Wearing the Trousers: Fashion, Freedom and the Rise of the Modern Woman by Don Chapman
As the first book to trace the history of the women’s rights movement through the prism of women’s dress, Wearing the Trousers: Fashion, Freedom and the Rise of the Modern Woman makes a fascinating curtain-raiser to the celebrations next year to mark the centenary of women gaining the vote.
Women’s trousers, of course, have been everyday wear in the orient for centuries. But by promoting Turkish trousers in her American women’s rights and temperance journal, The Lily, in 1851 Mrs. Amelia Bloomer ignited a firestorm in the west. Central to the shock-horror of the idea was the notion, firmly entrenched in Victorian minds, that man was the dominant species in God’s creation, woman his inferior helpmate. The very thought of the latter adopting trousers was a threat to his authority.
In an age when no journalist bothered his or her head about plagiarism the story went viral, rapidly crossed the Atlantic and within a few months was titillating and shocking readers in Australia and New Zealand. There was no television or Facebook to publicise what the press christened bloomers, no Twitter to provoke Likes or Dislikes. It was the entertainment industry that went into overdrive. Hack playwrights scribbled farces featuring the costume, Madame Tussauds featured waxworks wearing it, prostitutes and barmaids adopted it to attract customers, and Staffordshire Potteries even produced a figurine of Mrs. Bloomer sporting a cigar.
I first became interested in what later became known as the rational dress movement — rational being the Victoria buzzword for any idea right-minded people should adopt — in 1971. At the height of the hot pant craze an Oxford Mail reader came to me with his grandparents’ papers relating to the Western Rational Dress Club. It made three stories for the daily column I wrote for the paper, primarily because in 1897 the grandfather, the eminent Victorian geologist, Sydney Savory Buckman, helped organise a rational dress cycle ride from London to Oxford. The date he and his fellow-organiser chose it was blowing a gale and raining in torrents: the last ladies arrived for an 8.30pm dinner at 3.30am the next morning!
Really I said the subject deserved a book and at last I’ve written it. At its heart it is the story of two unsung heroines of the women’s rights movement, neither of them militant feminists, both of them passionate champions of women’s liberation. The first was Caroline Dexter, an obscure but surprisingly well- connected Nottingham woman. In the autumn of 1851 she toured the length and breadth of Britain drawing audiences of up to 4,000 to her lectures promoting the virtues of trousers, inveighing against constricting corsets and voluminous crinolines.
After she emigrated to Australia in 1854 she declared: ‘I do not trouble myself about what “woman’s rights” may be... I have lamented and fear that I shall still have to lament the… evils resulting from “woman’s wrongs”… Women have a higher destiny than a mere maker of puddings and sewer on of buttons.’
The craze was comparatively short-lived. Critics blamed its demise on the notorious Bloomer Ball in Hanover Square, London, in the autumn of 1851 when nearly all the few women who turned up were of questionable character and some of the disappointed males resorted to fisticuffs. Or, like Mrs. Dexter, they attributed its decline to the numerous actresses and other cheapjack entertainers who jumped on the bandwagon.
But male chauvinism persisted and Bloomerism became a stick to beat the growing army of forward-thinking females campaigning for equal rights. Away from the public gaze women taking the water cure continued to wear trousers. In occupations like coal-sorting, fishing and agriculture they remained more serviceable than skirts. As more women took to sport the braver of them realised it improved their mobility whether they were playing tennis, climbing mountains or simply taking a walk.
The second woman to promote rational dress was Lady Harberton. Sensitive to the ridicule Bloomerism had provoked, in 1880 she launched a campaign for what she called the divided skirt —NOT trousers! She insisted: ‘Women are far too much afraid of what others may say and think. They do not like to go to a theatre or concert alone in case people should think it odd; but if everyone did it there would be nothing odd about it.’
In 1881 she became president of the Rational Dress Society, which in due course boasted its own quarterly magazine, the Rational Dress Society’s Gazette, edited by Mrs Oscar Wilde. That lasted only six issues and in the 1890s the Society itself fizzled out as a result of the ridicule its members attracted, but thanks to my reader’s grandfather and the publicity the ill-fated cycle ride to Oxford attracted a year later the movement revived, the Rational Dress League came into being and soon had its own journal, the Rational Dress Gazette.
Sydney Buckman’s interest in rational dress was personal. It enabled his wife and four daughters to accompany him and his four sons from their home in Cheltenham on cycling expeditions in search of fossils in the Cotswolds. That work brought few rewards. His far-sighted ideas were too hard for most of the geological establishment to swallow. He earned most of his income from freelance journalism. Hence his enthusiastic promotion of the Western Rational Dress Club, of which Lady Harberton became president.
She was a surprisingly late convert to cycling, the activity that added a whole new dimension to the women’s rights and rational dress movements. She was already in her fifties when she first took to the wheel in 1895. She rapidly became an energetic cyclist and in October 1898 provoked the case for which her name would go down to history by cycling from London to Ockham in Surrey and demanding lunch at the Hautboy Hotel.
The landlady refused to serve her in rationals in the coffee room and insisted she eat in the bar. ‘Of course it was physically possible for me to have lunched [there],’ she told Buckman. ‘So one might in a pigsty!’ The Cyclists Touring Club, which had an agreement with the hotel, took up the case and the following May sued the landlady for failing to provide victuals to a traveller. Martha Jane Sprague got backing from The Road, a journal that was worried about the impact the bicycle was having on the horse trade. Its lawyers were a great deal savvier than the CTC’s, arguing that the landlady had not refused to serve Lady H lunch, only done so in a room she did not like.
Such was the worldwide interest the case excited, it was the only thing most journalists remembered when they came to write her obituary. A pity. She was active in a great many spheres from funeral reform to women’s health and in particular deserves greater recognition for her lifelong interest in the women’s rights movement. She rubbed shoulders with everyone involved from Barbara Bodichon to the Pankhurst family, led one of their deputations to parliament, campaigned tirelessly throughout her adult life for votes for women and, exasperated with the Liberal Establishment’s failure to act, late in life withdrew her backing from every other body and devoted her giving to the Suffragette cause.
She died in 1911 as a result of her doctors’ failure to diagnose a fracture to her arm that became septic. Had she lived she would have welcomed women taking to trousers in 1914 to aid the war effort. She would have thought it only right the Government should reward them by granting women over 30 the vote in 1918, but one senses she would not have been completely happy until they achieved parity with men ten years later. As for rational dress, the last article she wrote appeared in the vegetarian journal, the Herald of Health, a month after her death championing what she now called the Syrian skirt.
By a bitter irony Syria is one of the countries where the Taliban and Islamic State are now banning women from wearing trousers, insisting they swap the garments they have worn for centuries for the shapeless abaya.
Don Chapman's new book Wearing the Trousers: Fashion, Freedom and the Rise of the Modern Woman is available for purchase now.