Spending a night in jail for wearing pants was likely not a moment of shame for Mary Tillotson.
“She would not have been distressed,” said Susan Ditmire, local historian and author from Vineland. “She would have considered the source.”
It was a moment that would define the rest of her life and mark her place in history as one of the fearless women in South Jersey history.
According to historians, Tillotson was jailed in Newark for one night by police who did not know there was no law against women wearing pants.
Tillotson first learned about the reform dress — which she called the “science costume” — when researching ways to self-cure a severe illness using a medical trend called “water cure.”
She was living in Chenango County, New York, at the time.
Ditmire said Tillotson was suffering from dyspepsia, a severe form of indigestion, when she first traded her petticoat for pants.
“The weight of her clothes prompted her reform,” Ditmire said. “The change helped her get better.”
She first became an adamant supporter of the updated fashion in the 1850s and was part of a core group of women who supported the change. The reform dress was an alternative to the traditional and heavy long dresses women of that time often wore. It consisted of a shorter dress over a pair of trousers.
It did not include a corset, petticoat or tights.
Many woman — excluding Vineland resident Susan Fowler — abandoned the fashion trend in the late 1860s after it had negative ramifications in their social lives.
Tillotson moved to Vineland with her son in 1864. She was married to a distant cousin, Charles Tillotson, in 1850, but little is known about when the couple separated.
Ditmire said Fowler and Tillotson were almost immune to the harassment commonly associated with those who donned the unusual clothing.
“Once (Tillotson) moved to Vineland, it was more acceptable,” she said, adding people who were against the trend included Charles Landis, the founder and developer of Vineland. “There were a lot of people who were tolerant of her there.”
She said Vineland was a “hotbed of liberal activity” and seeing a woman wearing the outfit was not out of place.
“It was only acceptable in Vineland. Nobody else in the world would agree with this,” she said. “I can’t think of any place else in the country where they would accept women walking down the street like this.”
After years of the movement remaining dormant, Tillotson — who sported the controversial ensemble daily while tending her garden and maintaining her home —formed a local dress reform society in 1870 and later organized the American Free Dress League in 1875.
In addition to choosing pants as her daily attire, Tillotson was part of a group of women in Vineland who first attempted to vote in 1868.
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