Pantaloons and Power: A Nineteenth-Century Dress Reform in the United States

Gayle Fischer’s hyper-academic look at the rise and fall of the bloomer, the freedom dress, the pantaloon, the Turkish trouser in the nineteenth century. I’ve been slightly obsessed with this topic since reading Mary Walker’s 1871 piece on dress reform republished in the invaluable Aunt Lute anthology which reminded me that women could actually be arrested for wearing pants. Fanny Fern took up the topic even earlier in the 1850s and 60s, writing about sneaking out in her husband’s clothing to enjoy an unrestrained walk about town without the heavy cloth of skirts becoming sodden and muddied by rain. The nonsense continued through the 20th century as well, Lois Rabinowitz thrown out of traffic court for wearing pants in 1960. Unfortunately, my thirst for information wasn’t quenched by this chalky academic tome that focuses solely on the 19th century.

The most interesting chapter (judging from my dog-eared pages—I know, I’m terrible) was Pantaloons in Public: Woman’s Rights and Freedom Dresses, detailing the crest of dress reform in 1851 as prominent suffragists strode around Seneca Falls in pants, bringing “pantaloons and women’s struggle for power together for the first time in U.S. history.” The pants were called “freedom dress” by women’s rights advocates but the press dubbed them Bloomers when Amelia Jenks Bloomer flaunted them, and in the end she held out longer than the rest of her comrades. She weighted the hem of her short skirt with shot to keep it from flying over her head in the winds of Iowa, which ended up just bruising her instead. “Lightweight” wire hoop skirts replaced petticoats around the same time, and she abandoned ship. Other feminists stopped wearing them earlier because they found that audiences failed to listen to them if they were fixated on their clothing. Susan B. Anthony noted that both causes (dress reform and suffrage) “are injured, as the average mind can grasp but one idea at a time.” So the women donned skirts again to give priority to the greater cause of votes.

One interesting idea I’ve known but that was reinforced is that we seem to be in a perpetual state of change, ever since industrialization. “The antebellum period seemed to be marked by rapid changes and the loss of a sense of identity, control, and values around which to understand life. As one historian described it, the ‘specter of social breakdown’ haunted most antebellum Americans.” How true these words are when applied to today’s world as well.