later.  She continued to contribute articles to the now growing feminist press, including Stanton’s and Susan B. Anthony’s The Revolution which bowed in 1868 and acknowledged Bloomer’s inspiration and example.  Bloomer would open and edit small publications in Iowa as well.
She dedicated herself to the struggle for women’s rights and suffrage and led campaigns in Nebraska and Iowa, and served as president of the Iowa Woman Suffrage Association from 1871 until 1873.
Bloomer died on December 30, 1894 in Council Bluffs.  Although honored at the time as a women’s rights pioneer, her contributions, except for her association with the Bloomer, have nearly been forgotten.  Bloomer House in Seneca Falls was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980 and in 2002 the American Library Association has produced Amelia Bloomer List annually in recognition of books with significant feminist content for young readers.
Perhaps most interestingly she is commemorated together with Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Sojourner Truth, and Harriet Tubman in the calendar of saints of the Episcopal Church on July 20.  This, by the way, would come as a shock to Stanton, a notorious Free Thinker. 

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