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  • Writer's pictureCheryl Anne Stapp

Reform Dress for Ladies

The upstart new style in ladies’ fashions was quite unconventional. Yet it was seen everywhere across America throughout the 1850s decade, chiefly because its “healthful” design allowed women freedom of movement from the constrictions of high-necked fitted bodices, boned corsets, and voluminous, floor-length skirts worn over multiple layers of starched petticoats.

Respectable matrons from New York to San Francisco brazenly wore it in public. Dozens of pioneering women wore it traveling West in covered wagons, where its practicality in physically challenging circumstances was proven time and again. It was variously called “the Turkish Dress,” “the reform or freedom dress” or, more often, “the Bloomer Costume,” after social reformist and suffragette Amelia Bloomer.

Amelia Jenks Bloomer was an early campaigner for both the temperance (anti-alcohol) movement and women’s rights, advocating women’s right to vote as well as a change in dress standards that would allow them greater comfort in regular activities. With her husband’s backing, she founded a temperance newspaper named The Lily in 1849. It was she who introduced this attire to women in 1851—instigating that year’s “bloomer craze,” although the design wasn’t hers. After friend and fellow activist Elizabeth Cady Stanton visited her wearing this “sensible” new outfit, Amelia began to enthusiastically wear the ensemble herself, and promote it in her newspaper. Basically (with varieties), the outfit was a pair of loose trousers gathered at the ankles, visible beneath a full-skirted short dress or skirt, with a loose-waisted bodice and vest over wider sleeves.

Multitudes of mature women declared themselves aghast at such un-lady-like attire, while scores of the younger set wore it proudly, even defiantly. The style garnered immediate ridicule in the press; oftentimes, wearers were jeered on the streets. Men weighed in with their opinions, of course—some going so far as to claim the wearing of pants by women was a usurpation of male authority. The controversial Bloomer Costume faded from the fashion scene around 1859, when even Amelia Bloomer herself stopped wearing it.

In the 20th century, female factory workers discovered that wearing men’s trousers at work was much safer around machinery than skirts, which led, in the 1940s, to the acceptance of pants as a respectable fashion choice for women.

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