Whistler In The Dark


Whistler in the Dark Cover

When I attended interpreter training at Old World Wisconsin in the spring of 1982, the Curator of Textiles showed us a photograph of a Wisconsin woman wearing trousers beneath a knee-length skirt. The image shows a woman in a farmyard, staring straight at the camera, with a man and child behind her.

I don’t have permission to post that photograph, but you can see it on the Society’s website HERE. The photo shows a woman who clearly was no stranger to hard physical work, and wasn’t afraid to dress appropriately.

I was fascinated by that image, and knew that one day I would write a story about the reform dress movement. I had an opportunity to do that with my second History Mystery, Whistler in the Dark.

When people think of 19th-century women wearing trousers, most think of Amelia Bloomer. She was one of the reformers who believed that women’s cumbersome fashions were both impractical and a symbol of women’s inequality.


The movement was prominent in the 1850s & 1860s. Because it was so controversial, many activists decided that women should work first to obtain the right to vote, and the dress reform movement faded.


The Reform Dress movement inspired more than one composer.

Many of the women who campaigned for dress reform were well educated urban dwellers. Reform movement leaders like Amelia Bloomer are often celebrated.

But other women quietly chose to wear trousers because their work or environment made pants not only more practical, but safer as well. I’ve read copies of The Sibyl, a 19th-century newspaper promoting dress reform, and found the letters to the editor particularly revealing.  Some of the correspondents wrote of wearing their Reform Dress while working on their farms, but only out of sight of neighbors.

The Bloomer Costume LC448w

Here are two clippings that reveal why some people thought women’s clothing style were in need of reform.


A snippet from The Sibyl, the newspaper devoted to Dress Reform.


From a memoir, Glimpses of an Earlier Milwaukee, by Bill Hooker.

But there was lots of opposition, too.


A cartoonist’s view of dress reform. Some women who dared wear their trousers in public did get pelted with tomatoes or eggs. (Punch, 1851)

Once I’d settled on a theme, I considered location. I knew I wanted my Dress Reformer, Emma’s Mother, to be a working woman. I set the book in Colorado because after the Civil War, opportunities for a newspaper editor like her would have been more likely in the West.

And I wanted to help readers think about all sides of the issue. Emma is not be an enthusiastic supporter of the Dress Reform movement. I also created other strong and, I hope, admirable women characters, such as Tildy and Miss Amaretta—each with their own ideas.

As always, doing research on location was an adventure. Twin Pines is a fictional town, but in my mind it is geographically and historically similar to Golden, Colorado.


Clear Creek History Park in Golden, Colorado.


This interpreter showed me the type of scales used to measure gold.

After visiting historic sites and museums, I also spent some time simply exploring the landscape, so I could get a sense of how Emma—a Chicago girl—might feel about her new home.


What a beautiful area to investigate!


The twin pines.


Can you imagine Emma climbing one of these trees in a long skirt?

Writing Whistler in the Dark let me think about the fascinating issue of Dress Reform, learn about women in the newspaper business, and go hiking in beautiful Colorado. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it!


PS:  When Whistler in the Dark was published, my friend Joan Haight made me a Reform Dress to wear to events.


This was taken at American Girl Place in Chicago.

However, when the book was honored as a WILLA Award Finalist by Women Writing the West, I chose to wear more modern attire!


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33 Responses to “Whistler In The Dark”

  1. Kim DuBois Says:

    Would love to recieve your book!

  2. Kathleen White Says:

    I wasn’t aware of this book, sounds fascinating and I would love a copy!

  3. Susan Apps Bodilly Says:

    I would love a copy of this book!

  4. Judy Montgomery Says:

    Sounds like a great story! I hope I win this time!

  5. Joy Williams Says:

    My 11 year old daughter loves the American Girl historical fiction books. She has read every one. She would love to win this!

  6. nancyloswald Says:

    I loved this post. The newspaper articles were fascinating and you opened the door for more thought about the clothing and dates of reform which I didn’t realized came so early…being like many to associate it with Amelia Bloomer 1890’s. It makes perfect sense to me for women to put “jeans” under their dresses, and I also thought it was interesting that still some of them preferred to keep this hidden. In the sequel to Rescue in Poverty Gulch that I’m working on, now, (1896 Cripple Creek) I have a character that would match perfectly with pants under her dress. Who knows? Maybe I’ll put some on her. Thanks again for sharing your knowledge and resources.

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      I’m glad you enjoyed it, Nancy. Such a fascinating topic. What I found most revealing when I dug into the rational dress movement was The Sibyl. We hear about the perspectives of the prominent women who championed dress reform, but it was a revelation to read about the working-class women involved. I hope that perhaps a reform dress does turn out to be perfect for your character!

      • nancyloswald Says:

        We’ll see on the character’s dress. Ruby certainly doesn’t like “fancy”, but neither is she tuned in about any other aspects of clothing. But you certainly caused me to think about it as a movement and I thought that Ruby if anyone would prefer pants. I also have to chuckle about the way things come around because when I taught 5th grade, I sometimes had girls come to school with sweats or pants under their skirts. And this is at a time when pants are the norm instead of the exception. Hmmmm, I wonder what movement be that??? Again, it was fun having that door of thought opened through your blog, and if I should win the book, I know it’s going to be a great read.

  7. Binah Says:

    Oh, I and my daughters have read and enjoyed this one. We’d love to have a signed copy!

  8. Rose Milligan Says:

    I love learning new things about fashion history. This book sounds wonderful. Thanks for having the giveaway. I would love to win a copy.

  9. Ruth Says:


  10. Flower Says:

    I would love to win the book! You are an amazing author!!

  11. Lucy Ghastin Says:

    I would love to have a copy of your book, “Whistler in the Dark”. I like reading historical books that take place in the West. The information you listed on this page about “bloomers” is very informative. I can remember my mother (b. 1913) and my grandmother talking about bloomers in their time. I think the change in dress made perfect sense (of course this comes from a modern perspective looking back).

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      Hi Lucy! How interesting to have heard your mom and grandmother’s thoughts. In the mid-1800s, reformers still wore knee-length skirts over their trousers, and yet people were horrified. I think the next wave of interest and support came a few decades later, when women began riding bicycles.

  12. Liz V. Says:

    What interesting background. Please enter my name.

  13. Tricia Says:

    I won the previous book (yay! thanks for being so generous with your giveaways!) so don’t enter me. However, I was very intrigued by this write-up. I never really thought of how fashions changed over historical time (in contrast to now, when western styles are so dictated by the clothing companies). In one of the Maisie Dobbs mysteries she mentions how horrible it was to wear long woolen skirts as a nurse in France during WWI; I suspect that was another case of it being dangerous (tripping hazard; carrying mud and germs and filth).

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      Thanks, Tricia. I find the thoughtful arguments for dress reform really compelling, and I can completely understand why some women who worked hard truly needed the safety and flexibility of trousers. I don’t think the movement in the mid-1800s was huge, and yet it’s interesting to speculate how many women wore pants in private, but their neighbors never knew! I’ve thought mostly about women on farms or in factories, but oh my, a long narrow skirt as a nurse during WWI? Yikes.

  14. kate Says:

    Sounds really interesting! Never read historical fiction geared towards children before.

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      Kate, I find a lot of adults reading J/YA books these days. Lots of good stuff out there, with no worries about gore, excessive violence, etc. Thanks for connecting!

  15. Susan Manzke Says:

    Please enter my name for the book drawing. Loved reading your interesting blog.

  16. Carol Neumann Says:

    I was unaware of “reform dress” and would like to read more about it. I live half-time in Colorado, so that’s the other reason I would love a copy of the book.

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