In the middle of the 19th century women's clothing were restrictive and unhealthy. Underneath their clothes they wore bustles, corsets, and petticoats. The bustle was a pad worn at the small of the back. The women wanted to achieve the hourglass look, which was popular at that time, so they wore tight corset. The problem was that these corsets impaired eating, walking, breathing, and even standing! They also wore 3 or more petticoats, which were never washed and were worn until they disintegrated.
The bustle dominated the fashion world. They also restricted most activities for women, as did the tight bodices, narrow sleeves, petticoats and long trains that swept the ground. A wife's elaborate clothes and her inability to work in them advertised her husband's status and wealth, but even working women adhered to the style.
Then in the mid to late 1800's women’s clubs and feminists began rebelling against clothing that messed with their health and comfort. An advocate for women's rights, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, believed a woman's "tight waist and long trailing skirts deprive her of all freedom." Amelia Bloomer, editor of a magazine supporting women's rights, complained that "woman has always sacrificed her comfort to fashions.
Bloomer began wearing dresses- dresses that were just like any other dress, but with one shocking difference, they were knee length. Women weren't allowed to show their legs, even while swimming, so she covered them up with baggy trousers, gathered at the ankle and worn under her dress.
Some women loved the new look, even physicians and health reformers saw the health advantages in these less restrictive clothes.
However, dress reform had loud opponents. Most people were very shocked. A lot of women and men were frightened by the prospect that women in trousers meant to abandon their homes and compete in the outside world with men. Women were afraid men would not look at them as women anymore.
So despite reform efforts, most women clung to their old look, even feminists abandoned the new look, fearing the criticism would hurt their efforts to win voting and property rights for women. However, the debate still lingered on, and physicians were one of the strongest supporters for the change in women's clothes.