The New Woman

The bloomer fashion was, perhaps, the first sartorial symptom that a new ideal, The New Woman, had arrived on the American scene. However, as I have retold that story in Fresh Lipstick, the costume had more fashionability and other connotations than are accorded in the mythical narrative usually recounted in feminist history. The fashion plate here is from 1851; its very appearance suggests that something other than radical Puritanism was, at least at first, associated with this new fashion.

Indeed, to the modern eye, these women look very much like the ideal of the Steel-Engraving Lady.

From the beginning, however, the bloomer costume had other, more risqué associations. These two 19th century French “pinups,” which were clearly intended to represent “women of ill repute” demonstrate the connection between a bloomer-like garment and French “immorality.”

Furthermore, the dress reform movement was not exclusively associated with bloomers, but with a variety of simpler, more “sensible” forms, which continued to be offered—through ads in the fashion magazines—for the rest of the century.

As the New Woman progressed toward the 20th century, she was consistently associated with bloomers, primarily because of their use for bicycling, a raging fad in the waning years of the 1800s.

In this cartoon, we see the continuing jabs at the bloomer-wearing, bicycle-riding woman for not being “a lady.” By this time, however, such an accusation had lost much of its bite, not the least because the petted daughters of High Society were the very ones most frequently associated with bloomers, bikes, and other “Progressive” behaviors, such as attending the elite Seven Sisters colleges for women.

Though universities in the rest of the country (for instance, the land grant schools in the Midwest) had accepted women for years already, the Eastern press was so obsessed with the Ivy League (much as they still are now) that the newest styles on those campuses were endowed with immediate prestige by respected magazines. Furthermore, even Vogue, the toughest arbiter of all, was offering patterns for bloomers,

running articles in favor of bicycling and other sports, and offering a variety of “dos and don’ts” for dressing and accessorizing the new sportswear. Not coincidentally, the ads in Vogue showed bloomered women with notably more frequency than happens in the other women’s books of the time.

It is interesting, from the viewpoint of the early 21st century, that the New Woman is consistently associated also with smoking.

In the 1970s. Ms. magazine created a rather large flap by refusing to run Virginia Slims advertising, arguing that the representation of feminism connected to smoking was like linking Civil Rights to cotton-picking. Sadly, the Ms. Staff appears not to have done their homework. The popular press of the turn of the century shows incontrovertible evidence of the connection. In addition, some of the actions taken by established feminists to push the bounds of conventional behavior for women did, in fact, involve smoking. Emma Goldman is one who participated in such behavior. And, by the 1920s, smoking, along with drinking and dancing, were intimately linked with the figure of the flapper, who was also known as the New Woman of her time. The Pond’s ad from 1971 also shows this connection .

I think it’s important to note that, in this case, the advertiser has been associated with the women’s movement far longer than many contemporary institutions (including, for example, NOW or Ms.). From the Ponds’ Creams ads discussed in Fresh Lipstick to Pond’s campaign during and after World War II (see the missing chapter on this website) to this Second Wave incarnation of the New Woman, Ponds can lay claim to a long, honorable tradition supporting equal rights for women. This, of course, would be a suggestion that would horrify today’s academic feminists, who insist that no corporation could in any way be legitimately associated with feminism.

From the beginning, one of the main concerns about the bicycle was the seat. It is a little amusing, I think, to see how uncomfortable our forebears were with the notion of anything going between a woman’s legs, whether it is fabric (as in bloomers) or a bicycle seat. But both the vehicle and the costume were as much a subject for pornographers as they were for feminists.

As female athletics became more popular, community leaders often went to great lengths to keep oglers away from games. Thus, the prurient interest in women in athletic clothes continued for several decades. These “spicy” postcards are from my own collection and are dated about 1911.