Everybody knows how excited Amelia Bloomer got when she saw her neighbor Elizabeth Cady Stanton wearing an outfit she’d copied from a cousin–a knee-length skirt with Turkish-style pants underneath. The clothing allowed more freedom of movement than the residents of Seneca Falls in the 1850s were accustomed to, and it came to symbolize the suffragette movement. In 1851 Bloomer promoted the ensemble in her newspaper, Lily, and wore it while campaigning for women’s rights. Large crowds gawked at the outfit, which would be named for her. “Everybody went berserk,” fashion historian Lynda A. Bender says. “It was not so much she was wearing pants–it seemed to be challenging roles men and women play in society.” But Stanton and other feminists abandoned the look, fearing it was too much of a distraction from their cause.

Bender notes that the meaning and importance of women’s clothing can be seen in commonplace phrases: the term “loose woman” originally referred to a lady who did not wear a corset; a “straitlaced” woman did. But the corsets, bustles, long petticoats, pantaloons, and chemises 19th-century women were required to wear made for a long and heavy costume. Toward the end of the century Bloomer’s outfit came to be accepted as more women took up athletic activities like bicycling and tennis. Many women also felt they were freeing their minds along with their bodies by abandoning the restrictive garments.

Bender became interested in the history of clothing while working in the costume shop of a youth theater group in suburban Cleveland, where she grew up. By the time she was 16, she was making costumes for professional theater companies, and she grew to appreciate the symbolic value of clothing. She recalls that while attending Bradley University in the late 1960s she and other female students persuaded university officials to abolish dormitory curfews for women. As part of their strategy, the women wore dresses and skirts to avoid the perception they were trying to act like men. “We wanted to be taken seriously as women who had something to say,” she says.

Bender went on to teach costume design at the University of Santa Clara and Northwestern University; currently she runs her own arts consulting firm and teaches at the International Academy of Merchandising and Design.

Controversies over proper female attire still occasionally erupt. Last month the valedictorian of Oak Park-River Forest High School was barred from her graduation because she refused to wear a dress. “When taboos are broken, we get nervous,” says Bender. “Even at the end of the 20th century, it’s hard for us not to confuse gender and clothing.”

Bender will give a slide lecture, “Bloomers, Health Nuts, and Bra Burners: Dress Reform in America,” Thursday at 6:30 at the Glessner House Museum, 1800 S. Prairie. Admission is $5. For more information call 312-326-1480. –Michael Marsh

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Lynda A. Bender photo by J.B. Spector.