Bicycles, Bloomers, and the Vote: Dress Reform

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.


The bicycle – the great dress reformer of the nineteenth century! August 7, 1895

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.

Introduce lessons about the women’s suffrage movement by facilitating a primary source analysis with your students. Here are some sample sources and questions to start with:

Signing the declaration of their independence, June 28, 1911

  • What do you notice first? What words do you see?
  • Why do you think this was created?
  • What information could help us understand this more?

 

  • What words and phrases catch your attention?
  • What is on this page around the article?
  • Why do you think the author wrote this?

Excerpt from “The Clothes That Kill.” Wood River Times, Aug. 19, 1887.

 

A squelcher for woman suffrage. June 6, 1894

  • What do you think “squelcher” means? Take a close look at the cartoon for clues!
  • Do you think this cartoon supports or opposes women wearing different clothes? What evidence can you offer from the cartoon?
  • Do you think this cartoon supports  or opposes women voting? What evidence can you offer from the cartoon?

More great sources on the dress reform movement for additional exploration:

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!

 

3 Comments

  1. WILLIAM CONNERS
    November 10, 2019 at 8:06 am

    I believe that Susan B. Anthony is incorrectly identified in the 1911 cartoon from Puck called “Signing the Declaration of their Independence.” Rather than the woman seated in the foreground, I believe that Anthony is the woman standing at the table holding the Declaration in her hands. Is this not the face of Susan B. Anthony?

  2. Ann Canning
    November 11, 2019 at 8:08 am

    What a wonderful, creative and fresh look at the Suffrage Movement! Using the fashion lens to hook students to investigate the power of voting both now and in the 19th century is a great idea! The primary sources you found are intriguing and have definitely inspired me to look for more! I am thinking that this approach to suffrage is very timeless and timely for the year 2016. It would give a teacher a great hook for introducing an inquiry about Women’s Suffrage that could lead to a critical look at the wider concept of Voting Barriers in this presidential campaign. How are immigrants, blacks, hispanics, native Americans, youth and other minorities being shut out?

  3. Danna Bell
    November 12, 2019 at 4:15 pm

    Thanks for your question. We’ll forward it to the Prints and Photographs Division for their review.

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