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In the mid-1800s, women’s clothing reflected their constricted lives. Tight corsets under voluminous skirts were uncomfortable and impractical, but considered feminine and necessary. Efforts to change this led to the ‘Rational Dress’ movement.
In 1851 Libby Miller (1822–1911), a New England activist, designed trousers to be worn under a short skirt that permitted more movement. But the outfit, dubbed ‘bloomers’ after being publicised by Miller’s colleague Amelia Bloomer (1818–1894), attracted ridicule – particularly in England – and did not endure.Dress reformers therefore moved the emphasis to reforming underwear. But even though hooped crinolines were going out of fashion, long dragging skirts remained the norm.
In 1881, the Society for Rational Dress was formed in London, opposing tight corsets, high heels, and unwieldy skirts. This was mainly on grounds of physical restraint: it was becoming fashionable for women to be healthy, even athletic; and with middle-class women beginning to enter the workplace, too, the need for more practical clothes was evident. Thanks to lighter or divided skirts, women participated fully in the cycling boom that followed James Kemp Starley’s (1854–1901) first ‘modern bicycle’, the Rover Safety of 1885.
Wider aspirations of emancipation and equality are also clear from the Society’s Gazette, which ran for six issues in 1888 and 1889: ‘succeeding generations [will] look back with contempt and wonder at the ignorance and obstinacy of their ancestors’. 20 years later, suffragettes were campaigning vigorously, and by 1918 women in the UK could vote for the first time.
From marriage and sexuality to education and rights, Professor Kathryn Hughes looks at attitudes towards gender in 19th-century Britain.