The Rise of Fashion: A Reader

By Daniel Leonhard Purdy | Go to book overview

FEMINIST DRESS REFORM

“The New Costume for the Ladies”
and “The New Dress” from The Lily (1851)

Six months after the first women's rights convention (1848) was held in Seneca Falls, New York, Amelia Bloomer began to published the feminist journal The Lily. Drawing on the literary talents of other, soon-to-be prominent feminists such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, the journal combined a call for women's rights with a demand for temperance from alcohol and for the abolition of slavery. The Lily created a fashion scandal when in 1851 it began to run articles advocating that women wear shorter dresses and fulllength “Turkish” pantaloons. The popular press quickly adopted the name “Bloomers” for these new garments, and a wide-ranging public discussion ensued, reaching into European high society.

Bloomer and Stanton argued in favor of dress reform first by criticizing corsets and crinolines as cumbersome and unhealthy. They then presented examples of how the new garments enhanced the physical comfort and mobility of women, thereby allowing them to engage in activities from which they had been previously excluded simply on the basis of their awkward dress. For the editors of The Lily, women's emancipation was very much connected with the physical liberation of the female body from constraints. Binding clothes were both a metaphor for the constricted position of women in society as well as a prime instrument in the control of women's lives. The journal's articles maintained a practical focus on how such clothes, and other domestic arrangements, hampered women's potential.

The controversy surrounding “Bloomers” was in many ways a replay of the arguments that eighteenth-century critics had made against corsets and the wide dresses of the French court. Like the Seneca Falls feminists, doctors in the previous century had provided extensive anatomical evidence of how women's internal organs were rearranged and in some cases punctured by tight lacing. Rousseau had similarly argued against the manner in which baroque dress distorted the male body. What distinguished nineteenth-century feminists

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