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Bloomers are knee-length or ankle length pants that were inspired by the harem pants of countries like Syria. They were also in part inspired by women’s undergarments called pantalettes, or sometimes just pants or drawers, that were worn underneath petticoats by adult women and by young girls. You often hear pantalettes, first developed in the early 1800s, referred to as bloomers in the modern day, but this usage occurs long after the development of pantalettes. You can also distinguish bloomers from pantalettes in early usage because of the tapered legs; bloomers have a tapered leg, while pantalettes have a wide leg construction.
Elizabeth Smith Miller developed true bloomers in the mid 19th century. Amelia Bloomer, an American women’s rights activist, popularized them. Bloomers were an attempt to provide “decent” pants options for women who wanted the ability to engage in more rigorous activities where skirts might be a hindrance. However, many Victorians did not embrace the style, and wearers of the pants were nicknamed “bloomers,” after Amelia’s fashion choices. Today we use bloomers to refer to the pants, and not to the women who wore them.
Though bloomers were not well received by most, they did have practical uses. By the late 19th century, women on athletic teams often wore a knee length pair of bloomers with black stockings. They might make up part of a woman’s swimming costume. In context of wearing them for certain sports, bloomers, or sometimes knickers were considered acceptable. They were certainly more comfortable for activities like bike riding.
Fashion designer Paul Poiret tried to bring bloomers into style in the early 20th century, but he was simply a bit too early in his design. The style didn’t catch on for daily wear. By the late 1920s, women did start to wear pants with relative regularity and even longer shorts had begun to make their way into women’s fashions. Bloomers then simply became an undergarment worn under skirts, or perhaps even worn under pants. Additionally, girls participating in school athletic programs often wore bloomers that buckled under the knee, and this tradition would continue into the 1940s and 1950s in schools, where shorts were thought indecent.
With skirts getting shorter, the long pantalettes or bloomers of the 1800s were no longer popular. Shorter pantalettes could be worn under pants and shirts. You can still find occasional nylon or silk pantalettes in lingerie sections. The original pantalettes were usually made of linen, or cotton. Bloomers on the other hand were often made of wool or silk/wool blends.