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  • 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.

    Mrs Amelia Bloomer Engraving of Mrs Amelia Bloomer, from the daguerreotype by T. W. Brown. (Water-Cure Journal 12, October 1851, p. 96) (Wearing the Trousers, Amberley Publishing)

    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.

    Caroline Dexter Caroline Dexter, daguerreotype. (Art in Australia 15 February 1931) (Wearing the Trousers, Amberley Publishing)

    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.

    Lady Harberton Lady Harberton riding in the rational dress costume she didn’t like and replaced. (Lady Cyclist 21 January 1897, courtesy of cycling historian Sheila Hanlon) (Wearing the Trousers, Amberley Publishing)

    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.

  • The Rag Trade: The People Who Made Our Clothes by Pam Inder

    The Rag Trade 1 ‘Fashions for October’ in Cassell’s Magazine, 1891. The figure on the left wears the sort of tailored costume Adolph Kushner would have helped make. The figure on the right wears the softer sort of garments Mrs Pattinson would have made for Mrs Fenton, and they both wear elaborate hats like the one described in Mrs Fenton’s letter. (c. The Rag Trade, Amberley Publishing)

    For much of my working life I was a museum curator working with collections of ‘applied arts’ – ceramics, furniture, silver, costume and textiles, glass, objects d’art. My particular interest was in costume and I became aware that when we exhibited a piece of ceramics or furniture, the label gave details of the maker or decorator – ‘Royal Doulton, decorated by Florence Barlow’, ‘Chippendale chair, made for the Earl of Little-Snoddington-under-the-Wold’ and so on. However, a dress was likely to be described simply as ‘Silk day dress, c. 1835’ or ‘Wedding dress worn by Elizabeth Smith on her marriage to Henry Robinson in January, 1872’ – in other words, we knew virtually nothing about the people who made the garments. As a needlewoman myself, I was aware that the makers of some of the items in our collections were extremely skilled – just as skilled as the furniture makers and potters whose names we knew. I decided to do something about it.

    In 2000 I submitted a thesis to De Montfort University for which I received a PhD. It was entitled ‘English provincial dressmakers in the 19th century’ (and, for those of you who don’t get out enough, it is available through the British Library).

    I’m interested in people: in people’s lives, interests, families, triumphs and tragedies as well as their work. In the course of my research I found some wonderful sources of information about dressmakers. Record Offices up and down the country are stuffed with fascinating documents if only we go and look. With the PhD out of the way I wondered whether some of these resources would make a book – and the result is ‘The Rag Trade: The People Who Made Our Clothes’, eleven single-chapter biographies of workers in the clothing trades. Here are some tasters:

    The dressmaker and the widow

    ‘Could you send me another bottle of whiskey in a little box like last time and perhaps it would do with cloak so that Mrs P need only have one parcel and a little 6d needle book …’

    Old Mrs Fenton wrote to her dressmaker at regular intervals. She was a widow, a nervous lady who believed herself to be an invalid, and she hated travelling. Even the short distance into Ulverston where she had been born and where her good friend, Mrs Pattinson the dressmaker, lived. It was so much easier to order goods on approval, and Mrs Pattinson was always so obliging about buying her whisky – for medicinal purposes of course – packing it in corset boxes and wrapping it in bundles of clothes. She was sure the carrier never suspected for a moment what he was delivering.

    The Rag Trade 2 Sketches of country folk by William Johnstone White, showing the sort of garments John Evens made for his poorer clients. (c. The Rag Trade, Amberley Publishing)

    The smuggling tailor

    John Evens had a flourishing business in the little village of Holbeton in Devon. He was a tailor, making suits and ‘everlasting breeches’ and smockfrocks for his neighbours, as well as bed curtains, tarpaulin covers for their carts, banners for the local pageant – in fact anything they asked him for. He also farmed the family smallholding, tended his orchards of cider apples and acted as ‘parish constable’ – a sort of unpaid policeman. But he had another, much less respectable source of income. John Evens was a ‘venturer’ organising local gangs of smugglers to bring tubs of spirits and parcels of tobacco across the Channel from France. He spent many a night on the clifftops watching for incoming vessels and organising the gangs of men who unloaded them. He borrowed carts from his neighbours and wrapped rags round their wheels and round the horses’ hooves to muffle the sound they would make in the narrow, twisting lanes of south-west Devon. It was young Mr Evens who took orders, delivered goods to buyers – and had his fair share of skirmishes and near misses with the excise men.

    The Rag Trade 3 Ida Allen at the door of her lace shop in the 1930s. (Courtesy of Norman Lambert, The Rag Trade, Amberley Publishing)

    Lacemaker to royalty

    Ida Allen was no stranger to the royals. Princes and princesses visited her little shop in Beer, bought handkerchiefs and veils of Honiton lace and placed orders for more. They sent precious items to her for cleaning and repair and were, it would appear, very happy with the results. What they did not know was that Ida’s house had no water supply. The valuable laces were washed in water from the water butt out back – once the algae and dead leaves were cleaned out. She used lethal combinations of cleaning fluids – neat gin or chlorine bleach and salt. But worst of all, her house was infested by rats, attracted by the rotting meat in the orchard next door in which her neighbour grew the maggots he sold to fishermen.

    Learn more about these 19th century characters and many more in:


    Pam Inder's new book The Rag Trade: The People Who Made Our Clothes is available for purchase now.

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