Culture | Books
A straight leg
It has been a long, uncomfortable journey for women to win the freedom to choose what they wear
By Sally Feldman
Wearing the Trousers: Fashion, Freedom and the Rise of the Modern Woman (Amberley)
By Don Chapman
If you really want to be deadlier than the male, then try wearing his clothes. And this spring ushers in a new take on the trouser suit. You can choose from bright citrus colours or more sombre tuxedo styles, slouchy palazzo pants to culottes, cordurouy to satin. Trouser suits, writes the Times fashion editor Anna Murphy, “can be a way of having your cake and eating it; of looking pulled together, professional and ready to win in what is (still) a man’s world, while also signalling your femininity, your point of difference, and the fact that said man’s world is already teetering, and that it is only a matter of time before we women – in our retooled trouser suits – topple it once and for all.” Her view would certainly not have surprised the fashion pioneers of the Victorian age who campaigned to liberate women from their sartorial prison. Their story is told by Don Chapman in Wearing the Trousers: Fashion, Freedom and the Rise of the Modern Woman. From the start, he argues, women advocating the discarding of skirts were also arguing for something more far-reaching: gender equality.
It was in 1850s New York that a few women were first spotted in trousers – inspired, apparently, by hearing from travellers to the Ottoman Empire of the pantaloon styles and short robes worn by Turkish women. People like the social reformer Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and women’s rights campaigner Elizabeth Cady Stanton were early adopters. But it was when Amelia Bloomer, editor of The Lily, announced to her readers that she had taken to wearing the Turkish-style costume, that the craze for Bloomer and Bloomerism got its name and went global.
“We care not for the frowns of over fastidious gentlemen;” wrote a woman correspondent in the Times, “we have those of better taste and less questionable morals to sustain us. If men think they would be comfortable in long, heavy skirts, let them put them on; we have no objection.”
It wasn’t long before the new fashion was introduced to Britain. Another early adopter was Elizabeth Dexter, who distributed handbills to London milliners and dressmakers inviting “mothers, wives and daughters to embrace dress reform” and “join the Association of Bloomers”. Dexter went on to give increasingly packed public lectures, despite ridicule from some quarters and censoriousness from others. One of Dexter’s most persuasive arguments was, simply, for healthy living. And her warnings about the terrible effects on the body of tight stays and heavy crinolines began to be taken seriously by the medical profession.
An article in the Royal Cornwall Gazette described stiff and tight-laced stays as “a diabolical contrivance for disfiguring the form and destroying health and life . . . The vital organs are displaced and their functions impaired.” Chapman gives examples of young women dropping dead from their tight lacing. One surgeon, on examining the corpse of a young woman, found that her heart and liver had been enlarged by her tight stays; another died from the bursting of a blood vessel in the lungs. Another, from curvature of the spine. Other medical practitioners noted that many women were growing fat because their unwieldy dress made exercise impossible.
Despite the warnings, many women continued to wear huge, heavy skirts and to encase themselves in tight lacing in pursuit of the perfect figure. But change was coming. During the second half of the century more women began to engage in active pursuits like overseas travel, mountaineering, archery, shooting, walking – all of which required more comfortable clothes. Perhaps the most significant development of all was the advent of the bicycle. As more women took up cycling there was a growing demand for more suitable attire: trousers. At the forefront was Lady Florence Harberton. Like Amelia Bloomer before her, she had the good fortune to be married to a feminist. Lord Harberton’s Observation on Women’s Suffrage, published by the National Society for Women’s Suffrage, argued strongly for equality between men and women. Organising meetings
New Humanist | Spring 2019