When Elizabeth Cady Stanton stood before the 240 attendees at the first women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, New York, 150 years ago this week, she probably wasn’t wearing any underpants. Hidden beneath the multifarious layers of her stiff, fusty gown, buried under her stack of petticoats, Stanton most likely sported a pair of muslin pantaloons, split fore and aft and open down both sides, secured precariously only at waistband and ankle.
The ludicrous, contradictory fashions of 1848, which left a woman simultaneously smothered and naked, were in fact as much a focus of the nascent women’s movement as the struggle for higher education, suffrage, and other basic human rights. The sartorial monstrosities of the mid 19th century made the most casual activities into an ordeal: ankle-length skirts soaked up mud and animal waste after the briefest sojourn outdoors; sleeves were so tight that arms couldn’t be lifted; voluminous gowns in thin fabrics frequently caught fire and immolated the wearer (Oscar Wilde’s two beloved half-sisters perished in this manner); bonnets constricted peripheral vision.
In these outfits our ancestors engaged in the humblest farm chores and the slickest urban endeavors. Recalling her youth in the late 19th century, Gwen Raverat wrote, “Round the bottom of these skirts I had, with my own hands, sewn two and a half yards of ‘brush braid’ to collect the worst of the mud; for they inevitably swept the roads, however carefully I might hold them up behind. . . . Afterwards the crusted mud had to be brushed off, which might take an hour or more to do. There can be no more futile job, imposed by an idiotic convention, than that of perpetual skirt-brushing.”
Is it any wonder that feminists took up the cause of rational dress? In 1851, three years after the inaugural conference, Stanton and fellow delegate Amelia Bloomer showed up in Seneca Falls wearing midcalf dresses over loose harem pants and launched the infamous bloomer outfit. This trouser ensemble, which to our eyes appears unassailably modest, nevertheless represented a giant step forward. The costume, inspired by the Greek tunics favored by denizens of Oneida and other utopian communities, as well as the tasteful dresses worn by Quakers, was greeted with tentative enthusiasm by convention delegates. (So heightened were feelings about clothes in 1851 that at the Second National Woman’s Rights Convention in Worcester, Massachusetts, Susan B. Anthony opposed the election of Elizabeth Oakes Smith, a novelist, to the presidency because Smith wore fashionable dress; Lucretia Mott, a Quaker, won the post instead.)
But even as it was haltingly embraced by forward-thinking women, the bloomer costume was the victim of a vicious smear campaign. “We believe in the petticoat as an institution older and more sacred than the Magna Carta,” opined Harper’s Magazine in 1857. “Man loses the only authority that can effectually tame him when woman loses the delicacy of mind and costume that marks her as his counterpart and not his rival.” Godey’s Lady’s Book, the 19th-century equivalent of Vogue, sniffed, “Does it make any sense to sacrifice not only your social enjoyments but also your usefulness, for the purpose of making an ineffectual attempt to change a fashion . . . ?” Even Stanton’s husband, who initially embraced the costume—he quipped that he liked it because he could find out if the women he knew had fat or thin legs—eventually turned against the fashion. Feminists stuck valiantly by their bloomers, but the outfits never really caught on.
Though the establishment may have hated the idea of females in trousers, plenty of elder statesmen agreed that something had to be done about the unwieldy costumes foisted upon 19th-century women. Mormons decried the expense of elaborate fashions (it was difficult to clothe more than one wife); health reformers advocated vigorous physical exercise that required simplified dress.
Bloomers may have bombed, but the principles of dress reform triumphed over the course of the century: Civil War work forced an inevitable narrowing and simplification of the silhouette, and women’s fierce desire to ride bikes and play sports eventually loosened corsets and shortened hems. By the late 1850s, distinct menswear touches were already in evidence in the frothy world of ladies’ fashions. Short, plain jackets, with names like the polka and the monkey, began showing up on city streets, and the influence of hunting and riding clothes was undeniable in street wear. (Even waterproof boots and coats became fashionable.) One famous female Union Army surgeon, Dr. Mary Edwards Walker, simply insisted on wearing trousers; the United States Congress eventually passed a resolution giving her express permission to cross-dress.
It’s easy to view with pity and astonishment the clumsy, upholstered outfits our foremothers lumbered around in as they battled for equal rights and dress reform, but perhaps it would be instructive to imagine what our descendants may think of some of our own practices 150 years from today. To this end, we have assembled the following brief, admittedly incomplete list: bathing suits cut in such a manner that they require the excruciating removal of pubic hair; tottering platform and spike heels reminiscent of the tiny slippers associated with Chinese foot-binding; skintight vinyl pants that freeze the wearer in winter and boil her alive in summer; barbaric medical practices that suck fat out of thighs and stomachs with long needles, or require the injection of botulism, a deadly toxin, to smooth out face wrinkles; patent medicines to cure something called cellulite, a term invented by women’s magazines about 25 years ago; and last, but by no means least, fall ’98’s newest innovation, direct from the runways of Paris and Milan, slouching like a rough beast whose hour has come round yet again—subway-stairsweeping, floor-dragging ankle-length coats and dresses.