Short Story: Contrary to logic, Amelia Bloomer didn’t invent the item of clothing known as bloomers. Bloomers were invented by Elizabeth Smith Miller, herself a civil rights supporter from a family of civil rights supporters and abolitionists. As an advocate of Victorian dress reform, Elizabeth Smith Miller was one of the first women to wear Turkish pantaloons with a knee-length skirt. Bloomer, who ran and edited the very first newspaper in America for women: The Lily, promoted the wearing of bloomers. Though her support of this dress reform, Amelia Bloomer’s name became associated with the outfit, and eventually named for her.
Long Story: In 1849, the Water Cure Journal, a popular periodical that focused on health matters, suggested that bloomers were a healthy alternative to other forms of female dress. Dress reform as a big issue, since heavy skirts and petticoats that dragged along the ground, as well as the tightly-laced corsets, were cumbersome and restricted movement. The biggest supporters of dress reform were the suffragists and suffragettes.
Women started off by wearing the bloomers at home, but by 1850, bloomers worn with a skirt – known as Turkish dress, Oriental dress, or American dress – was making an appearance in the public arena. It was early in 1851 that Elizabeth Smith Miller wore bloomers while visiting Amelia Bloomer in New York. Bloomer was so taken with the fashion that she started wearing it, and documented her experiences in The Lily. She even published instructions on how her readers might make a similar outfit for their own use. This created a flush of interest in the style, and Bloomer was suddenly the focus of a great deal of media attention. This is when her name became synonymous with the style, and though she never claimed to have invented the fashion, it became known as ‘Bloomer dress’.
At first, bloomers were an American phenomenon. However, Hannah Tracy Cutler, who was a journalist, public lecturer, an abolitionist, supporter of the temperance movement and women’s suffrage movements, wore the new style of dress to an international peace convention in London in 1851. Bloomers became a symbol of the women’s rights movement.
The style was considered scandalous and met with opposition from everywhere; the church, society, and political parties who opposed both women’s rights and dress reform.
“In August 1851, Harper’s Monthly reprinted a cartoon and article from a London newspaper ridiculing the American dress, one month after it had printed a sketch of the “Oriental Costume” and pronounced it tasteful, elegant, and graceful. – From Wikipedia”
What really assisted in the general acceptance of bloomers was the increasing popularity of the bicycle. Until I started researching the Victorian era, I never realised how important the velocipede was to the women’s rights movement. (And gives a strange twist to the old saying that ‘A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.) As women took to riding bicycles for exercise, and discovered the freedom provided by having a personal form of locomotion, bloomers has a renewed popularity. Still, wearing pants didn’t become ‘respectable’ until the Twentieth century.