Several years ago I presented a paper to my regional Costume Society of America on my research on women hikers and their wearing of knickerbockers (knickers). Sometimes when a person (in this case, me) gets too wrapped up in her own topic, she forgets that others might not be as well acquainted with terms that denote a specific item. In this case, I was asked the question, “What’s the difference between knickers and bloomers?”
Later experience has taught me that for some reason, people tend to equate nineteenth and early twentieth century pants for women with bloomers. And the truth is, that most women who were wearing pants of any type before 1920 were wearing bloomers. They were the accepted garment for women’s sports and exercise attire. Some women were wearing them for bicycling. And for a brief moment in the mid nineteenth century, women dress reformers wore long bloomers beneath shorter dresses and coats.
The difference between knickerbockers and bloomers is chiefly in the volume of the fabric making up the legs. Bloomers are very full, while knickers are more fitted. Also, knickers end just below the knee and are finished with a buttoning band. Bloomers can range from above the knee to the ankle, and are often gathered at the hem with elastic.
But what about trousers, pants that fall straight from the hips to the ankles? While not common, yes, women in the nineteenth century did sometimes wear trousers, which was considered to be a male garment. I’ve seen quite a few photos of women on farms and ranches wearing trousers while doing work. The great photo above shows three women hikers wearing trousers.
But what about a woman in the nineteenth century who lived her life in trousers?
Yes, there were some. Above is the famous Mary Edwards Walker, physician and fashion rebel. This photo of her sold in February for $9375. I came across it while reading the latest issue of a well-known magazine for antiques lovers. What made me stop and think was the caption of the photo which twice pointed out that Dr. Walker was wearing bloomers in the photo. I hope you can tell from my descriptions of bloomers, knickers, and trousers that she is actually wearing trousers, not bloomers.
Should the writer of the article known the difference between trousers and bloomers? Does it matter?
The Swann’s auction site describes Walker’s garment as ” pantaloons or bloomers.” Pantaloons seems to be a fairly accurate term, though many people associate the word with Little Bo Peep. Personally, I would describe the garment as trousers, though Walker herself referred to them as pants.
Unafraid of controversy, in 1897 she wrote, “I am the original new woman . . . Why, before Lucy Stone, Mrs. Bloomer, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony were—before they were, I am. In the early ’40’s, when they began their work in dress reform, I was already wearing pants . . . I have made it possible for the bicycle girl to wear the abbreviated skirt, and I have prepared the way for the girl in knickerbockers.” Swanns Catalog
When accused of wearing men’s clothing, Walker famously replied that she was wearing her own clothes, not those of a man.