When you think of the women’s suffrage movement what are some images that typically come to mind? Women marching down the street holding signs and wearing sashes or over exaggerated political cartoons depicting both pro- and anti-suffrage sentiments are usually what people think of. However, there was another method used to spread the message of supporting women’s rights; art. Art in the form of fashion design and music were methods that were utilized during the women’s suffrage movement of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Bloomer Waltz

The Bloomer Waltz, 1851, William Dressler, paper, L: 13 x W: 9.75 in. Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown, New York, Gift of Harry Shaw Newman Gallery, N0001.1945.

Bloomers were employed as a symbol for women’s rights in the 1850s when Amelia Bloomer wrote an article about the clothes after seeing her friend Elizabeth Cady Stanton wear them. [1] While bloomers were not meant to be a sign of protest or nonconformity, they soon became a symbol of the women’s rights movement. However, there were many negative views on bloomers as some people believed they were unflattering for women to wear and due to their similarity to trousers, women who wore bloomers were seen as threats to men and their role in society. [2] Many forms of media portrayed bloomers in a negative light, but one advocate of the movement was music. While there was still music being written that was critical of bloomers, there were also those composers who wrote music that supported the fashion statement.

 

Music was used for dances known as bloomer balls, which were dances women were supposed to attend wearing bloomers. In the sheet music “The Bloomer Waltz” by William Dressler the piece was meant to be used during a dance that was supportive of the bloomer outfit, as opposed to some dances that were put on in order to critique and diminish women who wore bloomers. Dressler’s support can be seen in both the music itself by the way it was written, and also in the cover art of the piece. Musically, Dressler’s piece was written as a waltz that was meant to be performed during an event so people could dance while it was being played. Many musical techniques such as key, time signature, and dynamics are used throughout the piece to give it a lively feel. The cover art also portrays a woman wearing bloomers looking off into the distance. As opposed to looking caricatured and unattractive, the woman looks realistic showing that the piece was not making fun of bloomers or those women who chose to wear them.

While bloomers were a short lived fashion, as was the music written for bloomer balls, the impact both made was impactful. Both men and women were able to use forms of art to make a statement and challenge the norms society had for women.

-Allison Costantino

[1] Antonia Petrash, More than Petticoats: Remarkable New York Women (Guilford, CT: The Globe Pequot Press, 2002), 51.

[2] Gayle V. Fischer, Pantaloons and Power: A Nineteenth-Century Dress Reform in the United States (Kent, OH: Kent University Press, 2001), 91