Clothes Make the Woman: William H. Walker’s Critiques of 1890s Fashion and Feminism in Life Editorial Cartoons

In the 1850s, women’s rights activists attempted to popularize a new fashion, known as “bloomers” because of one of its best-known advocates, Amelia Bloomer. The summer of 1851 saw scores of women wearing these loose-fitting pants inspired by Turkish pantaloons. Suffragettes were some of the most passionate enthusiasts of the new style, but soon felt that the attention being paid to their clothing was detracting from their message, and by the end of the Civil War, bloomers had fallen completely out of fashion.

The 1890s brought a revival of bloomers after the Woman’s Congress of the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893 featured young women modeling various versions of them. When Annie “Londonderry” Cohen Kopchovsky wore bloomers for a bicycle trip around the world (1894-1895), female cyclists almost universally adopted some form of pants. Bicycling for Ladies (1896), for example, advised cycling in a shirtwaist and knickerbockers, and asserted that “Bicycling requires the same freedom of movement that swimming does, and the dress must not hamper or hinder.” As this suggests, there were changes in what women wore in water, too. Bathing costumes were becoming less voluminous and more practical, with the French style of the 1870s (a simple top and trousers) radically changing beachwear on this side of the Atlantic. By the 1890s more sporty suits made swimming, rather than merely dipping into the water or paddling, a real possibility.

Untitled cartoon showing a woman with a bicycle talking with a woman in a wet swimming costume, 1895. William H. Walker Cartoon Collection (MC068), Box 1.

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