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Bloomers Are All the Rage

Amelia Bloomer.
The Bloomer Costume
Nathaniel Currier. 1851.

In 1850, Amelia Bloomer introduced the concept of pants on women. She didn't wear the new Bloomers, as they were initially called, and hated that they were named after her. When introduced, as indicated below, the "Turkish" pants created an uproar. Until young ladies began strolling along public streets in their Bloomers, even riding pants were meant to be concealed under the skirts of the riding habit. Bloomers did not become acceptable in America for anything other than swimwear until the middle of the 1890s.

Alta California, July 1851

When Mrs. Swisshelm and her sister reformers donned the habiliments of the masculine gender as a convenient and comfortable protection of the nether extremities, very few even of her admirers would have predicted a popular reception among the fair sex for this new and unique style of costume. To the astonishment of all, however, the matter has been taken up by the ladies in earnest – and, from the North to the South, trousers, a la Turc, are becoming "all the rage." The eastern papers, just received, have discussed the probabilities of this style of dress becoming fashionable. We present a few extracts from several of them:

(From the Philadelphia Ledger, May 26.)

The stream of Quakerdom, which runs up and down Chestnut street on a summer’s afternoon, was thrown into a singular state of commotion on Saturday last, by the appearance in the public streets, for the first time, of a pair of trousers upon the lower limbs of one of the fair daughters of Eve. The sensation produced was great; men, women and children gazed at it – them, we mean – with various feelings of favor of disapprobation. The belles of fashion looked rather freezingly at an innovation which had not the sanction of the Paris fashion-mongers, the only authority with them in matters of dress, whose decrees have the force of vermilion edicts from the ruler of the Celestial Empire. Long skirted ladies drew themselves up with a prime propriety which would have proved blasting to the assurance of a less presuming revolutionist and champion of the rights of the female half of creation. The beaux were the only individuals who seemed to look upon the new fashion with any degree of pleasure. Never were a pair of feet and ankles more closely scrutinized and criticized since the say the cobbler discovered the defect in the foot of one of the works of Apelles’ chisel. They bare examination admirably, and the neat little lasting boot threaded its way through the crowd, the universal expression was "decidedly pretty."

From the Boston Mail, May 26.

Last evening, or late in the afternoon, or citizens were gratified with a sight of the new costume, with a specimen of the fair and lovable portion of humanity in it. A sweet Miss of some sixteen summers was out on a promenade, "the observed of all observers." She had on pink colored pants, a coatee, a belt and nice little hat, all of which made her appear lovely and unique. She walked with as much grace and dignity as if long accustomed to wearing the breeches, and seemed not in the least disconcerted in being closely scrutinized by the crowd. The windows along Cambridge, Court and Tremont streets were filled with spectators, and many of the ladies regretted that the pink bloomer had got the start of them. The Turkish dressed beauty was accompanied by a gentlemen who, carrying a big cane, formed her protection. They marched and counter-marched the streets, and went upon the Common where one reporter left them. The lady is a west-ender, of the first respectability, and we may now expect the new style will be soon universally adopted.

From the Hartford (Connecticut) Courant, May 26

Several ladies appeared in our streets on Saturday with pantaloons, short dresses and flats. As it was the first appearance in this city of this new costume, it naturally attracted much attention.

From the Geneva Gazette, New York, May 24

Day before yesterday it was our privilege to witness the appearance of some of the ladies of our village in the improved mode of dress, viz: with short dresses and Turkish pantaloons. This novel appearance was greeted by some with undisguised mirth, by others with ridicule, manifestly impolite and indicative of the extent of their good sense, but most regarded it with decided approval. Yesterday morning, also, we understand they were worn by some ladies taking a morning walk. We hope that this may be the beginning of a speedy and general introduction of an improvement so desirable.

From the Louisville (Ky.) Journal, May 21

Several ladies of this city, who are very warm in favor of this movement, have spoken to us and begged us to come out in our paper in favor of it. We assured them that we are very favorably inclined to the gratification of their wishes, but our mind is not fully made up on the subject.

The Daily Alta California, August 5, 1851

The Change in Female Costume.

There can be no doubt whatever, that the subject of short dresses for the ladies is destined to have a long run, as the playbills say of a new piece, and think as we may of the proposed change, it is assuming a seriousness far above the ordinary range of fashion’s foibles, and the sphere of humbug generally. We thought, and it is safe to conjecture that our readers in California also thought, when last we laid hold of the long skirts we had taken them up to considerable advantage, and as much as the rules of propriety would allow. To be sure we did not enter into the spirit of the proposed reform by abstruse calculations of economy, and profound considerations of short-skirted convenience, prying into every fold and examining minutely the advantages claimed by the lady advocates of the change; we merely explored the new system by the light reflected from the ridicule with which it had been received in the east, and commended the scheme to good results in a view of pleasantry. There we thought our duty ended, but the recent mail from the Atlantic, laden with "exchanges" from every part of the Union, has widened the field of labor on the subject, deepened its importance, raised our ideas, lengthened our views and shortened nothing – excepting ladies’ dresses.

We are about to extract from some of the leading papers of the Atlantic States the various opinions entertained on the subject, by editors of accredited good taste and judgment. First, it is necessary to premise that but few alterations have been suggested in the new costume since it was described by the original notices that appeared concerning it. The principal objections which maintain with marked force against the style at present are, its inappropriateness to ladies of advanced years, and to those of diminutive status; also, its inapplicability in conformance with rules of grace – its great deviation from the Turkish costume which it professes to be.

In the N.O. Picayune we find an excellent article, written by a lady, on the subject of this Bloomer costume. One of her objections, it appears, is that it isn’t national:

The "Bloomer" cannot be called a national dress, for we borrow it from a far-off country; it is not economical, for the materials must be rich to be handsome; and the trowsers are as full, thick and heavy as the old skirts; and until a substitute is found for the sack and the straw hat no lady of taste will adopt the new mode."

Now, as regards economy, which consideration appears to be discussed with some fervor, we have only to call to the aid of the Bloomers the computation of a disciple, that three yards of wide material will make a costume, whereas the old or prevailing style requires some thirty-six yards.

Hence, it follows that one dress after the present fashion will make twelve dresses after the new style. If there be en millions of women within the United States, there would thus be saved by the Turkish costume ninety millions of yards of good cloth, that might be sent to the heathen, and thus every woman in Africa and Asia, and on the Pacific Islands, to say nothing of the "unborn babes" of the first mentioned region, as Aminadab Sleek says, might be furnished with toggery from our mere surplusage."

As we are not disposed to do the "habits" of our grandmothers any more injustice than was originally done to the taste displayed in the paradisiacal costume of mother Eve, we quote the following description of the last Bloomer from the New York Mirror:

She was just the person to cap the climax of our disgust — having neither youth, beauty, nor grace, to redeem "bad habit" from the most vulgar hoydenish effect. The dress was a sort of spotted yellow pea jacket, with scrimpy trousers, puckered around the ankles, with a hermaphrodite hat. The Inhabitant of the ridiculous garment – for we don’t know whether it was male or female – came nearer, in.orgplexion and appearance, to the ancient description of the "forked-parsnip," than any thing we have ever seen.

This man will require to be put in a "straight jacket" if short skirts prevail. Below we present a specimen of the enthusiasm with which the war is carried on.:

No less than eleven ladies, rigged out a la Turque, were recently seen in Washington street, Boston, at all one time. In Lowell, also, they are coming out every day. Three cheers for the Bloomers.

In that neighborhood dresses must be up. Here the factory girls appear to be "down" on the style.

BLOOMERISM IN A FACTORY—The lady of a physician at Claremont, N.H., appeared in the streets a few days since in the Bloomer costume – the frock so ridiculously short as to excite universal laughter. She went into the weave room of one of the mills, and was escorted off the premises by the "shuttle band," composed of female weavers, playing popular airs on the boxwood shuttle.

The Bloomer Polka.
The Bloomer Polka

We leave these inhospitable quarters to return to old Massachusetts, where the Bloomer dresses are counting up fast. The abrupt coming out of these short skirts and "pantiloons," one after another, figures on the fashion plates, side by side with the "old style," something as we remember to have seen, "in boyhood’s time," the process of "corn-popping" carried on over a brisk fire.


The was of fashion appears to be carried on, even into the enemy’s camp, by the unterrified Bloomers.

The agitation in relation to the Bloomer costume has reached Paris, and the editors are amusing themselves not a little in relation to it. If they can start the fashion in the French capital, it will go.

Here we leave the subject for the present, promising, should it multiply and increase among the French fashion-makers, to treat our readers to further extracts, and resume the discussion of the interesting matter in due time.

For ourselves, we have but little doubt that the short skirt reform will be productive of good results in restricting ladies’ dresses to convenient and.orgfortable lengths, and arresting the progress of the "fashionable" wear of "trains," which last winter were beginning to be adopted in New York and Washington society. There certainly can be but remote prospects of the prevalence of Bloomer styles as they have been introduced.

The Daily Alta California, August 7, 1851
Female Costume.—A Lady’s Opinion.

A lady of this city, upon whose talented mind the proposed change in female dress has wrought conviction, has sent us a long and interesting communication on the subject, in which she decides favorably for the Bloomer costume, and advises the ladies of San Francisco to give the matter their careful attention. We commend the subjoined article to an impartial reading; it discloses in a plain, sensible manner, the benefits to be derived from the adoption of short skirts, and supports the theory of their healthfulness with marked force and propriety.

To the Editors of the Alta California:

Gentlemen: I observe, in your paper of August 5th, a collection of paragraphs headed by, and interspersed with editorial remarks upon the Bloomer costume, the tenor of which leads me to appeal to your courtesy for the public expression of a few ideas on the same subject. I address myself especially to the more thoughtful men and women among your readers, who recognize in themselves and others the right to study convenience, comfort, healthy, taste and economy, irrespective of arbitrary rules of fashion, of the tyranny of gray-haired custom, or the ridicule of poor minds, who are incapable of discovering merit in anything newer than their own thoughts.

Mrs. Kirkland, in her introduction to Mrs. Reid’s work on Woman, compares the restlessness exhibited among the sex in the present age, to that manifested by a flock of chickens shut in a basket for market. There is ceaseless outcry and complaint, not loud nor sufficient to arrest attention strongly, but so universal that the most indifferent passer-by cannot fail to conclude that the condition is a very unnatural one, if not altogether an outrage and violence upon those subjected to it. Within the last few years, several protests, earnest and powerful, have been made against the condition of the sex, by individuals, as well as bodies, in Worcester conventions, opening of old colleges, and establishing new ones for its use; in the occupation of editorial chairs by women; the enactment of new laws for their protection; and in numerous less observable movements, which have so changed the face of active life to woman, that if our grandmothers, who flourished fifty years ago, when the spinning wheel and loom were their highest instruments of usefulness, were to return among us, they would scarcely recognize the female world as the one to which they had belonged. In so many ways, and by such gradual steps, has woman modified her condition, within thirty years past – so familiar has society grown with her in the position of innovator, that now, in this last and most obvious change, one is astonished to find so large a liberality shown it.

The fear of being denied a hearing altogether, if I ask too much of your room, restrains me from dwelling upon the significancy of this change in costume, upon the redemption it promises from that sort of slavery which has most belittled woman, most perverted her affections, corrupted her relations, and blasted her health, happiness and usefulness; slavery to shows, to artificial elegance, to arbitrary rules; to the most irrational and destructive customs. We will let these considerations pass, they will not elude the thoughtful, who see in all external and physical facts, indications of internal and mental conditions corresponding to them, and only suggest a few of the more obvious advantages of the new costume.

Bloomers all the rage.
Girl Wearing Bloomers are the center of attention.
John Leech

One of the broadest and most gratifying considerations connected with it, is the redemption it bespeaks from that sort of slavery which has before constrained women to implicit and extreme submission to purely artificial and false ideas of elegance. While it is consistent with the most sensitive delicacy, it is nearer to nature, and therefore, by all rules of art, truer and more elegant. A living being is not an edifice, which we may shape and proportion to any rule of taste we choose to prescribe to ourselves. We accept the form which God has bestowed on every creature, as the most perfect that could be. Only, for instance, an extreme corruption of taste could sanction the patting a hump on the back, or squeezing the waist so frightfully out of proportion as we used to. The proposed change is in these respects decidedly in the right direction; it is toward Nature, toward truth, and, once effected, will forever put to flight the reign of artistic extravagances, the practice of building instead of dressing the human form. Yet, simple as it is, it is more modest, more protective, more reliable than the old style. Clad in these garments, the person of a lady cannot be exposed as it often is in the flowing skirts, by the numerous accidents that occur. Nothing short of rending her apparel from her can subject her to any great shock of this kind.

Their advantage in point of cleanliness and saving of labor, it almost incredible to those who have not tried it.

In this country very few women are exempt from some participation in household cares, and a woman who has a kitchen dress to wash, has not only that, but, if she be properly attentive to cleanliness, three or four more garments that have been worn with it, all alike soiled, and all alike unwieldy to wash and iron, whereas, when a short dress requires washing, there is no retinue of other garments with it, and instead of having four or five yards of skirt to clean at the border, you have only the wide trousers, which, from not flowing, and so coming in contact with every dirty object you approach, are soiled only where they fall about the ankle and upon the foot. For the same reason the new costume is incomparably more healthful than the old. Many a female in our Atlantic cities has met a premature death from wearing ten or twelve yards of wet cloth in contact with her feet and ankles, during the repeated walks of a winter season. Fatal illnesses, that are distinctly traceable to this cause, are numerous in the practice of every physician in the old States, and many of the more considerate and humane have urged their patients to have boots made in the fashion of men’s, and never to go out in wet weather without them. A boot maker in New York told me two years ago, that he had made lasts and manufactured boots for two or three years for some twenty or thirty ladies. This would save their health, but not spare them the disgust and annoyance of soiled and wet clothing. Every one must see the advantage of the new dress in this particular. In all these respects the labor and time which the wardrobe of any woman, dressing in the old style, would require, would keep that of six in the same circumstances in the best order.

Again, the burdensome length and fullness of the flowing skirts nearly disable many feeble women from walking. The writer especially knows of one instance of a lady who for twenty years has rarely been able to walk half a mile without suffering great distress and lying down immediately upon entering the house, who know, by the use for the last eight months of the new costume, is able to walk with no more than ordinary fatigue, two or three miles. Many ladies, and every physician, who is worthy the title he claims, will readily understand how the removal of pressure and weight of the heavy skirts from the region where it is now borne, should produce this result to a large class who seemed confirmed invalids in this respect.

There is so much more to be said, that I find it difficult to close, and yet I must, with just a word respecting the obstacle which stands in the way of reform in this city – the place, of all Christendom, where for many reasons it would seem to be most needed. It is admitted that all parties are very liberal toward it – the press has treated it very respectfully – individuals, almost universally, approve it, both men and women – and when the question is asked, "Why, then, it is not adopted?" the answer uniformly is, "It started with the wrong class here." But is any modest, self-respecting woman afraid of being identified with these unfortunate persons because she should follow them in a rational, comfortable and decent fashion, when she has all her life long followed them in those which, in some respects at least, were the reverse of these? Have they not always been the pioneers in every new fashion? Have they not always hitherto worn one costume with the rest of their sex? Why, then, be deterred by so weak and inadequate a reason? Let but three or four, or six ladies put on the new costume, and this feeling will disappear. Let any housekeeper put it on in her daily occupations, and she will find its convenience in all respects so great that she will wonder, after a few days, how she could have so long resisted it.

With all earnestness, I bid the reform God speed, as a means of purity, health, cleanliness, economy and so forth, and an earnest that women are beginning to regard these as more important than the false and artificial restraints to which they have hitherto sacrificed them.

The Maritime Heritage Project.

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