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Sucking Pigs

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Author Charles Dickens
Genres Prose: Essay i
Prose: Leading Article i
Subjects Charity; Philanthropists; Philanthropists—Fiction; Benevolence
Fashion; Fashion History; Clothing and Dress; Millinery; Textile Crafts; Textile Design; Cotton; Cotton Manufacture
Gender Identity; Women; Men; Femininity; Masculinity
Other Details
Printed : 8/11/1851
Journal : Household Words
Volume : Volume IV
Magazine : No. 85
Office Book Notes
MemoBloomerism; women with "a Mission".
Views : 1095

'It is one of the main vices of this time,' Dickens wrote in 1852, 'to ride objects to Death through mud and mire...to neglect private duties associated with no particular excitement, for lifeless and soulless public hullabaloo with a great deal of excitement, and thus seriously to damage the objects taken up (often very good in themselves)...' (Pilgrim, Vol. VI, p. 825). He had attacked this tendency in 'Whole Hogs' [...] and had, as he notes here, offended some HW readers thereby – he told Wills on 12 October that he believed a 500 drop in circulation 'had something to do with' Temperance subscribers (Pilgrim, Vol. VI, p. 519). The Bloomer campaign for female dress reform clearly seemed to him a particularly noteworthy example of 'Whole Hoggism'. 

'Bloomerism' originated in America when Amelia Jenks Bloomer, wife of the Postmaster at Seneca Falls (scene of the first American Women's Rights Convention, 1848), publicised in the spring of 1851 in her monthly journal The Lily the Turkish-style dress pioneered by Elizabeth Smith Miller and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. She herself adopted the costume, which was then called after her. Between August and November there was a vigorous Bloomer campaign in Britain with the formation of a 'London Bloomer Committee', and public lectures both by visiting American 'Bloomers' (not, however, including Mrs Bloomer herself) and by native speakers like Caroline Dexter. Lecturers argued for the new dress on grounds of hygiene, health (it was widely recognised that the fashion for tight lacing and corsets seriously endangered women's health) and practicality. The public hysteria that resulted, with women wearing Bloomer costume being mobbed in the streets, dozens of satirical cartoons and articles in Punch, and pièces de circonstance like Bloomerism; or the Follies of the Day being put on at the theatres, showed that the Victorian male establishment felt deeply threatened: if women were to take to wearing trousers like men, where would it end? Miss Rebecca Isaacs made a hit with Henry Abraham's comic song, 'I want to be a Bloomer', and such a dense crowd of men turned up to stare at the 'Bloomer Ball' in the Hanover Square Rooms (29 October) that the occasion ended in a near-riot with the few women present having to escape over the supper-tables. Shortly afterwards the whole furore died down and the subject of female dress reform was not revived until 1881, when the Rational Dress Society was founded. For details of the Bloomer campaign, see C. Mannix, 'The 1851 Bloomer Campaign in England and its Significance', unpub. MA thesis, Birkbeck College, 1994. 
      In his remarks about 'masquerade attire' at the end of this piece Dickens takes the opportunity to mock the Puseyite (Oxford Movement) fashion in the Church of England for wearing cassocks and recalls his irreverent comparison, in Pictures from Italy (1846), of the Pope's being ceremonially carried around St Peter's in a chair to a Guy Fawkes procession – 'having his eyes shut, and a great mitre on his head, and his head itself wagging to and fro as they shook him in carrying, he looked as if his mask were going to tumble off.... As they carried him along he blessed the people with a mystic sign.' 
       Dickens's portrayal of Mrs Bellows 'agitating' and working away at 'a Mission' clearly looks forward to his creation, in Bleak House a few months later, of Mrs Jellby neglecting her family as a result of her obsession with her Borioboola-Gha project. 

Literary allusions

  • 'Hereditary bondswomen...the blow!': adapted from Byron, Childe Harold, Canto I (1812), st. 76;
  • 'inalienable right': from the American Declaration of Independence;
  • 'to point the moral...tail': adapted from Dr Johnson's The Vanity of Human Wishes (1749), I. 219. 
Author: Michael Slater; © J. M. Dent/Orion Publishing Group, Dickens' Journalism Volume III: 'Gone Astray' and Other Papers from Household Words, 1851–59 (1998). DJO gratefully acknowledges permission to reproduce this material.

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