The ‘new female costume’: The dress reform controversy in colonial Australia

Ana Stevenson reflects on Australian press responses to fashion and dress reform, specifically the circulation of the ‘bloomer’ outfit, during the 1850s.

Le Journal des Demoiselles, Plate No. 8, 1857. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

In the twenty-first century, there are few opportunities to understand what it might have been like to wear nineteenth-century fashionable dress. ‘From ballooning crinolines’ to ‘dresses that swept the ground in the Early Victorian Era,’ the modes of yesteryear often seem indecipherable, Ethel Buzacott wisely observed in Rockhampton’s Morning Bulletin in 1936.

Across Europe, the United States, and much of the British empire during the nineteenth century, the fashionable dress of privileged women was characterised by a tight bodice and an expansive skirt. The French style of tightly-laced corset became stylish in the 1840s, making women’s clothing more and more physically constraining. By the 1850s, a bell-shaped skirt with the widest circumference ever popularised in women’s fashions became ubiquitous.

Until the invention of the crinoline in 1856, women had to wear layer upon layer of petticoat to facilitate this silhouette. A wire cage which imitated the fullness of petticoats, the crinoline became popular as it released women from the weight of voluminous underskirts. Ladies’ magazines celebrated the elegance and femininity of the fashionable ideal, yet such an ideal was only really practicable for privileged, leisured ladies.

Today, bridal fashion alone might offer the prospect of venturing into the era of petticoats and hooped skirts.

For my own marriage in July 2017 my friend Sheilagh O’Brien, a fellow historian and skilled dressmaker, made me a beautiful, intricate bridal gown. The dress was gorgeous – elegant and colourful, with a distinctive silhouette and rippling skirts. Fittingly, our wedding celebration took place at the Queensland Women’s History Association’s historic Miegunyah House in Bowen Hills.

My wedding dress was also reminiscent of the bell-shaped skirts which so aggrieved nineteenth-century dress reformers. It truly provided insight into the daily fashion-related travails of women in the mid-nineteenth century.

Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages, overlooking the Brisbane CBD, July 2017. Photograph by Phil Austin.

Wearing such a dress feels graceful and satisfyingly indulgent. But as much as the overall experience was immensely fun, it was also exhausting. Getting dressed required the assistance of two people, who bound the gown about me using hooks, sashes, and buttons. The fitted bodice did not have a corset, yet it pressed on my stomach to the point where it dictated exactly how much I could eat. I felt poised – in that I simply couldn’t slouch – but neither could I do anything particularly useful.

When sitting, I was a flurry of tulle. When walking, I couldn’t be sure where the skirt’s circumference ended. On the evening of our registry office ceremony in the Brisbane CBD, I worried about catching a spark as I passed many outdoor winter heaters – thus recalling the women who tragically died after their crinolines became engulfed by flames when passing an open fireplace.

Though the beauty of such a garment remains incontrovertible, its difficulties and impracticalities cannot be debated. The tension between what’s in vogue and clothing which is practical and comfortable preoccupied the women’s rights reforms of the 1850s – and this tension continues today.


In January 1852, the Moreton Bay Courier informed residents of the Brisbane region about ‘three young and beautiful ladies’ who had reportedly ‘astonished’ the residents strolling around London’s Brompton Square ‘by appearing in the full Bloomer costume.’ The next day, two other young women were reported to have appeared in Piccadilly sporting the ‘new female costume lately introduced in America,’ at once distributing flyers to encourage the ‘women of England to throw off the yoke of their unfeeling and brutal oppressors, and adopt an attire better suited to the dignity of the equal man.’

‘Amelia Bloomer,
Originator of the New Dress,’ Illustrated London News, September 27, 1851. Image via Victorian Web.

Who were these audacious young women? And why were their ‘bloomers’ considered provocative enough to be reported halfway around the world?

The press reports which reached Moreton Bay in 1852 referred to the controversial emergence of dress reformers in the United States and Britain the previous year. This new fashion presented a public spectacle. Apprehension was directed towards any woman who boldly stepped out into the streets exhibiting this new and controversial mode. In 1851, media commentary spread from New York State to the imperial metropole of London, then all the way to Moreton Bay. Hereafter, the dress reform controversy would rage in the Australian press throughout the decade.

Amelia Bloomer first began sporting this outfit after seeing her friend Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s cousin Elizabeth Smith Miller wearing a variation thereupon in the small town of Seneca Falls, New York. It featured a shortened skirt worn over trousers which came in at the ankle, together a high neckline, simple sleeves, and no corset. A temperance reformer, Bloomer promoted the outfit in The Lily during 1851, the women’s rights periodical she had edited since 1849. Bloomer became the public face of the ‘new female costume’ and debated the shortcomings of fashionable dress with many male editors – and the occasional female editor – in press outlets across the United States.

Some women embraced the bloomers, but most did not. Although dress reformers adopted the outfit for its comfort and modesty, the press focused on its supposed immorality. When worn by women, bifurcated pantaloons were considered masculine, while the short overskirt was perceived to be indecent. This was complicated by the fact that, of the few skilled trades and business opportunities open to women, dressmaking was one. Either way, women could not win. Not only did cartoonists and other humourists satirise the voluminous skirts enabled by the crinoline; they also spoofed the bloomer and its wearers.

The bloomers may have been ridiculed, yet their cultural significance cannot be underestimated. The outfit was celebrated, often sarcastically, in popular song during the 1850s. Sheet music publishers in cities such as New York and London embraced the bloomer craze, as did the Sydney-based publishers of ‘The New Bloomer Polka’ (c. 1850s). Ultimately, press commentary about the outfit and its wearers circulated throughout the United States and the British empire more rapidly – and probably more widely – than the bloomer outfit itself.

Maria Catherine Leith-Hay wearing a large ruffled skirt and short-waisted jacket, c. 1860-1870. Image via John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland.

This did not mean that women who wore the bloomers failed to travel. The outfit’s notoriety meant press interest developed as soon as the outfit appeared in Britain the very same year. Facilitated by periodicals such as the Illustrated London News, the bloomers generated growing controversy. It was discussed all across Britain, as far afield as Manchester in northern England, Belfast in Ireland, and Aberdeen in Scotland. London’s Punch, the famous satirical periodical which later inspired magazines of the same name in Melbourne and Adelaide, was one of many popular publications to gleefully lambast the bloomers.

Caroline Dexter, who would later follow her husband to the Victorian goldfields, took to the public platform to lecture about dress reform. Often ridiculed by audiences and journalists alike, she persisted nevertheless. Dexter travelled across London, Scotland, and the English provinces to advocate dress reform. In 1851, press reports about her exploits could be found in newspapers across Britain.

The infamy the bloomers gained soon piqued the attention of Australia’s colonial press. Many nineteenth-century Australian news items were syndicated from newspapers elsewhere in the British empire. Established press networks facilitated the communication of sensationalistic accounts about dress reform during the 1850s. But the reports that appeared in Australia did not reflect the positive arguments of dress reformers such as Bloomer or Dexter, who focused on women’s health and their need for greater ease of movement. The tenor of the bloomer-related news that reached Australia was steeped in ridicule.

This was true of the sensationalistic press commentary for readers in Moreton Bay. ‘Bloomerism is by no means making way in London,’ the Moreton Bay Courier boldly asserted in March 1852:

A ball, in favour of the new costume, was got up in the Hanover Square Rooms, but was, the papers say, a disgraceful failure, altogether ungenteel, and shabby. … The ‘things’ which Bloomers wear in imitation of ‘masculine unmentionables,’ are called ‘pettiloons,’ and ‘pantalettes’.

In Britain and Australia alike, the press mediated public outrage about how the bloomers were perceived to challenge gender-appropriate behaviours. Thus encouraged, private individuals followed suit. A letter to the editor, penned by ‘Brummell,’ expressed ‘virtuous indignation’ against the spectre of ‘encroaching Bloomerism in Brisbane,’ concluding, ‘Come whence it may, the fashion is horrid – very!’

It would have been more accurate to say that, in 1852, ‘Bloomerism’ was by no means making way in Australia.

On Christmas Day, the Moreton Bay Courier attempted to play devil’s advocate by reprinting a short letter from London’s Daily News. Under the heading ‘AUDI ALTERAM PARTEM,’ a Latin phrase meaning listen to the other side, appeared a letter ‘signed “Amelia Bloomer”’:

‘May I be allowed, in your columns, to ask why the British public are so horrified at the idea of women dressing in trousers, seeing that they have for many years tolerated a number of men (from North of the Tweed) in wearing petticoats – and shockingly short petticoats too?’

When Scottish men wore kilts, the letter wryly observed, they were not seen as anything less than men. So why couldn’t the same courtesy be extended to women, if and when they chose to wear trousers? Unaccompanied by editorial comment, such a letter was unlikely to have been interpreted as a legitimate argument on behalf of dress reform.

S.T. Gill, Digger’s wedding in Melbourne: Victorian Gold Fields 1852-3 (1869). Image via State Library of Victoria.

After Caroline Dexter arrived in Australia in 1854, she soon began delivering women’s rights lectures in Sydney and Melbourne. Personally, Dexter was much maligned in the colonial press. The Sydney Morning Herald, which found her ‘sufficiently feminine to be charmingly illogical,’ facetiously described her bloomers as ‘br–ches’.

In January 1855, having now borne years of public insult, Dexter wrote a letter to the editor in an attempt to correct some of the slanderous comments of a Mrs. Brougham. However, editors instead continued to facilitate ridicule, publishing a poem by ‘Quill’ in March 1855:

… All these [ornaments] were given
To womankind, by bounteous heaven;
Yet still the creatures, not content
To be man’s woe and ornament,
But fired with mad, profane ambition,
They, further to the men’s perdition;
And envious of our higher state,
Would all the Man appropriate;
Aspire to judgment, wit, and sense,
And even to reason make pretence —
Usurp our qualities — the witches! —
And eke our habits and our breeches!

The controversy Dexter experienced did not abate. Repeatedly called a ‘wicked wag,’ editors constantly questioned her logic. In 1857, she responded in Melbourne’s Age to the ‘vile and cowardly slander’ perpetuated by the press. But the criticism Dexter experienced in London and the Australian colonies was far from unique. It was characteristic of the way American and British women dress reformers were treated by the press.

Dr. Mary Walker, Medal of Honor (c. 1866). HD-SN-99-01875, Mathew Brady Collection. Image via United States Army.

Ironically, few Australian women are known to have actually donned the bloomers during the 1850s. Henrietta Dugdale is one of the only Australian suffragists thought to have worn a variation upon the outfit. But this did not mean the bloomers were not a subject for conjecture. My Experiences in Australia: Being Recollections of a Visit to the Australian Colonies in 1856-7, By a Lady (1860) half-heartedly surmised that the ‘terrible quagmires’ associated with colonial conditions offered the perfect opportunity for women to wear bloomers.

Of the few women who initially embraced dress reform, many succumbed to the pressure of public opinion and abandoned the outfit by the late 1850s. ‘No knight could have borne arms in defence of a Bloomer,’ proclaimed the Australian Home Companion and Band of Hope Journal in 1860. Some continued to wear variations upon the bloomer in health spas or to combat frontier conditions, yet this did not gain the same public visibility or social notoriety as women in the city.

Hereafter, the spectacle of encountering a bloomer-wearing woman generated international interest because of its rarity.

By the 1860s, press attention began to coalesce around a new figure of fascination: Dr. Mary Walker. A pioneering American doctor who served as a surgeon during the Civil War (1861-1865), Walker controversially sported a bloomer adaptation that mirrored the military uniform of other male medics. In the years following the Civil War, her continued preference for such alternative attire gained press attention far and wide.

As the Rockhampton Bulletin and Central Queensland Advertiser reported in 1867, Dr. Mary Walker’s ‘new variety of the Bloomer’ was ‘very ugly, dwarfing the figure’ and ‘out of accord with a woman’s natural, and therefore beautiful, outline.’ Woman’s ‘first function’ was ‘to be mothers,’ this central Queensland journalist continued; to this end, he preferred high-waisted regency fashions over the bloomers’ silhouette. Incidentally, ten years previous, similar reflections had been made in a satirical cartoon published in the New York-based Harper’s Weekly.

Harper’s Weekly, 11 July 1857. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

But Australian journalists had very likely never had the opportunity to see Walker’s particular take on the bloomer costume – or possibly any other bloomer-wearing woman at all. These commentators were nonetheless willing to debate something which they, personally, knew nothing. When the Queenslander reported about Walker presenting a lecture ‘on the subject of woman’s dress, its inconveniences and evils’ in 1866, the journalist predictably quipped that it was the ‘evils’ of Walker’s own ‘peculiar costume’ – not the demands of fashionable dress – that were most lamentable.

By the time bloomer-wearing women became nearly completely absent in public during the 1860s, the Australian press embraced an ironic new tendency to memorialise the original bloomers. Back in 1856, the Moreton Bay Courier had asserted that ‘Mrs. Bloomer is now a blighted and forgotten being.’ In the absence of women who actually sported the bloomers, however, journalists treated the idea of dress reform with more moderation. Soon after the Rockhampton Bulletin and the Queenslander denounced Walker’s outfits in 1867, other newspapers began to celebrate Bloomer herself.

Wilfully forgetting the earlier tendency to ridicule dress reformers, journalists now feted Bloomer’s innovation and re-characterised her as a harmless older woman. As the Brisbane Courier reported in 1868, Amelia Bloomer was ‘now a middle-aged lady of pleasing manners and appearance’ who apparently demonstrated ‘little trace of the strong-mindedness generally ascribed to such reformers.’ But the supposed threat these women presented did not altogether dissipate from public memory. Indeed, only three years later, in 1871, the same newspaper would describe the ‘ridiculously fantastic proposals of the Bloomer and Dr. Mary Walker reformers.’

Studio portrait of a young woman, 1880s. B 70903/3. Image via State Library of South Australia.

Again and again, journalists disseminated disparaging opinions about women to the Australian public. Women who challenged traditional expressions of femininity – for example, through failing to embrace fashionable dress or motherhood – were deemed dangerous and denigrated in the press.

How these debates played out was the result of expanding global newspaper networks. The spectre of internationally-acclaimed trend transgressors such as Amelia Bloomer, followed by Caroline Dexter and Dr. Mary Walker, provided the basis for maligning the many anonymous London women whose fashion exploits graced the pages of newspapers in Australia and across the globe.


The debate about dress reform in colonial Australia can be understood as a discussion through which men – and sometimes even women – publicly voiced their unease about the spectre of women’s rights. As the stylish skirt circumference began to reach its peak during the 1850s, it is understandable that some intrepid women decided to abandon their skirts and rail against the demands of fashionable dress. The press, in turn, did not support such a transformation, but rather cultivated prejudicial perspectives towards dress reform and ridiculed women for the public’s amusement.

The press’s ridicule of nineteenth-century dress reformers remains poignant even in the twenty-first century. As recently as the early 2010s, press commentary about Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s clothing became a site through which public unease about a woman wielding political power was voiced. During the nineteenth century, fifty years before Australian women of European descent were enfranchised federally, Caroline Dexter was was subject to vitriolic personal attacks based on the arbitrary signifier of her clothing.


See the full article: Ana Stevenson, ‘“Bloomers” and the British World: Dress Reform in Transatlantic and Antipodean Print Culture, 1851-1950,’ Cultural & Social History 14, no. 5 (2017): 621-646.


AnaStevensonAna Stevenson is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the International Studies Group at the University of the Free State, South Africa in the field of women and transnational social movements. Her research has been published or is forthcoming in journals such as Lilith: A Feminist History Journal, HumanityWomen’s History Review, Camera Obscura, and the Pacific Historical Review. Other work can be read at The Conversation, the Queensland Historical Atlas, and the British Association for American Studies’ award-winning blog, U.S. Studies Online. Ana is one of the Managing Editors of VIDA blog.

Follow Ana on Twitter @DrAnaStevenson.

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