Bloomers were baggy underpants for women, usually made of cotton, which gathered at the waist and below at the knees. Because they were worn under long, slightly loose A-line skirts and dresses, the leggings also could hang on the legs in an ungathered fashion, falling halfway between the knees and the ankles. They were worn by women during the early decades of the twentieth century but went out of style when skirt lengths became shorter at the end of the 1910s.
The term bloomer is derived from a nineteenth-century garment worn by American women's rights activist Amelia Jenks Bloomer (1818–1894). Bloomer wanted women to wear clothing that promoted freedom of movement, so she appeared in public in knee-length, loose-fitting pants. During her lifetime, most people made fun of Bloomer's progressive fashion statement. When bloomers were introduced to mainstream women as a form of comfortable undergarment in the late 1800s, the reception at first was
Eventually, women were attracted to the comfort and warmth of bloomers. As women became more active in sports, and as they ventured from the home into the workforce, they also were drawn to the practicality of bloomers. As skirts became less full and flowed more in tune with the natural shape of a woman, items such as bloomers served as modest undergarments that moved along with the curves of the lower body. By the early 1900s bloomers had become common undergarments for women.
At this time bloomers also were worn as outer garments by outgoing, sporting women. They were mass manufactured in durable heavy cotton for schoolgirls to wear while playing sports in school gymnasiums. Outerwear bloomers particularly were scoffed at when worn by women who were enjoying the controversial new sport of bicycling. At that time the idea of a woman wearing a split-legged pants-type garment in public was considered by many to be indecent.
Bloomers were made of various fabrics. Working women and schoolgirls wore lightweight cotton bloomers in warm weather and heavier flannel bloomers in the cold. Bloomers for the wealthier classes were made of white or pastel silk; some were hand-laced or embroidered. In the days before rubberized fabrics such as elastic, the gatherings at the waist and knees were accomplished by tying ribbons or fastening buttons to the garment. The knee borders of bloomers were often given decorative trim such as lace or crocheted fabric through which colorful ribbons ran. To make using the bathroom easier some styles of bloomers were split at the crotch, while others had back seat flaps that were fastened to the main garment with buttons.
Along with bloomers, women wore several other undergarments during this period. On their upper bodies they wore chemises, loose-fitting undershirts of soft cotton or silk. Atop the bloomers and chemise came the corset, which covered the breasts down to the hips. By 1908 cumbersome corsets were being replaced by less restrictive brassieres that supported only the breasts.
Cunnington, C. Willett, and Phyllis Cunnington. The History of Underclothes. New York: Gordon Press, 1979.