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Erika Janik

Writer, Historian, Inveterate Seeker. Curious About Everything (especially history). Passionate About Writing.

Month

March 2011

Food & Think

I had the great pleasure of having one of my pieces featured on the Smithsonian’s fantastic food blog Food & Think on Monday. It’s funny how a prompt– in this case “the most memorable meal of your life”– can bring back memories in a flush of sights, sounds, and smells. And just thinking about my meal made the whole month I spent in England come back in more vivid detail that it might have had someone just asked me to tell them about the time I spent in London 11 years ago.

Something I didn’t include in this piece was my memory of one weekend dinner in the Zebra Club. The thuggish Eastern European chef must have had the night off so dinner that night was both made and served by the regular waiter, whose name I wish I could remember. I do remember that he was from Serbia and that he bore a slight resemblance to Mr. Bean. He took our order–pasta or meat, as usual–and then headed back into the kitchen.

From my place at the table, I could see through the round window to the stove.  Through that portal I saw the Mr. Bean-waiter ignite something that resulted in tremendous flames–they were literally 18 inches high and looked like they could easily singe his eyebrows off. Did I mention I ordered pasta?

Twenty minutes later, he emerged from the kitchen with our bowls of rubbery pasta. Everything looked normal: or as bad as what had become “usual” by this point in the trip.

I never discovered what the flames were about. We tried asking but he seemed confused by the question. Perhaps he had hoped no one had seen. He wanted to keep those flames to himself.

Bloomers and the Water Cure

Amelia Bloomer is a name that many people who study women’s history even a little bit tend to know. She’s the namesake of “bloomers,” a style of dress that became popular among women’s rights advocates and dress reformers in the 19th century. Bloomer, the woman, didn’t invent the costume, but she was an early and ardent advocate of them and as a result, gave her name to the style. Bloomers consisted of a loosely fitting coat or dress that reached below the knees and a pair of billowing pants similar to Turkish trousers (picture MC Hammer or the Disney-fied Aladdin) gathered at the ankles.

Although widely associated with women’s rights, bloomers were actually one of the treatment outfits for those taking a water cure. Hydropathy, as the water-cure system, was known was a popular form of medical therapy in the United States from the 1820s to the 1860s. The basic idea was that cold water was pure and clean and could therefore cure just about any disease. People “took” water in any number of ways but the most common was a wet sheet that would be wrapped around a patient for several hours until he or she sweated. An alternative to the sheet was a wet dress, which was introduced at a hydropathic institute and later became the model of the bloomer costume. Women who took the water cure often sometimes cut their hair short for easy drying and felt themselves free from the prevailing and restrictive women’s fashion.

The wet dress was introduced to the fashion world by Elizabeth Smith who displayed her fashion to women’s rights leader Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Amelia Bloomer discovered it when Stanton came for a visit and she soon began writing about it enthusiastically in her magazine, The Lily. Articles on the bloomer trend were soon picked up by other publications and it came to be dubbed “bloomers” for Bloomer’s advocacy of it for women. Bloomer herself along with other wearers of bloomers suffered merciless ridicule for their fashion choice.

The bloomers adoption by the women’s rights movement also damaged its reputation among hydropaths. Bloomers came to be associated with female radicalism and its followers were suspected of free love and of a desire to be free of all feminine graces.

Amelia Bloomer mostly abandoned the bloomer in 1859 but she continued to fight for women’s rights and for more sensible, less restrictive clothing for women for the rest of her life.

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