What are you wearing right now? Probably nothing that requires a corset or a long, restrictive skirt, right? You have Elizabeth Smith Miller, among other women’s rights activists, to thank for this change. Miller was an advocate of the American Women’s Rights Movement who spearheaded the shift from long and heavy skirts to bloomers, with their lighter and far more practical knee-length skirts.
In her description of this invention, found in a collection of the New York Public Library, Miller said, “I am asked to give a statement of my experience in adopting, wearing, and abandoning the short skirt. In the spring of 1851, while spending many hours at work in the garden, I became so thoroughly disgusted with the long skirt, that the dissatisfaction – the growth of years – suddenly ripened into the decision that this shackle should no longer be endured. The resolution was at once put into practice. Turkish trousers to the ankle with a skirt reaching some four inches below the knee, were substituted for the heavy, untidy and exasperating old garment.”
She continued, saying, “Soon after making this change, I went to Seneca Falls to visit my cousin Mrs. [Elizabeth Cady] Stanton. She had so long deplored with me our common misery in the toils of this crippling fashion, that this means of escape was hailed with joy and she at once joined me in wearing the new costume. Mrs. [Amelia] Bloomer, a friend and neighbor of Mrs. Stanton, then adopted the dress, and as she was editing a paper in which she advocated it [The Lily], the dress was christened with her name.”
The transition to this new fashion was not always smooth, Miller noted, but her husband and father – Gerrit Smith, an advocate of abolition and women’s rights – always supported her decisions. She said, “I wore the short dress and trousers for many years, my husband, being at all times and in all places, my staunch supporter. My father also gave the dress his full approval, and I was also blessed by the tonic of Mrs. Stanton’s inspiring words: ‘The question is no longer how do you look, but woman, how do you feel?’”
Together, Miller and Stanton pioneered a new way for women to look at fashion. They brought forward the revolutionary concept that women could be themselves and look good in clothing that was both practical and comfortable. Nowadays, many women are much freer to wear whatever they want, but we must not forget those who have paved the way for us.
As Miller, a woman who would be proud to see the changes women have achieved today, said, “All hail to the day when we shall have a reasonable and beautiful dress that shall encourage exercises on the road and in the field – that shall leave us the free use of our limbs – that shall help and not hinder, our perfect development.”
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