Bloomer girls

November 22, 2015

As someone who hasn’t even owned a dress for the last 25 years, I tend to be more charmed than amused by 19th-century attempts at “dress reform.” Those loose trousers under yards of drapery look much more comfortable than the skirts sweeping the ground, the mud, and—as Esther puts it in Bleak House—“all the light objects” in the room.

Yes, all that drapery makes the wearer look like a pantalooned armchair. But the alternative was dragging ten or fifteen yards of fabric through your day. (Which, besides being uncomfortable, could be dangerous: one of the Merry Cousins burned to death when her skirt got too close to a fireplace.)

Francis Woodworth had a different reaction. As a former minister, he was culturally conservative. But when it came time to write about the new style of clothing, he seems to have been remarkably sympathetic, pointing out how practical it would be for walking in the woods. Still, he didn’t really approve.

This piece from Woodworth’s Youth’s Cabinet includes a rather wonderful illustration of what may be a variation of Bloomer dress. Other illustrations I’ve seen feature gathered trousers topped by a knee-length dress that makes even a slender young woman look like a ruffled pumpkin. The clothing here is just as drapy, but the calf-length skirt looks pretty graceful.

Still, it didn’t catch on. It was superceded by the hoop skirt, which—as Harriet Beecher Stowe points out in Household Papers—could require twenty yards of fabric.

Blue jeans are just so much simpler.

(And why was it called “Bloomer dress”? The style became associated with Amelia Bloomer after she adopted it and enthusiastically promoted its use. Even though she dropped the style, the name stuck.)


“The Bloomer Dress” (from Woodworth’s Youth’s Cabinet, October 1852, pp. 110-113)

two women in Bloomer dress

My readers have all heard of the Bloomer costume, no doubt. But probably very few of them have ever seen a lady with the dress on. Have you ever seen one worn, reader? and if you have, what did you think of it? Was it becoming, or otherwise? Presuming most of the boys and girls who read these pages have never seen one, and knowing that there is a great deal of curiosity afloat about the thing, on the part of those who are unacquainted with it, I must present a picture giving an accurate representation of the dress, as it is worn by some of our western ladies.

Now, my friend, what do you think of it? “It looks odd,” you say. So it does; there’s no disputing that. Every new style of dress looks odd. Do you remember when the ladies wore large bonnets? I suppose not. You are hardly old enough. But I remember the time very well, when my mother wore a bonnet of such a monstrous size, that it was about as much as she could do to go through a door, if the great thing flared out to its full width. Now how do you think your mother would look with one of these great umbrellas on her head? Why, you would laugh outright, to see her or any one else walking the streets with such a bonnet on.

I can remember, too, when the men used to wear a hat, the crown of which was small enough to fit the head at the brim, but which was almost twice as large on the top. What a curious-shaped thing it was, the great bell-crowned hat! If it should make its appearance now, in our streets, don’t you think we should all laugh at it, and call the fashion unbecoming and absurd?

But recollect that when the hat was worn, and was considered in the fashion, there was very little or no complaint about the absurdity of it. Nobody laughed at it then. At least, I never heard of any one’s laughing at it. So of the monstrous bonnet. It was fashionable once, and then it seemed becoming enough. The ladies did not laugh at the thing and make fun of it. And so it is with all fashions. They are not generally regarded as so much out of the way, until some other fashion comes along, and then, after a little while, the old one seems odd and queer. Now, as you say, the Bloomer dress looks odd enough. Well, the reason may be because it is so entirely unlike anything else which the ladies wear or have worn.

“There! Uncle Frank likes the Bloomer dress. How he praises it up.”

No, my little friend. You are too fast. I don’t say that I should like to see our ladies generally dressed in this style. I am not prepared to say that. I am not sure that I should be pleased, if I should see all the women and all the little girls about the streets dressed as Mrs. Bloomer recommends. On the whole, though a man ought to be a little diffident about laying down rules for the regulation of the dress worn by the other sex, on the whole, I think, if the ladies should come to me for my opinion, (a thing, by the way, which I have not vanity enough to expect,) I should most likely go against the general use of the Bloomer dress, while I might recommend some change, for the sake of convenience, in the present style of dress.

I can’t help thinking, and must say, that, aside from the appearance of the thing, the Bloomer costume must be very convenient in the country, if one has to ramble about the fields and forests much, and, it seems to me, that a lady must miss a great many of the luxuries of country life, if she does not take such rambles. I have been out with ladies, before now, on a botanical tour, when I could not avoid noticing that their mode of dress was very inconvenient for that kind of business; and at such a time, I don’t know that it would have struck me as at all unbecoming or improper, if those ladies, instead of the ordinary dress, had worn a genuine, out-and-out Bloomer suit, just like the one you see in the picture. However, we men may think what we will about the Bloomer dress, and say what we will about it, I presume that our mothers, and sisters, and wives, and daughters, will take the matter into their own hands, and decide it for themselves. The great majority of them don’t like it. That is clear enough, and it does not appear now as if it would get to be a common mode of dress very soon. Its origin, if there were nothing more, is unfavorable to its popularity. It did not come from Paris, and we in this country, as all the world knows, have set up the Paris dress-makers and milliners for our guides.

One of the fun aspects of researching American children’s periodicals and books before 1873 is seeing how they deal with prehistory. It’s interesting to see how writers dealt with the increasing disconnect between religious tradition and scientific explanation. But it’s especially entertaining to watch dinosaurs change with decades.

Okay, mostly one dinosaur: the iguanodon. The first American work for children to show dinosaur illustrations appears to be the frontispiece of Peter Parley’s Wonders of the Earth, Sea, and Sky, reworked by Samuel Griswold Goodrich from one in a British book as Goodrich asserted ownership of his creation: “Peter Parley.”

EarthfrHere are the pterosaur, the plesiosaur, and the ichthyosaur, which in the nineteenth century belly-crawled on land because it hadn’t yet been established as a water-dweller.

Goodrich appears also to have published the first illustration of an iguanodon for children in Robert Merry’s Museum in 1842. It’s … unfamiliar:

Iguanodon, from Robert Merry's Museum, 1842The mighty (and mighty low-slung) iguanodon roars to the sky, while a duckish plesiosaur glides serenely through a prehistoric pool. It will look familiar to anyone who’s seen the first volume of The Wonders of Geology, by Gideon Mantell; the frontispiece is John Martin’s “The Country of the Iguanodon,” with an iguanodon which is lunching on one reptile roaring in pain as it is attacked by another reptile. The iguanodon in the Museum is the middle dinosaur in Martin’s picture.

It looks fairly sleek by comparison with one appearing in The Children’s Friend thirty years later:

1872ChFrPAIt’s … Hmm.

illustration of a short-legged dinosaurIt’s sturdy, low-browed, no-necked—almost stereotypically Neanderthalish. At least it’s off the ground.

And it’s accompanied by some old friends:

ichthy1872It’s our old pal, the ichthyosaur, still scrambling about on the land! And is that the plesiosaur beside it? (The stocky little critter in the foreground looks almost un-reptilian.)

The later iguanodon shows up in the work of Waterhouse Hawkins, who made life-size recreations of dinosaurs for a London park. We’ve changed it again: the horn that 19th-century naturalists put on its nose is now believed to be the thumb.

I like the 21st-century iguanodon, but I rather miss the seal-like version from 1842.

(Oddly enough, while the word “dinosaur” was first used in England in 1841, it hasn’t yet shown up in any pre-1873 works for children that I’ve seen. Stay tuned.)