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Worth Fighting For - The Dress Reform Movement

Worth Fighting For - The Dress Reform Movement

“… women can never compete successfully with men in the various industrial avocations, in long skirts. No one knows their bondage save the few of us who have known the freedom of short skirts.” – Susan B. Anthony


Fashion was a bigger deal during the suffrage movement than you might think.  While suffragists fought for women’s right to vote, dress reformers were fighting for clothes that were comfortable and did not pose a threat to women’s health – like corsets and crinolines. By the way, if you haven’t heard of a crinoline, think hoop skirt meets iron cage.  It’s easy to forget that the contraptions that defined fashion back then were not only uncomfortable, but also supremely impractical and unhealthy to the point where some women were disfigured by wearing them.  Today we wear corsets and chokers, but, thankfully, they no longer double as instruments of torture. 



“Freedom dresses” (code word for “pants”) were a big part of the Dress Reform Movement.  However, women wearing pants was viewed as a direct assault on men’s power and masculinity – a clear signal of trouble ahead.  Women who wore the freedom dresses were framed as deviants who were partial to smoking, drinking, gambling and abandoning children and husbands.  So, though it seems like a no-brainer, the right to wear pants did not come quickly or easily.  As it turned out, no matter what you called them, women wearing pants would not be okay for a really long time. 

Bloomers came into vogue when Amelia Bloomer wrote an editorial about this fashion phenomenon in the April 1851 issue of her newspaper, The Lily. But this design was not what you think of when you picture a modern day bloomer.  They were born of necessity – for comfort and practicality – and women loved the liberation from impossibly long, impractical skirts.  The bloomer outfit was like a pantsuit – ankle length pants and a dress worn over them with a length to (or below) the knees.  Hardly scandalous by today’s standards, but it got really bad for the ladies who wore these getups in the 1850s.  They were subject to ridicule, public taunting and worse. 



In 1859, Amelia Bloomer conceded, “With us, the dress was but an incident, and we were not willing to sacrifice greater questions to it.”  And with that, the era of the Bloomer, her namesake, was over.  By 1865, the Dress Reform Movement was also over and the women suffragists began to use fashion as a means to rebrand themselves as respectable ladies rather than radicals.  The Women’s Suffrage and Dress Reform Movements were intertwined, because the women at the forefront of suffrage were the ones wearing the pants.  But in the end, they chose their battle and made a purposeful fashion pivot.

Some of the most iconic images of the Women's Suffrage Movement depict women in white blouses and flowing skirts and wearing big hats laden with flowers.  The femininity of those outfits was purposeful and meant to counter the charge that suffragists were masculine and deviant. 

The Fashion of Suffrage


Even the colors were purposeful.

Green represented hope
White stood for purity
Violet was for freedom and dignity
The Colors of Suffrage



One other color that made the top ten list during the women’s suffrage movement was red.  It was the color that Susan B. Anthony chose for her iconic shawl.  The fact that it was accepted may have had something to do with the fact that it had not a “hint of mannishness but all that man loves and respects.” 

Here’s some of what was written at the time about Mrs. Anthony and her fashion choice  . . .

From the Evening Star –

“It is silk crepe of exquisite fineness, with long, heavy knotted fringe,” For full thirty years Miss Anthony’s red shawl has been the oriflamme of suffrage battle. She wears it with the grace of a Spanish belle.”

And from The Philadelphia Press

At an appearance in Philadelphia in 1905, “the figure of Miss Anthony was simplicity itself.  That bonnet, with the kind blue eyes beneath it, those spectacles, that plain dress and quaint red shawl, and, above all, that sweet, gentle voice, spelled ‘mother’ as plainly as the fine word ever was written. Not a hint of mannishness but all that man loves and respects. What man could deny any right to a woman like that?”

That’s not Susan B. in the photo, but it’s a good depiction of her red shawl.  You would definitely need to work overtime to come up with a way to make that shawl controversial.  Perhaps that was her point. 


Honestly, the freedom to wear trousers has never made my list of things to be thankful for.  I take for granted that I’ll suffer no backlash, when I stand in line at Starbucks in my jeans.  But the fact is we have many foremothers to thank for the fashion freedoms we have today.  Many, many more than mentioned here. 

And of course it was always about more than the pants.

Thank you, ladies!


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