Who wears the pants?

Josephine descended the stairs at her regular speed, one hand on the banister, the other on her dress so she didn’t stumble.

‘Seriously, just for once, pay attention to your clothing. You take the Rational Dress Movement to the extreme with that bland, brown gown,’ Claire said. Josephine smiled. At least she wasn’t wearing pants. She agreed with the Rational Movement. Pants would be much more practical.

Excerpt from: To Charm a Bluestocking.


Established in London in 1881 by Lady Florence Harberton and Emily King, the Rational Dress Society based their inspiration on the deeds and thoughts of Mrs Bloomer. An American, Mrs Bloomer (yes, that’s her real name) wrote a feminist publication called ‘The Lily’. In one article, she suggested that the voluminous heavy skirts of the current fashions should be replaced by trousers similar to those seen on Turkish women. Described as ‘alternative bi-furcated ensembles’, the trousers were baggy with frill cuffs and worn with a simple knee length over-skirt. Mrs Bloomer later abandoned her trousers in 1857 when the new-fangled crinoline became fashionable, and she declared the crinoline more comfortable compared to the weight of petticoats.  By the time of her death in 1895, bloomer trousers had gained in popularity as being suitable for cycling wear.

The Rational Dress Society took Mrs Bloomer’s idea further. The society described their purpose as:

“The Rational Dress Society protests against the introduction of any fashion in dress that either deforms the figure, impedes the movements of the body, or in any way tends to injure the health. It protests against the wearing of tightly-fitting corsets; of high-heeled shoes; of heavily-weighted skirts, as rendering healthy exercise almost impossible; and of all tie down cloaks or other garments impeding on the movements of the arms. It protests against crinolines or crinolettes of any kind as ugly and deforming….[It] requires all to be dressed healthily, comfortably, and beautifully, to seek what conduces to birth, comfort and beauty in our dress as a duty to ourselves and each other.” They also stated that “The maximum weight of underclothing (without shoes), approved of by the Rational Dress Society, does not exceed seven pounds.” That’s just over three kilograms for those of us living today. Although seven pounds might seem like a lot, most Victorian dresses and petticoats weighed more than double that amount.

The Rational Dress Society didn’t just protest the weight of clothes, they also had issues with restrictive corsets. They wanted women to be healthy, even athletic, and able to breath properly. The dangers of corsets tend to be exaggerated today, but the Rational Dress Society was still ahead of their time with regards to women’s health and safety.

The crinoline, preferred by Mrs Bloomer, caused many deaths for those wearing the garment. The fabrics were often highly flammable, as they were dosed in aniline dyes. And the huge volume of the crinoline skirt caused all sorts of problems with the wearers suffering dreadful deaths as their skirts became hooked on objects. There were several instances of women being dragged to their death under carriages when their skirts became entangled. The papers were also full of reports of women attempting to join the healthy cycling crazy, but having accidents due to the cumbersome skirts. However, most women didn’t want to risk the ridicule that came with wearing Bloomer style trouser while cycling. Instead they wore breaches under their skirt, or just their skirts, and risked having an accident instead.

Of course, the ‘rationals’ were subject to ridicule; and famously in 1898 Lady Harberton was refused entry to the Hautboy Hotel because she was wearing trousers. The hotel was sued by the Cyclists Touring Club on her behalf, but lost the case with the judge essentially saying that hoteliers had the right to refuse entry to anyone based on their attire. The Cheltenham Chronicle reported in April 1899 that Lady Harberton had “a great deal of both physical and moral courage even to mention the word bloomers.

Image: Lady Harberton in her bloomers. Image courtesy of the Send and Ripley History Society.

The majority of men and women opposed rational dress, typically for reasons relating to the perceived lack of attractiveness of the proposed alternatives to heavy skirts and tight corsets. Fashion and appearance were more important than health. But not for all; in 1884 in Europe, Dr Gustav Jaeger of the University of Stuttgart developed a scientific theory regarding healthy dress. His theory was that pure animal fibres prevented the retention of noxious exhalations of the body (farting). Therefore people should wear wool. Whether he owned a sheep farm has been lost to history. He published a book called Dr Jaeger’s Sanitary Woollen System and sold the brand to an Englishman who grew it into a large clothing retail chain, Jaegers.

By the 1930s, pants suits for women were becoming more frequent in haut couture; and of course, nowadays to wear pants is nothing special. It is thanks to Lady Harberton and Emily King’s Rational Dress Society that we can wear pants without daily ridicule.

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