The Nineteenth Century
in … Objects
A series of postings of objects from PUNCS members, selected as representative, significant, or downright eccentric expressions of themes, topics and concerns related to the nineteenth century.
Object 1. The American ‘Bloomer’ costume, as reported and depicted in the British press, 1851
Images © PUNCS, 2014.
Wood engravings (derived from images in American magazines), by George Vasey, in the British paper the Family Herald in 1851, reporting the arrival of the Bloomer costume and proselytes in Britain. The costume for women had been promoted by Amelia Bloomer.
Women’s history; costume history and clothing reform; reform cultures; Anglo-American relations
An idea seems very prevalent that some fitting garb of taste is needed, in which both men and women might look more comely than they do, and which would at the same time be better suited to the economy, comfort and convenience of the various grades of the community.
Family Herald, 25 October, p.413
… there were strong moral reasons which prompted them to reform as that which they had now undertaken. The American women who had taken the lead in the present reform were those who took the lead in that high and holy reform which had fixed the attention of the present age. That question was the question of American slavery. (Loud cheers)
Family Herald, 25 October, p.413
In 1851 news reached Britain of the female dress reform which was promoted by the temperance reformer Amelia Jenks Bloomer, editor of the monthly periodical The Lily. A Ladies’ Journal, devoted to Temperance and Literature (‘Published by a Committee of Ladies’), first published at Seneca Falls, New York. Bloomer (1818‒1894) was a supporter of female rights and the suffrage: her clothes – ‘very short dress and inexpressible continuations’ as one conservative American paper described the, had excited much interest (New York Courier and Inquirer, quoted in Water Cure Journal, March 1853, p.70). Newspaper paragraphs and pamphlets had disseminated the news.
The leading graphic newspaper in Britain, the Illustrated London News, publishing an engraving of the costume, reported the novelty in June, describing its promoter as a ‘lady of rare accomplishments and beauty’ (19 July 1851, pp.85-86). Bloomer did not claim to have invented the garb, only wishing that ‘others may enjoy that same freedom and comfort which we do’ (The Lily, as quoted in The Carpet-Bag 1: 12 (1851), p.50).
The images in the Family Herald, ‘A Domestic Magazine of Useful Information and Amusement’ – which rarely produced illustrations – are wood engravings by the artist George Vasey. These appeared in the Herald in the year of the Great Exhibition in 1851. The paper first carried news of the dress in no.432 (9 August 1851, p239): Vasey’s images were copied from Sartain’s Magazine, a monthly periodical from Philadelphia.
The Herald quoted the following, from the Boston Museum, about Bloomer and her costume:
Mrs Bloomer’s street dress is a changeable figured silk, purple and white, extending some two inches below the knees, sleeves close as can be worn with perfect ease and comfort, but less tight than the fashion of 1836; wrought muslin wristlets, about two inches in width, fitting loosely on the handside, and somewhat resembling, at first sight, wristlets with ruffles; straw hat with four – and-a-half inch rim, lined with white silk, and trimmed and tied with two-and-a-half plain white ribbon; black silk visite, trimmed with four-inch lace and tassels; ‒ trowsers, same material as dress, gathered closely at the ancle with an inch-and three-quarters gaging, with a pretty two inch ruffle of same material below, just covering the top of the congress gaiter, the tops of which are dark prunella, and the dies patent leather. The visiting, or parlour dress, buttons but half way up, and then has one gold or pearl button at the throat, thereby causing the dress to lay open in front, in an easy and graceful manner, and revealing a white linen bosom, with fine gold studs.
In Britain the cause of dress reform à la Bloomer was promoted by Mrs Caroline Dexter in London, and Miss Emma Stanley in Dublin (perhaps – Stanley was an actress who made a hit of her show, Three Ts – Tunic! Trousers!! And Turban!!! – see Jacky Bratton, The Making of the West End Stage, p.70). Reports appeared in the press of women attempting – the ridicule of the public, to wear the costume in these two cities, in Glasgow and Edinburgh, the women ‘not sufficiently nerved to withstand for any length of time the persecuting curiosity excited by the transatlantic garb’. (Family Herald, p.413).
Chambers’s Journal, similarly catering for the middle-class, wrote sympathetically about reform of dress, if not Bloomerism:
The Bloomer reformation has not been well received in this country. By association and otherwise, it excites too much merriment to be held in much respect Accordingly some of the apostles have been treated in a manner rather martyrly. This is all very natural. First, there is a great standing absurdity which provokes the wrath of all rational minds. Some one starts off in a crusade against it, and goes to the opposite extreme. The public, tolerant of the first error from habit hoots the second because it is new failing to observe the good which is at the bottom of it. So it is that our people see women every day defying common sense and good taste by the length of their skirts, and say little about it, but no sooner observe one or two examples of a dress verging a little too far in an opposite direction, than they raise the shout of a persecuting ridicule.
‘The Bloomer Costume’, Chambers’s Edinburgh Journal, 8 November 1851, p.280.
One newspaper reported Belfast as the debut for the costume in Britain: three ladies promenading ‘on the Carrickfergus road between Castelton and Parkmount in full “Bloomer” costume:
Those who had not heard of the American revolution in fashion knew not what to make of the singular and theatrical-looking attire which was paraded before them. Others expressed an opinion the reverse of complimentary to the dress and the wearers and at length finding their reception becoming less and less agreeable, the ladies, who were said to be the wife and daughters of a captain in the merchant service, at present at sea, made a rather speedy departure by the railway at Greencastle station.
The Newspaper, 20 September 1851, p.303.
The Bloomer agitation in Britain included –or so it was reported – a committee of females, and lectures at Miss Kelly’s Soho theatre in Dean Street, and at Linwood gallery in Leicester Square. Women attired in the costume were said to be distributing handbills addressed to the ‘Mother, wives and daughters’ to attend a meeting at the Literary Institution, John Street in Tottenham Court Road, a place rendered infamous by its location for the Chartist Convention of 1848, and for its associations with freethinking in religion and other matters (The Newspaper, p.303). There was even proposed a ball in October 1851 at Hanover Square Rooms to be attended by women in the reformed clothing.
Further images appeared in the Family Herald in 1 November 1851: from Bloomer’s own periodical, The Lily: showing her promenade and indoor costumes. ‘The Fly’ – a series in the Herald, also featured an encounter with a Bloomer supporter (29 November 1851, p.488).
Ballads and farces poked fun at the reformers, in ‘A New Song & Dialogue on Bloomerism’ published by Disley of Oxford Street; and in Nightingale and Millward’s ‘Bloomerism, or, The follies of the day: an original farce in one act’. Miss Sarah Jane Woolgar played the role of a Bloomer – an engraving exists of her in character as Miss Portia Lucretia Green, at the Adelphi. There were polkas, a schottische, and also waltz named after the costume too, the latter composed in the States by William Dressler. There was a book, The Beauties of Bloomerism, edited by ‘Deborah Dreadnought’, with illustrations by W.S. Reed, depicting the ‘fast young woman’ pockets in trousers and cigar in mouth, by the fireplace; the bare headed lecturer, and the spinster with her cat. Watts Phillips created a cartoon entitled My Wife Turned Bloomer, published by Ackermann, featuring the disruption caused to the male head of the household from Mrs Peregrine Perkes coming under the influence of Mrs Colonel Nathan Sparkes of the States.
The leading satirical magazine, Punch, whose regular targets included sartorial oddities, not surprisingly, poked fun: imagining ugly spinsters enthusing over the new costume, an ugly ‘Three Graces’, and even Britannia, in the costume. Its skit on the proposed ‘Bloomer Ball’, in November 1851, parodying Tennyson’s ‘Locksley Hall’, with an accompanying sketch by John Tenniel:
Gent’s produce your fifteen shillings; take a cab, and pay the fare:
Bid the river wait till wanted, near to Hanover’s fame Square
‘Tis the place; and all around it crowds collect, who shout and call
At the people driving onwards to attend the Bloomer Ball;
Bloomer Ball – that in the papers promised much that might attract
Quite an overflow of people, rushing like a cataract.
Many a night to yonder building have I journey’d nicely dress’d,
To a ball or evening concert, patronised by all the West :
Many a night I saw the broughams coming forward through the shade,
Glittering, with their lamps all lighted like a line of silver braid.
Oh! my Bloomers, chicken-hearted! Oh! my Bloomers what a fall!
Oh! the dreary dreary aspect of the barren Bloomer Ball!
Seedier than fancy dresses dirtier than Showman’s stocks,
Half-a-dozen pairs of trousers, half- a-dozen school-girls’ frocks.
‘Tis as well perchance that ladies should avoid the London dirt,
By a higher range of clothing and a somewhat shorter skirt;
But it cannot be expected we shall ever see the day
When in gentlemanly trousers, they’ll be figuring away.
As the husband, shall the wife be; he will have to wear a gown,
If he does not quick make her put her Bloomer short coats down.
Who can say – what lengths to go to – ‘tis too difficult by half.
Some are higher than the knee some are lower than the calf.
‘Tis the Ball but oh how dreary men and women don t combine
For the latter to the former are as one to ninety nine
Thinly scattered are the females scorning custom’s decent rules
Dense the pack of men assembled looking like a crowd of fools
Well tis well that tis a failure had it more successful proved
Perhaps the hateful Bloomer nuisance for a time had onwards moved
Where’s the beauty in concealment of an ankle neatly turn’d?
Though they’re right in closely hiding legs that are as awkward spurn’d.
I remember one on Monday – heavily she moved about,
With a foot that might be taken for a martyr to the gout.
‘The Bloomer Ball’, Punch vol.21, 15 November 1851, p.209.
In another, prose, sketch on a Bloomer lecture in Punch, one of the leaders is the American ‘Miss Virginia M. Pasamaquaddy’, who ‘insists on looking at everything in a moral, physical, and intellectual point of view, from human nature to a hearth-broom’ (Punch, 15 November 1851, p.218.)
The Bloomer phenomenon can be seen as an attempt to combat the dictates of a tyrannical Fashion which forced women to wear stays – and thus some medical experts approved of the cause, for instance the Medical Times, ‘heartily’ gave its support to the ‘no corsets’ call.
The dress reform was adopted in the United States in advanced circles such as utopian communities. Associated with male clothing through the ‘Turkish’ trousers revealed beneath the short skirt, it helped to link feminism with ‘mannishness’. This attitude is expressed in the sketch ‘Bloomerism’, by John Leech, in Punch, where a ‘strong minded female’ (wearing spectacles), standing mannishly by the fireplace in male stock and jacket, berates her husband, who is lounging on a day sofa:
‘Now, do, pray, Alfred, put down that foolish novel, and do something rational. Go and play something on the piano; you never practise, now you’re married.’
Similar cartoons in Punch in this year, imagined women smoking and propping up the bar in public houses, ogling the men as ‘inferior animals’ behind the counters; calling to be admitted as bankers’ clerks; taking the lead in proposals of marriage; or being asked by paterfamilias whether they could keep their sons in the style to which they had been accustomed: evidently reformed dress which showed the legs emasculated the male. Poking fun only slightly, at conservatism, ‘Mrs Grundy on Bloomerism’, 15 November 1851, p.200, feared:
Ha! they’ll smoke tobacco next, and take their thimblefuls of brandy,
Bringing shame upon their sex, by aping of the jack-a-dandy.
Yes; and then you’ll have them shortly showing off their bold bare faces,
Prancing all so pert and portly at their Derbys and their races.
Oh! when once they have begun, there’s none can say where they’ll be stopping, ‒
Out they’ll go with dog and gun, perhaps a-shooting and a-popping.
Subsequent nineteenth-dress reform in Britain was promoted by organisations such as the Rational Dress Society.
Images © PUNCS, 2014.
Bloomer, D.C., Life and Writings of Amelia Bloomer (Boston: Arena Publishing, 1895)
Via Google books
‘Folio, Fred’, A Book for the Times: Lucy Boston; Or, Woman’s Rights and Spiritualism: Illustrating the Follies and Delusions of the Nineteenth Century (Shepard, Clark, 1855)
Water Cure Journal, March 1853, p.70.
Illustrated London News, 19 July 1851, pp.85‒86.
Family Herald, 1851.
The Carpet-Bag, 1: 12 (1851), p.50.
‘Bloomerism and Bunionism’, Punch, vol.21, 11October 1851, p.158.
‘The Meeting of the Bloomers’, Punch, vol.21, 18 October 1851, p.168. [of the Kelly’s Theatre talk]
‘The Graces. After Canova (A very Long Way)’, John Tenniel, Punch, vol.21, 25 October 1851, p.186.
‘A Disturbance in Hades, by a Cockney Ghost’, Punch, vol.21, p.188.
‘The Bloomer Costume’, Chambers’s Edinburgh Journal, 8 November 1851, p.280.
The Reasoner 11: 26 (12 November 1851), pp.400‒401.
‘An Old Doctor’s Opinion on Woman’s Dress’, Eliza Cook’s Journal, 15 November 1851.
Bratton, J., The Making of the West End Stage : Marriage, Management and the Mapping of Gender in London, 1830–1870 (Cambridge University Press, 2011), p.70
Cunningham, P.A., Reforming Women’s Fashion, 1850‒1920: Politics, Health, and Art (Kent State University Press, 2003)
Fischer, Gayle V. Pantaloons and Power: A Nineteenth-century Dress Reform in the United States (Kent State University Press, 2001)
Newton, S,M., Health, Art and Reason: Dress Reformers of the Nineteenth Century (1974)
‘A New Song & Dialogue on Bloomerism’,
Broadside Ballads Online from the Bodleian Library