Community, Cottage Grove

Out with the corsets, in the Bloomers in Cottage Grove

CHRONICLE ARCHIVE PHOTO- Women march in their “Bloomers” at a 2018 Bohemia Mining Days parade.

When I was in junior high school girls were not allowed to wear pants. When it got really cold, this restriction was lifted for the duration of the cold snap, then slammed back into place as soon as it warmed up a bit. School dress codes were under attack by the time I headed to high school, but the memory reminds me of how much things have changed while remaining the same.

In looking over some family photos with my grandmother, the faded picture of my grandfather standing barefoot with the rest of his siblings circa 1900 caught my eye. When asking who was who and hearing the familiar names of my great aunts and uncles there was one I had never heard of before.

“That’s Zula, she burned to death,” my grandmother said nonchalantly. In the days of long dresses that women were required to wear in the interest of modesty and fashion, this was far from an isolated incident for women in daily contact with fire used for cooking and laundry.

Other hazards included being injured or killed by being pulled into machinery while working 10-plus hour days at factory jobs in a time before OSHA. Flowing fabric had a way of getting into the works.

While it may seem second nature today that one can choose, within reason, about anything they want to wear, societal pressure in the past even forced men to put a hat on before going out into the world.

As restrictive as those fashion modes were, what was more egregious was the fact that women were denied many basic rights now taken for granted today. Most glaring was the denial of the right to vote and the lack of financial control over their property by women.

These rights were grudgingly given up to women, but not without a colossal struggle. The right to vote for women nationally finally made it into the U.S. Constitution with the 19th Amendment, ratified in 1920. This capped over 70 years of concentrated effort by women’s suffrage advocates.

Oregon, along with a number of western states, beat the rest of the nation to the punch, but it was no cakewalk here either. In the Beaver State, thanks in part to the Oregon system of initiative and referendum, women’s suffrage was brought to the ballot box a record six times before finally passing in 1912. Since the right to vote for women was often associated with the temperance movement, the liquor industry spent heavily in fighting this effort. The argument, “If you give them the right to vote, they will dry up the state,” convinced many men to keep the vote to themselves before finally being worn down.

But persistence finally paid off as did evolving leadership, which grasped the value of publicity via handbills and advertising. As important as the right to vote was, more practical in day-to-day life was the ability for women to choose to dress in a safer and healthier way.

Enter Amelia Bloomer. The article of women’s clothing that bears the name of “bloomers” was originally a derisive form of mockery aimed at early women’s rights and temperance activists, Amelia Bloomer, and any woman daring to challenge the status quo. A pioneer on many fronts, she married law student Dexter Bloomer, who encouraged her activism and invited her to write for his newspaper and even gave up drinking in view of her dedication to the temperance movement.  

In 1848 she attended the Seneca Falls Convention, one of the first gatherings devoted to women’s rights. The following year, she and the local temperance society began publishing “The Lily,” originally dedicated to their cause but later expanding to include recipes, moralist tracts, and women’s suffrage items. Bloomer served as editor but later was solely responsible for its contents when the society lost interest. This was the first newspaper published for and by women.

One of the causes that Bloomer advocated in her paper was a more comfortable, practical form of dress. From one of her columns comes this snippet: “The costume of women should be suited to her wants and necessities. It should conduce at once to her health, comfort, and usefulness; and, while it should not fail also to conduce to her personal adornment, it should make that end of secondary importance.”

While she did not invent the fashion that bears her name, she helped popularize it. Adapted from women’s trousers from the Middle East and Central Asia, the loose pants gathered at the ankle and worn with a short dress was adopted by Elizabeth Smith Miller and it spread through other temperance advocates. Bloomer seized on the clothing item in 1851 and began vigorously promoting the fashion in her paper and wearing it herself.  

When one of her articles about this clothing was picked up by the New York Tribune, it became part of the national conversation. As the clothing article became more popular it was dubbed The Bloomer Costume or “Bloomers.” Unfortunately male society wasn’t ready for such an innovation and bloomers were ridiculed in the press and women wearing them faced harassment on the streets.

Lucy Stone, famous orator for women’s rights, wore bloomers on her many cross-country speaking tours and in the rough-and-tumble west the clothing item was immediately accepted and became popular. Nurses in the Civil War wore bloomers as they worked in field hospitals. With the introduction of the bicycle, bloomers were the perfect fit for women who took to two wheels.

Although Amelia Bloomer went back to more traditional clothing when crinoline was introduced, she remained a life-long advocate for women’s suffrage, temperance, and equality.

To mark the historic struggle for women’s rights that occurred during the time that Bohemia Mining Days seeks to recall, the Bloomer parade was added to the festival in 2007. This year there will be not one but two chances to celebrate the right to be equal, Thursday at 6 p.m and on Friday at 4 p.m.

For both parades, gather at the tennis courts in Coiner Park/Bohemia City 30 minutes before step-off time. Christina Hester, the first female Bohemia city deputy, will lead the Bloomers parade and protect the marchers from stick-in-the-mud men seeking to keep women in their corsets, hoop skirts, and petticoats without the vote. 

Bloomers are available for sale at the Bohemia Gold Mining Museum, special festival hours; Thursday 1-6 p.m. and Friday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. 

Put on your bloomers and come gather and march to remember the hard-won fight for the right to wear what you want, and, oh yes, to vote!

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