This post is by Amanda Campbell, an undergraduate student at the University of Memphis and a 2019 Library of Congress Junior Fellow.
The dress reform movement began in 1851 when Elizabeth Cady Stanton and her neighbor, Amelia Bloomer, began wearing a radical new style of dress first designed by Stanton’s cousin, Elizabeth Smith Miller. It soon became known as the “bloomer outfit” and was worn by many prominent suffragists. I’m intrigued by the dress reform movement because of its potential to tell the story of women’s suffrage in a new and exciting way.
Like suffragists, dress reformers often took their cause much more seriously than their opponents did. For both causes, proponents faced humiliating and demoralizing attacks from their opponents, and disagreement was not unusual among leaders of both movements. Despite these challenges, activists fought for decades and ultimately both movements were successful. In the 1890s, the bicycle brought about a revolution in women’s fashion and the bloomer outfit became more widely accepted; in 1920, the 19th Amendment, granting women the right to vote, was ratified.
Teaching about women’s suffrage through the dress reform movement has two significant benefits:
- Sources on the dress reform movement are in diverse formats, and through examining letters, political cartoons and sketches, newspaper articles, and sheet music, students can more clearly understand both the movement and the habits of historians, who consult many kinds of primary sources;
- The dress reform movement is approachable for students. Students can easily understand and relate to reformers who were taking a stand with their clothes. The sources are visual, funny, and memorable.
More great sources on the dress reform movement for additional exploration:
- Elizabeth Cady Stanton to Susan B. Anthony and Lucy Stone
- Bloomer Waltz
- The bloomer costume. As sung by Lewis Knight
- Hubby — His Wife Is at the Dress Reform Club
- Deadlock on Bloomers
- The Bloomer’s Complaint, a Very Pathetic Song
The story of women’s suffrage contains many smaller stories that can help us understand the larger movement more completely. The dress reform movement is a powerful lens through which to study and teach the story of the women’s suffrage movement. Leave us a comment about the stories that catch your students’ attention!