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Clothes Make the Woman: William H. Walker’s Critiques of 1890s Fashion and Feminism in Life Editorial Cartoons

In the 1850s, women’s rights activists attempted to popularize a new fashion, known as “bloomers” because of one of its best-known advocates, Amelia Bloomer. The summer of 1851 saw scores of women wearing these loose-fitting pants inspired by Turkish pantaloons. Suffragettes were some of the most passionate enthusiasts of the new style, but soon felt that the attention being paid to their clothing was detracting from their message, and by the end of the Civil War, bloomers had fallen completely out of fashion.

The 1890s brought a revival of bloomers after the Woman’s Congress of the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893 featured young women modeling various versions of them. When Annie “Londonderry” Cohen Kopchovsky wore bloomers for a bicycle trip around the world (1894-1895), female cyclists almost universally adopted some form of pants. Bicycling for Ladies (1896), for example, advised cycling in a shirtwaist and knickerbockers, and asserted that “Bicycling requires the same freedom of movement that swimming does, and the dress must not hamper or hinder.” As this suggests, there were changes in what women wore in water, too. Bathing costumes were becoming less voluminous and more practical, with the French style of the 1870s (a simple top and trousers) radically changing beachwear on this side of the Atlantic. By the 1890s more sporty suits made swimming, rather than merely dipping into the water or paddling, a real possibility.

Untitled cartoon showing a woman with a bicycle talking with a woman in a wet swimming costume, 1895. William H. Walker Cartoon Collection (MC068), Box 1.

A variety of reforms in women’s fashions began to converge. As women enrolled in college, they also engaged in sports and began wearing athletic clothing that allowed greater freedom of movement. New options were available even if a woman still wore a skirt. Suits styled similarly to men’s, with blazers and more practical A-line skirts, brought a more businesslike appearance for the working woman as well as being easier to work in. Those daring women who adopted pants as everyday wear tended to be social activists, pushing for women’s suffrage, education, and employment opportunities. The “New Woman” had arrived, and she seemed to be everywhere.

As Debra A. Shattuck has observed in Bloomer Girls, one person’s progress was another person’s cause for mourning. “For every New Woman who proudly enrolled in college, earned her credentials as a doctor or lawyer, wheeled freely about the countryside on her bicycle, or marked her ballot in school board and state elections, there were men and women watching with alarm—convinced that New Women were unraveling the fabric of society and threatening civilization itself.”

“The Navy,” 1896. William H. Walker Cartoon Collection (MC068), Box 45.

William H. Walker, an editorial cartoonist for Life during this era, shows us this sense of alarm about New Women’s ambitions. Walker was a trailblazer in his field, setting the stage for future cartoonists with his combination of serious politics and humor. Satire, a more intellectual form of comedy, was one way Life attempted to appeal to a higher socioeconomic class than other humor magazines popular at the time. However, during this same period, we can see similar themes appear in one of Life’s British counterparts. Choices about clothing were a cause for both anxiety and ridicule in Punch as well. To wear pants, as Tracy J. R. Collins has written, was to the Punch cartoonist an indication of “maverick gender identity.” The clothing, not the physical self, was the signifier of the threat posed by New Women undermining the gender binary. Pants offered opportunities for physical activities previously reserved for men, while the practicality of bloomers as the ideal cycling outfit also indicated a broader mobility for women—perhaps even political mobility—and total upheaval of the social order.

“The American Family”/”Nowadays,” 1895. William H. Walker Cartoon Collection (MC068), Box 1. When this appeared on the cover of Life as “Nowadays” on December 19, 1895, the man at the door says to the woman getting dressed, “My Dear Susan, I wish you would keep your trowsers [sic] on your own side of the closet.”
Though the original drawings in the William H. Walker Cartoon Collection (MC068) were often presumed to speak for themselves, we can also take advantage of other available resources to get a bit more context for the imagery we see. Digitized versions of Life are available via HathiTrust, which means we can find the text that sometimes accompanied Walker’s cartoons. The combination of text and images makes Walker’s intent all the more clear.

One concern was fear of the reversal of gender roles. In one 1896 cartoon, we see a man in a dress surrounded by children. Life used this cartoon to illustrate a short satirical piece, “In the New Age,” by P. Leonard. “The man of the future” would be darning the family’s socks and sighing wearily while thinking about how inept his (male) Irish cook was. His son, also in a dress, would read quietly beside him. “Two noisy, sturdy girls,” his daughters, would romp around his sewing room in knickerbockers, giving him a headache. In his book, the boy would find photos of “bygone fashions” of 1890 and ask his father about them. “See what queer clothes that man has on! What are they? Did men really wear them?” The father would reply, “I never saw any; but father once told me that grandfather wore them when he was a boy. They called them pantaloons.”

Untitled illustration for “In the New Age,” 1896. William H. Walker Cartoon Collection (MC068), Box 2.

More subtly, another 1896 cartoon entitled “The Bloomer Girl’s Wedding” uses the imagery itself to convey a similar message about emasculation without accompanying text. The groom holds a bouquet and is shorter than his bride. He gazes downward while she looks confidently ahead. The bridesmaids have adopted non-submissive stances as well; in contrast, one of the groomsmen has his head tilted and his feet apparently crossed at the ankles. In this image, partly through the puffed sleeves of their jackets and postures but also simply because of their size, the women take up significantly more physical space than the men. Scholars have found that the socialization of gender teaches girls to take up less space and boys to take up more; by making the women physically larger here, Walker sends messages about men’s feminization juxtaposed with women’s masculinization.

“The Bloomer Girl’s Wedding,” 1896. William H. Walker Cartoon Collection (MC068), Box 45.

The cartoons also mocked women’s aspirations to enter politics and the workforce, suggesting the end result was the total erasure of men from public life. In “An Inauguration of the Future,” which appeared in 1897, Walker shows a woman giving an inaugural address surrounded by women in various roles—judges, military officers, politicians, and spectators—while a man, looking away from the scene with a sad expression, holds a crying baby. Here, pants are not visible, but the women’s clothing reflects the jacket styles of the era that drew on tailoring more typical of men’s clothing, as well as uniforms that would previously have only been worn by men.

“An Inauguration of the Future,” 1897. William H. Walker Cartoon Collection (MC068), Box 45.

Gender confusion is a major theme in these cartoons, where the clothing, rather than the body, is solely responsible for conveying what one’s gender is. One series of two cartoons from 1896 has three traditionally-dressed women showing shock at the surprise of a woman in pants who is wearing a suit while reading, drinking, and smoking. The way she sits, an impossibility in the skirts of the era, is decidedly masculine, and they’d believed she was a man before rounding the corner to see her face.

“Oh,” 1896. William H. Walker Cartoon Collection (MC068), Box 2.

In another, Santa Claus is thrown off track by the pants he finds in a woman’s room (as evidenced by her corset on the chair by the bed where she sleeps) and says he will give the “young man a shaving set.” Yet another has a beggar asking a woman if her husband has any old pants she might give him, and instead she says that although he doesn’t have any old pants, she does.

“His Mistake,” 1896. William H. Walker Cartoon Collection (MC068), Box 2.

We can see how other elements of middle-class women’s lives are reflected in their clothing in cartoons referencing women’s organizations. One entitled “Where Duty Called” appeared on the cover of Life on March 25, 1897. Two women, one in a suit and a top hat and another in bloomers and a blazer, meet in a park. One asks, “Hello, Mary, old girl! I didn’t see you at the Culture Club last night.” The other replies, “No, there was an important meeting of the House Committee at the Pants Club.” The 19th century saw the rise of women’s clubs as a major movement—not as auxiliary to men’s organizations, but as independent groups in their own right. Most sought to educate their members and improve society, but here Walker portrays club women as frivolous, seeming to unite over their choice of clothing rather than over other goals.

“Where Duty Called,” 1897. William H. Walker Cartoon Collection, Box 3.

In another cartoon on this theme, Walker showed a club meeting itself in “Convention of the Husband Reform Club,” implying that the bloomer-clad women were somehow primarily dissatisfied with their husbands and home life. The women sit in masculine postures and are drawn to appear pointedly unattractive, with most wearing angry expressions. The caption of this 1896 cartoon informs us that the women were meeting to discuss “how to make the home more attractive,” with the apparent punchline that they, themselves, are the reason for the unattractiveness of their homes by being unattractive in their dress, expressions, and posture.

“Convention of the Husband Reform Club,” 1896. William H. Walker Cartoon Collection (MC068), Box 45.

Finally, these cartoons express skepticism about the fitness of women for the roles wearing pants signifies they seek to occupy. In a cartoon showing a woman crying, a man says, “I am sorry you punctured your tire, dear, but if you wear those togs you must stop crying and act like a man.” Here it is not just the clothes that are laughable, but the independence a cycling woman sought, and the perception that she is reaching outside her own sphere by attempting to achieve that independence.

“One of the Penalties,” 1896. William H. Walker Cartoon Collection (MC068), Box 2.

Cartoons like these fed popular imagination and hindered the progress of women’s rights in this era. As Alice Sheppard observed in Cartooning for Suffrage, the stereotypes they created, emphasized, and perpetuated lingered for generations beyond their first appearance. The women’s rights advocate was envisioned in the mid-20th century as she had been in the late 19th: Single, unattractive, sour in disposition, and humorless. Her threat was neutralized by mockery.

Walker’s cartoons are fully digitized, making this collection accessible to anyone. His critiques of feminism did not end after the 1890s, nor was it limited to this focus on pants or masculine jackets, so a wealth of other imagery awaits the interested researcher to analyze.




William H. Walker Cartoon Collection (MC068)

Ward, Maria E. Bicycling for Ladies: With Hints as to the Art of Wheeling, Advice to Beginners, Dress, Care of the Bicycle, Mechanics, Training, Exercise, Etc. New York: Brentano’s, 1896.


For further reading:

Bratta, Phil. “The Public Pants: A Visual Rhetoric of Gendered and Classed Imperialism.” Visual Culture & Gender 10 (2015).

Collins, Tracy J. R. “Athletic Fashion, ‘Punch’, and the Creation of the New Woman.” Victorian Periodicals Review 43, No. 3 (Fall 2010): 309-335.

Martin, Karin A. “Becoming a Gendered Body: Practices of Preschools.” American Sociological Review 63, no. 4 (August 1998): 494-511.

Mattingly, Carol. Appropriate[ing] Dress: Women’s Rhetorical Style in Nineteenth-Century America. Southern Illinois University Press, 2002.

Muellner, Beth. “The Photographic Enactment of the Early New Woman in 1890s German Women’s Bicycling Magazines.” Women in German Yearbook 22 (2006): 167-188.

Shattuck, Debra A. Bloomer Girls: Women Baseball Pioneers. Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 2017.

Sheppard, Alice. Cartooning for Suffrage. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1994.

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