Smock Frocks and Bloomerism

I found an interesting snippet in a newspaper the other day which I really think calls into question the gender roles that we assign types of clothing and the illogicality of it, especially, but not only, in the nineteenth century.

Bloomerism was a dress reform movement started in the US, named after Amelia Bloomer although the originator of the garments was said to be another American, Elizabeth Smith Miller.  Having grown tired of being ‘shackled’ in long skirts and unable to complete simple manual tasks, in spring 1851 she advocated essentially shortening the skirt to make a tunic and wearing Turkish style harem trousers beneath to preserve the modesty of the legs.  Bloomer was a friend of Miller’s and promoted the style in her journal The Lily, where this type of dress became associated with Amelia’s name.  She called on women to put their health and ease of movement before fashion and the dictates of society.

The movement is thought to have reached England in the summer of that year when Hannah Cutler, a Bloomer supporter, travelled to London for an international peace convention.  Sightings of Bloomerism began to be reported in local newspapers as a curiosity and an oddity, often with detailed descriptions, showing how daring and radical the dress was for the time.  The satirical magazine Punch was quick to depict the extraordinary sight.  See

Advocates, such as Caroline Dexter, travelled around the provinces to lecture and promote such healthy dress and its benefits, although the press were usually fixated on their visual appearance. They tended to ridicule the meetings rather than examine the women’s reform movement in any detail.  This was the case in Chichester in November 1851 where Mrs Pannel was giving a not very well-attended lecture on Bloomerism.  As the newspaper reported in comic tone:

…the cause of Bloomerism did not gain much credit at the hands of the lecturer, for just as she was showing off her costume to advantage, the tape string broke, and her gaudy short petticoats fell tumbling about her heels.  The scene that took place at this moment was indescribable, but fortunately for the lady a gentleman ran to her assistance immediately, and instantly covered her corpulent body under a white smock frock, amidst shouts of laughter from the audience in attendance.

So this makes me ask several questions.  It was presumably okay to cover a woman in trousers with essentially a man’s skirted garment – a woman in just leg coverings was still scandalous; it was better to be dressed in a masculine garment than to display the outline of the legs; what was a man with a smock frock doing watching a lecture on Bloomerism; men in short skirts with leg coverings were acceptable but the same was not true for women – that is, men could wear short skirts but women couldn’t!

Dress codes and social conventions can be extremely complex and very difficult to untangle especially over the fullness of time when some social mores have been lost.  The smock frock calls into question several assumptions about masculine clothing, which maybe more malleable for the nineteenth century that generally supposed.

Bloomerism was a short-lived movement but it laid the foundation for later nineteenth century dress reform movements and the more general women’s movement which came to fruition in the twentieth century.