“If a woman can’t dress in a rational and decent way, I shouldn’t like to live among such barbarians.”

Lavinia Goodell, December 8, 1853

In 1853, fourteen year old Lavinia Goodell tried unsuccessfully to encourage her twenty-six year old sister Maria to try a new fashion trend: bloomers.

A bloomer dress

In the mid 1800s, women wore corsets and multiple petticoats weighing as much as fifteen pounds in order to fill out their skirts. These voluminous undergarments made movement difficult and sometimes impaired breathing. In 1851, an editorial appeared in the Seneca [New York]  County Courier suggesting that women wear “Turkish pantaloons and a skirt reaching a little below the knee.” Amelia Bloomer, the editor of an upstate New York women’s newspaper called The Lily, chided the male Courier writer for advocating for dress reform but not for women’s rights.

Amelia Jenks Bloomer

Around this time, Bloomer’s neighbor, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, got a visit from her cousin, Elizabeth Smith Miller, who was wearing the outfit the Courier had described. (Also in 1851, Bloomer introduced Stanton to Susan B. Anthony, heralding the start of a decades-long partnership between the two activists.) The outfit paired a knee length skirt with loose pants and was called either Turkish trousers or pantaloons. Stanton was smitten with the new style and began to wear it, proclaiming that she felt like “a captive set free from his ball and chain.”  Bloomer adopted the new mode of dress as well and announced her support for the new fashion in the Lily. Circulation of the paper soared, but the new clothing item was controversial and Bloomer received many disapproving letters.  

Lavinia Goodell had evidently seen pictures of bloomers in magazines and was clearly intrigued. In late 1853, in response to a letter from her sister in which Maria had enclosed a swatch of fabric which would be made into a dress, Lavinia wrote:

We received your letter last Saturday evening, and with it a piece of your new dress. I thought it very pretty indeed, but rather expensive. How are you going to have it made? Will you not have it a bloomer! I think you look best in Bloomers, by the way. I have not seen one since I have been here. A lady visiting here a few days ago said she saw somebody on board a ferry boat with one on. She created a great sensation and some wanted to know what nation she was from, thinking she could not be an American.

In a letter to Maria written a few weeks later, Lavinia continued to press her case for Maria having a bloomer outfit and made clear that she wholly supported the right of women to wear comfortable clothing:

I am sorry you do not wear the Bloomers, but I think they become you very much, and if a woman can’t dress in a rational and decent way without such a fuss I shouldn’t like to live among such barbarians, for my part.

Lavinia Goodell’s letter to Maria Frost, December 8, 1853

Lavinia’s mother wrote a short addendum to the letter making clear that she did not share Lavinia’s fascination with the new fashion trend. She wrote, “How foolish Lavinia talks to you about the bloomer dress.”

There is no indication that Maria ever had a bloomer outfit, but Lavinia donned bloomers in 1864 when she attended a gymnastics class in Brooklyn. The bloomer trend waned with the invention of crinoline, which was fabric encircled by light wire that created the desired bell effect without multiple layers of petticoats. Amelia Bloomer moved to Ohio in 1853 and to Iowa in 1855. She, too, abandoned wearing the garment that still bears her name, feeling that the controversial outfit drew attention away from the important question of women’s rights.

Sources consulted: Lavinia Goodell’s letters to Maria Frost (November 16, 1853; December 8, 1853; January 11, 1864); Clarissa Goodell’s letter to Maria Frost (December 8, 1853); “Amelia Bloomer Didn’t Mean to Start a Fashion Revolution, but Her Name Became Synonymous With Trousers,” (Smithsonian Magazine, May 24, 2018);



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