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18th September 2023

Bloomers are back: A successful attempt at reclaiming feminist fashion?

An exploration of bloomers as a feminist symbol and their role in fashion today
Bloomers are back: A successful attempt at reclaiming feminist fashion?
Photo: US Government @ Raw Pexels

Feminism and fashion are intricately linked. Fashion has always been about self-expression and communication, and the evolution of women’s trends traces an interesting picture of feminist thought. From the suffragettes to the early twentieth-century fashion houses and their trends, the impact of women’s clothing on the development of feminist thought has been established. 

While researching fashion’s role in the shift in attitudes towards women’s rights, what struck me was what today’s trends could tell us about our own. Early feminist fashion seemed so direct and thorough in its purpose and commentary, what would an article written about today’s say? Nostalgia for a bygone era of creativity and a negative perception of our generation’s TikTok trends hazed my immediate view, particularly its interesting links to the neo/liberalised concept of feminism 18that accompanies Western fashion trends. However, despite these predilections, what can be drawn is very interesting. 

Bloomers are back

The past year has seen a resurgence of Victorian fashion trends. Whilst this appeals to those with daring and niche taste, bloomers, loafers, white linen, lace blouses, Victorian riding boots, poofy neck accessories, lace-trimmed socks, and Victorian-style hair accessories have infiltrated the ‘city-girl’ wardrobe with prowess.

The history of the bloomer starts with the suffragists in the nineteenth century. Early activist Amelia Bloomer pioneered the style, wearing full-skirted short dresses over full-length bloomer trousers so that they stuck out the end. The bloomer was the modified trouser, a step into the man’s world, and the dress reform inspired the questioning of gender roles and expression all over the world.

From this, the movement away from the classic corseted Victorian dress emerged, with loose waist-dresses following. Whilst the Victorian aesthetic crosses over with the Gen Z take on Coquette fashion, the bloomer and its various hyper-feminine accessories can, I think, be categorised differently. The bloomer represents the radical alternative to the restrictive hyper-feminine dress of a time where, cohesively, women’s mobility, comfort and rights were confined. Hence, as we opt to dress in a trend of soft, hyper-femininity we reference an era where women were using the same style to achieve the opposite.

But perhaps each era’s use of them symbolises the same thing – bloomers are feminists! Whether our regal reference to the Victorians is less explicit than the suffragettes to their patriarchal opponents, we are leaning into a style that embodied the early fight for women’s rights and one that was successful in its statement. Propelled by the 1890s cycling craze, the bicycle brought a practical revolution to women’s fashion, enabling movements away from the limitations of the domestic sphere and the clothes that represented it. The bloomer outfit thus became more accepted and, maintaining its powerful symbolism, made a mark of remarkable longevity. 

The Coquette

More generally, the Coquette aesthetic dominates Gen Z style right now. Infusing with TikTok’s ‘Ballet Core’ and Lana Del Ray’s romantic Southern-belle aesthetic, think all things white and muted neutrals and pinks. The most notable staples are milkmaid tops, ribbons, lace, bows, ruffles, chiffon, and mesh. The flat ballet pump and tops with ties around the torso are also prominent.

These pieces encapsulate the coquette, referring to a playful and flirtatious attitude, as they adhere to all aspects of traditional femininity. They’re soft, dainty, and girlish, yet our modern take revolves around the form; sheer mesh dresses and lace pieces revealing the underwear put a sexy and powerful spin on the otherwise girlish. 

Whilst these pieces epitomise the coquette aesthetic, what is interesting is the extent it has infiltrated other aesthetics. By this, I mean the wardrobes of those whose style wouldn’t typically be defined by the dainty hyper-feminine. The city-girl, cool-girl aesthetic has been hit with the same inclinations. Whilst it’s not high-knee socks and mesh ballet skirts, it’s plaits, a stripy hair bow, a mini gingham top or accessory, a poofy skirt and a chunky school-girl shoe. The baggy jeans, the Jort and the Air Force are effeminised with accessories strangely reminiscent of how we all dressed from ages three to twelve.

I’ve both overheard and had my own conversations with girlfriends laughing about the infantility of wearing bows, plaits, gingham, and frill. Why is it that in our early 20s, we suddenly want to re-incorporate girly innocence and hyper-femininity? It is infantilising? Do men like it because of this?

My mind goes to when Calvin Klein described 18-year-old Kate Moss’s ‘infantile quality’ and its ‘allure on men’, her child-like features and its implied innocence mixed with adult sexuality. Whilst my tone sounds critical, I’m not at all. I both subscribe to and love dressing in parts of all these trends. But when I thought about fashion’s intricate link to feminism and its power to influence discourse, I did become puzzled. 

Post-feminism, widely used to describe contradictory ideas in the feminist tradition, propels new forms of empowerment and individual choice as important. These feature consumer culture, fashion, hybridism, humour and (sexual) pleasure, and a renewed focus on the female body.

It was only once writing this article that I realised I was subscribing to a critique of this and a romanticised view of earlier feminists. Today’s trends are a restoration of girl power in many ways. To be confused by what they tell us about our feminism is to view them at face value for seemingly celebrating patriarchal norms – girls are girlie, girls should dress girlie, and girls should be soft and feminine.

But really, these trends represent a judgement-free pursuit of feminine beauty. They embrace new representations of sexuality and power and subvert outdated meanings of what it means to take a feminist stance. On a less multi-faceted level, perhaps what made us (not all of us, but some of us) feel pretty at age six and age twelve still makes us feel pretty. Maybe some of us just like wearing bows in our hair and that’s nice. Or perhaps it’s this indulgence and embracement of the hyper-feminine that feels powerful in itself, no matter how it’s perceived. 

Words by Lara Hedge

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