Started Jan 2011
Shortly after Costume College in August 2010, a group of us started talking about what we were going to make for the following year to wear. One of our Guild members suggested Bloomer costumes, and four of us decided to go with that. So we collected a few photos of fashion prints for some ideas, and I even came across a color print of one in an antique shop in Las Vegas that I bought. It had originally come out of a fashion magazine but I was unable to tell which one. The illustration is by Nathaniel Currier in 1851.
At the time I really liked the colors on these two fashion prints with the dark pink or maroon, and the more I looked at them, I realized I could use pretty much any historical bodice and skirt pattern I had and just shorten the skirt.
Shortly after that I “inherited” a large stash of Civil War costume patterns from a friend, Mary Swanson, who was downsizing her collection. In it I found a Past Patterns issue for an 1851 Bloomer costume. It had been produced for the San Diego Historical Society, based on an extant gown in their collection that was a gift of the Mary Marston Estate in 1987. Most of us in San Diego are very familiar with the Marston House in Balboa Park, and I’ve even attended fund raising teas in costume there.I was really excited about finding this but the original envelope was missing, and there was only a line drawing of the bodice in the pattern directions. So I couldn’t really tell what it looked like.
I contacted a friend who is a docent at the Marston House, Gabe Selek, who hooked me up with Tammie Bennett at the SDHC Costume Collection Department. She told me the pattern had been made off the costume in their collection by Past Patterns in 1997 and they no longer had a pattern. She said the pattern probably had been sold in an “attic sale”. She said the gown was very fragile but had been conserved. The only photo she was able to find was one taken while the costume was on tour at the MET. It wasn’t a very good photo as it was taken during the set-up there. The costume had been researched by Amy Simon, former SDHC Curator of Costumes & Textiles, and she had also supervised the pattern project.
I was thrilled that now I knew what color the extant gown was and I decided I wanted to copy it. I also decided at that moment that I wanted to propose a class on Amelia Bloomer and her Shocking Bloomers at the 2011 Costume College. I hoped to have the outfit done in time for it, and my three friends hoped to have theirs done also. Since Amelia was a strong believer in women’s rights and temperance, and last year some of the College attendees had started a suffragist costume theme, I thought this would fit right in since they planned to continue it this year.
I searched on the internet for the pattern but found nothing. Nothing! It’s like it didn’t even exist. But the pattern had the PP copyright stamp on it. So I contacted Saundra Altman, owner of Past Patterns, and told her what I had. She said the pattern had been made especially for the SDHS and was never issued to the public. In fact she hadn’t even written the directions for the Bloomer pants. I told her what I was attempting to do, and she got excited about pulling out the pattern and finishing it to put on the market. We’re hoping it’s in time for my class. She thinks she has photos she took of the extant gown and is still looking for all the documentation. But she said she’d send the pdf instructions for the Bloomers so I could finish it. I told her I’d also like to have the patterns for sale in my class, either by bringing them from her, or maybe she could come herself. No decision has been made on that at this point.
My friend who gave me the pattern had already cut her size out from the center of all the pattern pieces, so I painstakingly taped them all back together again, which took an hour. Then I traced a copy off of it in my size, which took another hour. I had all the pattern pieces: the jacket, the short skirt, and the pants.
I asked Tammie at SDHS more questions about the costume, and was told it was green silk taffeta, and most of the parts that didn’t show were made of linen and polished cotton. This even included a short portion of the sleeve under the sleeve jockeys, and the entire portion of the Bloomers that were under the skirt. They said the outfit had been dated by Edward Maeder, former Curator of Costumes & Textiles at LACMA. He believed the gown was made from the dates 1848-1850, and converted to the Bloomers about 1850-1851. He had determined that the outfit originally had been a full length gown and had been cut down, and the portion of the skirt cut off was used to make the Bloomers. Tammie mentioned a quote from an article in the California History magazine, 1982, “Bloomerism Comes to California”, that in a letter it said the aunt of Anna Marston was seen wearing them when she arrived in California in 1851.
I lucked out in that I already had 7 yards of a avocado green silk taffeta very similar to the extant gown, and started cutting out the pattern in a muslin to fit me. The directions are fairly simple but detailed, and so far I haven’t had any problems understanding it; until I got to the sleeves. It had so many pieces and some seemed repetitious of each other, until I realized half of the sleeve on the top was separate because that portion was cut from a different fabric, like polished cotton, and not the fashion fabric. It has a sleeve jockey that covers that portion and you wouldn’t see under it. Ingenious! It saves a piece of silk. Similarly the top part of the Bloomer pants is made also with polished cotton, and the bottom of the silk taffeta, since the top would be covered by the overskirt. It was the same as other period sewing techniques of just doing ruffles on a skirt in the fashion fabric, and the skirt base was a cotton. I decided since I had plenty of my silk taffeta there was no need to be conservative, so I cut the sleeve as one piece without doing a cotton cap. This will probably be the only change I’ll be doing from the original.
When I started sewing the bodice together I noticed the back was all one piece. There weren’t any side back seams, or darts. And when I put it on it hung straight down my back and was kind of sticking out at the bottom. Right off this felt wrong since all the other patterns I’ve used of this period do have some kind of seam in the back to fit it closer to me. So now I’m waiting to see if either Saundra has better photos showing the back, or if Tammie is able to get me an appointment to come and see the extant gown. Things move slowly.
On March 2, I had an appointment with Tammie to view the Bloomer outfit, and hopefully take photos of it. I’m so excited I’m already dressed and ready to go two hours before my appointment. The offices of the San Diego Historical Center are in Balboa Park, downstairs of the Model Railroad Museum and Museum of Photographic Arts.
My visit to the Costume Collection was both exciting and surprising. The archival room is full of tall shelves containing many many boxes of preserved clothing and accessories. There were photos on the front of each box showing what was in them, and there are some beautiful ones. It’s a shame no one can see them.
Tammie had the Bloomer gown spread out on the table with tissue paper. There were rolls of tissue and archival paper between folds of fabric and supporting the body of the gown. There was no visible tears in the fabric but she said it was weak.
I was first surprised by the color. The photo that I’d been sent showed it to be a grasshopper green. In actuality it’s a dark avocado or hunter green color. But when photographed, it shows lighter. The gown is silk taffeta with a linen lining, and glazed cotton was used for the top part of the Bloomers. Without touching the glazed cotton, it looked like crinkled leather.
I was really interested in seeing the darts and any boning used, and if there were any seams or darts on the back of the bodice, since the pattern didn’t show any. Without them, it didn’t fit my back very well. Other than what appeared to be a pull in the fabric, there are no seams in the back. The two front darts had boning, and one side of the front closure had a bone that only went to under the bust line. There weren’t any on the side seams.
It’s a very narrow back, and overall it looks like the wearer was under 5 ft 4” tall. So she was a slender small woman. There was a lot of piecing on the sleeve arms and even in the front bodice next to the darts.
The trimming on the gown was a graduating narrow pleat from the neckline down the front closure where it narrowed out. There were also pleats on the sleeve jockey and the cuffs. There was piping on the sleeve cap and shoulder seam. It closed in front with hooks and eyes.
Tammie said they have no documentation that the outfit was ever worn. It was originally a full length gown, and the skirt was cut off short to 26”, and that portion was used to make the bottom half of the Bloomers. The top half was made of glazed cotton. As Tammie was showing me the Bloomers I noticed the front opening of the pants with buttons but when she opened them I had the surprise of my eyes. These were split drawers! It was two separate legs and they were attached to a waistband. I had expected something like men’s pants and closed at the crotch. I started wondering if this was the norm because all the photos and fashion prints I’ve seen never show the pants themselves. They were always covered by a skirt. If this is what they were, I can imagine how shocking these were because these ladies were wearing their underpinnings exposed.
I’ve been searching online for any other extant Bloomer costumes in collections but so far haven’t come across any. This leads me to believe that SDHC may have the only one in a collection.
Over the last month I started construction of the bodice. I flatlined it with 100% cotton. It’s fairly easy to construct, and while doing it, I learned how to do piping along the seam lines of the armhole, neckline, & bottom of the bodice. The self trim is a narrow ruching down the front closure on both sides, which narrows in at the bottom, around the sleeve jockey and the sleeve cuff. It was made by turning a 1/4 inch under on both sides of the strip of fabric, then a gathering stitch on the sides. It was gathered and in photos, it looks like pleating.
At this time I only have the pattern directions for the bodice, and as I completed it, I realized it also didn’t include the skirt directions, which is attached to the bodice. The skirt has a pocket on one side, and a watch pocket on the other. The pattern pieces show where these go but not really how they were done. The pocket was made with cotton but had two strips of the silk taffeta to face it with. I ended up just using my own knowledge and figured out ways to sew them in; aka, “fudging it”. I sewed the 7 skirt panels together, and now I get to start the cartridge pleating on it.
For the last two weeks I sent out emails to different historical societies and museum collections trying to find extant Bloomer gowns. I finally started getting some responses from the area around Seneca Falls, NY, which is where the women’s movement and dress reform was focused. Those contacts have been referring me to other places when they can, and am still waiting for responses to those. One contact, a Professor Emerita of John Hopkins University, Pamela Poulin, Ph. D., has studied Amelia Bloomer extensively, and even portrayed her in costume. Those costumes were loaned to her, and she doesn’t have any photos of her in them. But she highly recommended I should go to the museum there, and I could even stay with her while I was visiting. She also told me to purchase copies of The Lily that Amelia published that had descriptions of the Bloomer gowns, and how to make them. I sent an email off to the Seneca Falls history museum immediately.