THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY
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.
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.
Here are two clippings that reveal why some people thought women’s clothing style were in need of reform.
But there was lots of opposition, too.
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.
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.
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.
However, when the book was honored as a WILLA Award Finalist by Women Writing the West, I chose to wear more modern attire!