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Buttery
Actress and Author

She Who Wears The Pants

Charley Parkhurst, who later became one of the most famous Stagecoach drivers in history, decided to trade the dress for some pants

Taking “accessorizing” to a new level, Victorian fashionistas were never spotted without their colossal dresses, intricate hair fixtures or unyielding corsets. During the mid 1800’s such adornments were essential in maintaining one’s social status and provided an avenue for women to display wealth and lust for luxury.

Cinching a woman’s waist to often less than 20 inches, also known as tightlacing, was the “en vogue” practice of the time, and restricted movement and normal breathing for Victorian women. This discomfort, exacerbated by dresses weighing up to 30 lbs all but prevented women from engaging in active and meaningful lives outside of the parlor. Knowing this, many men in Victorian society were content to continue fronting exorbitant amounts of money for such ornate costume.

Unfortunately, rights for women in the 19th century were often “granted,” not assumed and fashion was only one of many methods for control. The social consciousness of the time dictated that women were inferior to men in their delicate nature and were incapable of achieving success in any of the traditionally “masculine” roles. Like dolls, women were fragile and pretty to look at, but rarely engaging and never powerful, albeit always uncomfortable.

Recognizing the need for change, New England temperance activist Libby Miller decided in 1851 that the outfits and control had gone too far. She designed and fashioned what she considered to be a reasonable alternative to the corseted ensemble and so were born bloomers, loose-fitting trousers gathered at the ankle. The trend immediately caught on and with it came a shift in the social-consciousness. From Bloomers came changes to female undergarments and the birth of the Rational Dress Society that “protested against the introduction of any fashion that deforms the figure, impedes movements or in any way injures health.” The reform movement in fashion also promoted “healthy exercise,” (impossible in full Victorian garb) and encouraged women to explore new activities. The Lady Cyclist Association, for example, was created at this time and provided women with “appropriate attire” for public rides, attire that was deemed “scandalous” by many men in society.

Like Libby, Charley Parkhurst, took a stand in fashion. Recognizing that her true liberation was not possible wearing incarcerating garments or prescribing to an inferior position, Charley Parkhurst, who later became one of the most famous Stagecoach drivers in history, decided to trade the dress for some pants. Living her life as a man, Charley challenged the traditional roles assigned to her and made her own rules. And even while most were unaware of her true female identity, Charley knew herself, recognized her potential and achieved the impossible.

Libby Miller, Charley Parkhurst, two girls in pants, changing history.

Read more about Charley Parkhurst’s story in Karan Kondazian’s gripping novel, The Whip.

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