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On November 15, 2001, while Afghani women were tossing off their burqas, a number of fashion models were tossing off at lot more on ABC television's "The Victoria's Secret Fashion Show." The show was lambasted publicly by some (the National Organization of Women staged a demonstration), but clearly many more—roughly 12 million viewers—had their eyes glued to the TV set. Some of those who criticized the show lamented its objectification of women and its idolization of an unattainable, Eurocentric beauty standard.

"Women's emancipation." Originally published in Punch. Harper's New Monthly Magazine, vol. 3, Aug. 1851, 424.

But others criticized its 9 pm time slot as too early for its racy content. Women parading around in brassieres and panties was considered by some to be a tad inappropriate for such an early hour.

While parading about in panties would have been unthinkable 150 years ago in the United States, so too would the wearing of panties themselves. Today's general design for panties originated from the various "bifurcated" undergarments known popularly in the 19th century as bloomers, knickers, drawers, pantaloons and pantalettes. Each was based on a design in which the legs were separated by cloth in between. Prior to the invention of such bifurcated undergarments for women, many European and Euro-American women wore a variety of skirt-like undergarments (sometimes in combination) known as petticoats and crinolines. Petticoats were generally made from flannel and crinolines were originally made from a combination of horse hair and linen, which gave them a very stiff feel.

Drawers first appeared in England around 1825, to the chagrin of some who called them "an abominable invention which produces disorders in abundance" (Ewing, 45). They were trouser style with a drawstring waist and open at the crotch. Pantaloons, later called pantalettes, were also introduced at this time. They were generally lacier and frillier, meant to be seen peeking from the edges of a woman's skirts. Each of these bifurcated styles enjoyed some popularity through the mid-1800s, although a continuing preference for crinolines and petticoats existed among many women. Part of this continuing preference for skirts can in fact be attributed to various women's emancipation movements.

For many women engaged in these struggles, it was important not to wear dress that was considered too radical for the time, lest the dress overshadow more important concerns, such as the right to vote, right to divorce and the right to property ownership (1). Yet many other women strongly advocated bifurcated garments (both as underwear and later as outerwear).

One such woman was Amelia Bloomer. Bloomer was an strong advocate of the 19th century women's movement and the editor of a reform newspaper known as The Lily (Garber 1997 [1992], 314). Bloomer's name will remain in history for a garment that she and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, another member of the reform movement, first wore in 1851 in Seneca Falls, New York. Although the garment was invented by Elizabeth Smith Miller (another women's rights advocate), it is forever associated with Bloomer (Ewing 1978, 63). The garment is mostly simply described as a knee-length dress over a pair of caftan-style pants, inspired by the Orientalist movement.

Amelia Bloomer, underwear advocate. Water-Cure Journal, vol. 12, Oct. 1851, 96.

One of the tactics employed by these reformers was the adoption of so-called "Turkish Trowsers" [sic]. The Orientalist movement, sparked by travel to and trade with the Middle East in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, provided much inspiration for "'Turkish trowsers,' first as a masquerade costume, later as a reform garment" (Fischer 1997, 116). Dress was one of several important concerns of these early feminists. It was believed that dress (specifically pants or trousers) that permitted a freer range of motion would also give women greater access to different activities and opportunities. Supporters of the dress reform movement drew attention to the fact that pants were already worn by many women in other parts of the world. The early feminists who adopted this dress relied on the writings of women such as Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, the wife of an English Ambassador who traveled to the East in the early eighteenth century and recorded her impressions. According to Gayle Fischer, "Mary Wortley Montague's [sic] travel writings enjoyed a new audience and popularity after Godey's published her letters to her sister in 1852" (Fischer note 12, 136-7). In one letter to her sister, written while in residence in Turkey in 1717, Lady Mary (as she was known) describes "the Turkish habit" that she had adopted as her wardrobe:

The first piece of my my dress is a pair of drawers, very full, that reach to my shoes and conceal the legs more modestly than your petticoats. They are of a thin, rose-colored damask brocaded with silver flowers. My shoes of white kid leather embroidered with gold. Over this hangs my smock of a fine white silk gauze edged with embroidery (Halsband 1986 [1970], 95).

In another letter to her sister, Lady Mary describes a visit to a Turkish bath, which reveals the inspiration for her change of wardrobe:

The lady that seemed the most considerable amongst them entreated me to sit by her and would fain have undressed me for the bath. I excused myself with some difficulty, they being all so earnest in persuading me. I was at last forced to open my skirt and show them my stays, which satisfied 'em very well, for I saw they believed I was so locked up in that machine that it was not in my own power to open it, which contrivance they attributed to my husband (Halsband, 91).

The pants or drawers that Lady Mary describes here became rather popular among some American reformers who considered them a liberating form of dress. But their popularity was short-lived. Shortly after the bloomer's debut in 1851 and Bloomer's endorsement of it in a magazine essay, the essay was reprinted in a number of newspapers around the U.S., awarding Ms. Bloomer much fame and infamy (Crane 2000, 112). Indeed, Bloomer stopped promoting her bloomers when she felt that the public's reaction to the garment began to overshadow her reputation as a writer (Ewing, 64).

Women's trousers, and the wide-spread use of bifurcated garments for women in general, did not re-surface on a wide scale until the end of the nineteenth century. What really launched the second wave of bifurcated garments into the limelight, not only as underwear but also as outerwear (in the form of trousers or split skirts) was something completely unrelated to fashion and politics—the invention of the bicycle. Although the bicycle was first invented by Karl von Drais in 1817, it did not gain widespread popularity until the late 1870s and early 1880s (Oddy 1996, 60). Even so, it was most popular among men. In fact, the technology of the first bicycles (specifically the placement of the cranks and pedals) was such that it was nearly impossible to ride the bicycle with a long skirt (Oddy, 61). In the 1890s bicycles for men and women emerged, while at the same time, trousers were also gaining popularity as a "sport" dress to accommodate women who rode both women's and men's bicycles (Oddy, 64-5).

Although both bloomers and bicycles were gaining popularity for women by the late nineteenth century, for some they were a dangerous combination. Many opposed both bicycling and bloomer-wearing on the bases of morality and a concern for the public good. For example, some opponents believed that by wearing "male dress" (i.e., bifurcated garments, later called "rational dress" or "alternative dress" by dress reform advocates) women would adopt other masculine traits, such as the desire for other women. In other words, there was a fear that such reform dress would transform women into "inverts" (to use Havelock Ellis's term) or lesbians—"the unforgivable sin" in the conservative, heterosexual circles of the Victorian era. Another concern was that bicycling, a sport that required one to leave the safe environs of one's home, would lead women to immodesty, promiscuity and insatiable sexual desire. As Clare S. Simpson notes,

The independent mobility of cyclists raised genuine alarm for their physical, if not moral, safety; simply put, the bicycle could easily take women to unsavoury places where they might be endangered physically (for example, by being attacked), or morally (for example, by being seduced into imprudent conduct with intemperate company). [. . .] Drawing on previous knowledge of the kinds of women who deliberately made themselves conspicuous in public, that is, prostitutes, there would be a strong tendency to conclude that cycling women were far from respectable: not exactly prostitutes, perhaps, but possibly women of loose morals or with an undeveloped sense of propriety. (Simpson 2001, 57and 58).

In addition, bicycling might not only lead women to dangerous, unsafe places in—gasp!—open, public spaces, it might also lead to masturbation (Simpson 2001, 66-7). The topic of masturbation as a consequence of bicycling received considerable debate in many medical journals in the late nineteenth century, a reflection, perhaps, on the prurient interests of some in the medical profession.

Much of the debate about morality, bicycles and "bloomerism" (a popular term at the time) centered around the morality of middle-class women. Ostensibly, the middle classes lacked the moral resolve and character of the upper classes, and could easily be swayed and impressed by the immoral actions of others. (Indeed, the need to "protect" the middle classes from vice extended well into the twentieth century. Penguin Books were sued by the British Government in the 1960 when they released D.H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterly's Lover in paperback See Nead 2002; Penguinputnam.com.) Thus, what gave bloomers and bicycles their most significant endorsement was their adoption by aristocrats. In the late 1890s, Queen Victoria was reported as riding a tricycle (another variation of the bicycle, made for adults) and giving her daughters bicycles to ride (Simpson, 64).

Questions of morality related to sport and dress continue today. The debate between skiing and snowboarding (both sports of the upper-middle and upper classes) is divided along the lines of morality and propriety. Among many, snowboarders are regarded as impolite and inconsiderate on the slopes. Women who pursue the sport are considered by some to be "unfeminine." By contrast, some regard skiing as elitist and old-fashioned. Even bicycling has its pecking order—cruiser bikes, complete with dropped crossbar, wide gel seats and handlebar bells are regarded by some as too feminine, whereas mountain bikes are serious, "masculine" vehicles, complete with seats to protect against testicular numbing. Consider the number of television commercials in which mountain bikers appear and you'll see that the majority are men, not women. Although we've come a long way from bloomerism, and the dress for men and women cyclists has changed dramatically in order to promote comfort, bicycling continues to be a highly gendered sport.

Notes:

(1) Elizabeth Ewing writes, "When the Englishwoman's Journal was set up in 1857 as the voice of the new movement, a prospective helper described how, on visiting its offices in Bloomsbury, she expected 'to see some dowdy old lady, and found herself in the midst of young women who were well dressed, beautiful and gay'" (63).

Bibliography:

-Crane, Diana. Fashion and Its Social Agendas: Class, Gender, and Identity in Clothing. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2000.

-Ewing, Elizabeth. Underwear: A History. New York: Theatre Arts, 1972.

------. Dress and Undress: A History of Women's Underwear. New York: Drama Book Specialists, 1978.

-Fischer, Gayle V. "'Pantalets' and 'Turkish Trowsers': Designing Freedom in the Mid-Nineteenth-Century United States." Feminist Studies 23, no. 1 (1997): 110-140.

-Garber, Marjorie. Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety. New York: Routledge, 1997 [1992].

-Halsband, Robert, ed. The Selected Letters of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. New York: Penguin Books, 1986 [1970].

-Horwood, Catherine. "'Girls Who Arouse Dangerous Passions': Women and Bathing, 1900-39." Women's History Review 9, no. 4 (2000): 653-673.

-Luck, Kate. "Trousers: Feminism in Nineteenth-Century America." In: The Gendered Object, edited by Pat Kirkham. Manchester; Manchester University Press, 1996: 141-152.

-Nead, Lynda. "From The Female Nude: Art, Obscenity and Sexuality." In The Visual Culture Reader, edited by Nicholas Mirzoeff. New York: Routledge 2001 [1998], 485-494.

-Oddy, Nicholas. "Bicycles." In: The Gendered Object, edited by Pat Kirkham. Manchester; Manchester University Press, 1996: 60-69.

-Penguinputnam.com. "Penguin Putnam Inc. - History." www.penguinputnam.com/static/packages/us/about/history.htm, 11 June 2002.

-Simpson, Clare S. "Respectable Identities: New Zealand Nineteenth-Century 'New Women' - on Bicycles!" The International Journal of the History of Sport 18, no. 2 (2001): 54-77.

June 13, 2002

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