As it were

Some found bloomers immodest

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Streetcar Electra began service in 1895 illuminated by 80 electric light bulbs. This photo is from about 1900.

For those of us "of a certain age," it is not too hard to remember simply how strikingly dress styles have changed over the course of the past several decades. When I was growing up in rural Ohio in the years after World War II, gentlemen wore hats a lot more than they do today.

Some were formal hats, some were ball caps. And there were even stores in larger cities that sold nothing but hats. Of course ladies wore hats as well -- usually accompanied by a pair of gloves. Some of the gloves were short and white. Others reached all the way to the elbow and matched the color of milady's dress. Most men were clean shaven and most ladies wore their hair in fashionable hair styles.

Then the social revolution of the 1960s took America by storm. In relatively short order, both men and women began to let their hair grow longer and hemlines became considerably shorter. And the hat store became a vanishing landmark.

In the years after the 1960s, changes in dress style have been less sudden and tumultuous. But they have happened all the same. In gentlemen's clothes, the width of neckties became quite narrow and then quite wide and then settled on a medium width. Collars became longer and then shorter and then longer again. And it seems they now seem to be getting shorter yet again. Similarly the size of the lapels on men's suits have gotten wider and narrower and then wider again.

Today we live in a closely connected consumer society where changes in style and dress become widely known quite quickly. And we are frequently inundated with advertisements in every form of media urging us to buy the "latest thing."

In an earlier time in central Ohio -- a century or two ago --most people did not live in cities or even in small towns. They lived on the land and supported themselves with the produce and livestock they raised on farms of greater or lesser size. In those rather self-reliant and self-sufficient societies, most people only had a few basic changes of clothing and perhaps only one formal suit of clothes to be worn to church, to weddings and wakes and perhaps to their own funeral.

In this sort of society, one might think that sudden changes in fashion might not be all that common.

And of course, one would be wrong.

The pioneer settlers of Columbus had relatively simple apparel. But as towns like the new capital city of Columbus became more established, the demand arose for more fashionable clothing. Silk dresses began to replace the "linsey-woolsey" of earlier days. One source noted that "Even as early as 1811 (one year before Columbus was founded), a gentleman hurrying home from the milliners with a bonnet for his wife told his friend he was afraid to stop to speak to him for fear the style might change before he reached home."

Alfred Lee's History of Columbus noted that "in 1855, great hooped skirts were among the contrivances adopted by the fair sex for keeping men at a distance. They were not always effectual in this respect, albeit fashionable, and well adapted to magnify the territorial importance, if not the charm of the wearer. "

In the 1850s the practice of lacing a lady's waist as tightly and narrowly as possible was well-established. It was a method so widespread that a whole new class of "hygienic instructors" began to lecture on the "evils" of such lacing.

And then there were "bloomers." In 1851, Amelia Bloomer of Mount Vernon was editing a paper called "The Lily" which promoted "dress reform." Her preferred new form of dress consisted of a quite short skirt complemented by a form of pantaloons. On July 4, 1851, 31 women paraded through downtown Battle Creek, Mich., in their bloomers -- much to the chagrin of many local residents who consider the costume indecent. In short order, a number of young women began to wear the "Bloomer Costume" in Columbus as well. One local paper was not amused and observed that the costume looked "inconvenient and undignified and was not consistent with the modest apparel enjoyed by the Apostles."

But in time Bloomers came to be accepted. A later newspaper story reported, "We have heard many complaints of the ladies of the Capital City for their backwardness in adopting this new and decided improvement in dress; but their backwardness is over, their false delicacy overcome. ... On the whole we cannot for the life of us imagine what immodesty the most fastidious can possibly see in a dress which appeared to us so simple and beautiful."

As one might suspect, as soon as the "Bloomer Costume," became accepted it also became passe and whole new styles of dress for both men and women became the order of the day.

Was there ever any doubt?

Local historian and author Ed Lentz writes the As it were column for ThisWeek News.