This weekend I have been hard at work preparing a presentation for Historic New England titled: The Dress Reform Movement: Who, What, When, Where, and HOW. One of the points I love making in my presentations is that the radical nature of the bloomers and the public outcry that they caused when they momentarily returned to public use in the 1890s is greatly downplayed when we think about fashion history. While we like to think of women’s rights activists such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Amelia Bloomer as having sparked a fashion revolution, the truth is a LOT more complicated than that. What is often left out is that the few women in the mid-1800s who tried to dress in the bloomer outfit were so ridiculed that they were pretty much forced to abandon them. 

Bloomers made a bit of a comeback in the 1890s as female use of the bicycle trended. But decades were not enough to prepare the public to be more accepting of women wearing anything that resembled trousers. Despite what you may read in some blog posts that touch on the history of either the bicycle craze or the dress reform movement, the women who wore bloomers while bicycling were few and were incredibly brave as they faced levels of harassment that I think is hard for us to grasp today. 

As a small part of my presentation, I am covering some of my favorite bloomer-related news stories from the 1890s to give the audience a sense of the shock and horror that women in bloomers caused. I thought our curious readers may enjoy learning about some of them that are nothing short of hilarious from our 2022 perspective. 

Both cartoons hold a LOT of clues about 19th-century gender roles and expectations!

Domestic dispute over bloomers, 1895

Family Row About Bloomers

Eaton, Ohio, August 4: Mrs. John Frick and her husband quarreled over the question whether or not their daughter should wear bloomers. The Fricks are old people, wealthy, and have a large family of grown-up children. Frick is seventy-five years old and very feeble. He advocated bloomers. He and his wife quarreled viciously and finally Mrs. Frick attempted to pull out her husband’s whiskers. Not succeeding, she cut them off. The fight was so bitter that both the old people are under a physician’s care, and it is feared Mrs. Frick will become insane.

A bill against bloomers, 1897

Against Bloomer and Bicycles

Topeka, Kan Jan 10

Representative Lambert will introduce a bill early in the session of the Kansas Legislature to prohibit women from wearing bloomers. He says that the Populist Party owes it to people to look after their morals as well as financial and industrial reforms. It will be a misdemeanor for women to appear on a public thoroughfare riding astride a bicycle. Mr. Lambert says that eminent physicians declare that the bicycle habit destroys the health of women, and unfits them for the important and sacred duties of motherhood. 

Husband tries to sue wife over shocking red bloomers, 1895

Applied for the law on bloomers: husband wanted to prevent his wife wearing red ones

Paterson, NJ August 1

Lawyer Richard Randall says his first client this morning was a man named WJ Eaverson of Hawthorne, who is a bicycle rider and who has a wife also fond of riding the wheel. The latter wore a divided skirt for a time. 

A day or two ago she appeared on the streets, to the utter surprise of her husband, in a pair of dark bloomers. This was too much for him and he protested, but his objections had no weight with his wife and she continued to wear the bloomers, although her husband refused to go out with her on the road.

Eaverson wanted Lawyer Randall’s advice as to what he could do toward putting a stop to the red bloomers. The lawyer told him he could not stop it, as the new woman was here to stay, and if he would not only wait a year or two he would not only see red bloomers on the road, but would see them in the legislative halls at Trenton. 

Waitress creates buzz with bloomers, 1897

Bloomers Attract Attention in Boston

Boston, May 28: A pretty New York waitress, whose name is Bradford, is creating a sensation in a Milk Street restaurant. She wears black bloomers. She answers an advertisement the first of the week, and is proving a great drawing card–so much so that the restaurant proprietor is considering the adviseability of ordering similar costumes for his other girls.

One husband’s barnyard “cure” for the bloomers 1895

A cure for bloomers 

A cure for the bloomer craze has been found at last. It is the invention of a shrewd Vermonter, and in the several instances in which it has been tried, it has worked almost as magical as magic. The Vermonter had a wife who rode a bicycle and who insisted on wearing bloomers every time she went out for a spin. Neither protests nor appeals nor threats could induce her to wear another costume. So one day the husband, with a patience that would have caused Job to open his eyes, sat down and made a pair of bloomers for every hen in the poultry yard, and, drawing them on the hens, called his wife to look at them. They looked just like she did, he said, when she was on the wheel in costume. A little more graceful, perhaps, but not a bad reproduction. There were some sharp words for a moment, but the woman hasn’t worn bloomers since. What’s more, she now declares she will never wear them again. 

Do you think you would have been brave enough to wear bloomers in the 1890s? Start with our 1890s Bicycling Outfit:

More history fun:

The Victorian Croquet Craze: crazier than you think

Femininity in Question: Edwardian Depictions of the New Woman

Edwardian motoring fashions

How crazy was the bicycle craze?