A BRIEF HISTORY OF: History of women’s trousers
Who wears the trousers? These days, they’re a wardrobe staple for most women. But travel back even a few decades and it was a very different story – an article originally written for Love Sewing Magazine by MICHELLE ROWLEY
Are you wearing a form of trousers as you read this? There is a strong chance. If so, did you question the message you would be sending to society when you got dressed this morning? There’s probably very little chance. Today our wardrobes can be filled with an array of trouser styles to accommodate our tastes, our tasks and the activities we choose to partake in. Jeans, leggings, culottes, chinos, jodhpurs, harem pants, trouser suits – the choice is ours. Whilst we no longer consider the social acceptance of women wearing trousers when we dress, it has taken a number of key moments in the history of society and fashion to lead us to the trousers we may take for granted today.
Nobody, neither men nor women, wore trousers in early civilisations: the Egyptians, Incas, Ancient Greeks and Romans were all in their skirts and togas. Initially shunned by the Romans, due to their association with barbarian tribes, trousers later became adopted by their soldiers. Recognised as a more practical garment for riding horses and going to war – men’s activities – the shift from skirts to trousers for men took place. Skirts, considered a more practical option for pregnancy, remained as a woman’s garment for centuries to come.
In the early 1800s women started to participate in more male-perceived sporting activities, but they were still expected to wear impractical and cumbersome full-length skirts to climb mountains, row and sail. Even for skiing, skirts had to be worn above breeches until the final moment before going down the slope. Mrs Amelia Bloomer, an American women’s rights activist, recognised the need for women to wear a more functional garment. She came to Britain in 1851, encouraging women to wear baggy frill- laced ankle- length trousers underneath their full mid-length skirts. The trousers, created by Elizabeth Smith Miller, were viewed as a modest attempt towards practicality. Her efforts, however, were met with ridicule and castigation and few women adopted the radical new look. Those few that did caused scorn in mid-century Victorian England, leading to Punch magazine cartoons highlighting the perceived consequences of women wanting ‘to wear the trousers’:
“As the husband, shall the wife be; he will have to wear a gown. If he does not quickly make her put her Bloomer short-coats down.”
Shunned by the upper classes during the peak of male domination, when men and women’s clothing was as far removed from each other as possible, Bloomer‘s attempt was a failure. It wasn’t until nearly 50 years later that ‘bloomers’ were accepted; but mostly for cycling.
Working to support the home front in 1919, bloomers were a practical choice
With the arrival of World War One, women started to have more freedom over their clothing than ever before. As more women began working in offices and factories, they wore trousers to carry out their new tasks from van driving to chimney sweeping and serving in the police force and women’s services. Now breeches were being worn by Land Girls and even boiler suits by female ammunition workers. Not only were trousers now viewed as practical for work tasks but also appreciated by women for the new freedom of movement they provided; paving the way for trousers to become part of women’s everyday wear.
“With the arrival of World War One, women started to have more freedom over their clothing than ever before”
French fashion designer Coco Chanel sealed the deal for the early popularisation of women’s trousers. A fan of wearing trousers herself, and often seen in her boyfriend’s suits, she introduced her slim lounging pyjama trousers to the fashionable in the early 1920s, besides designing some of the first riding trousers to be worn by women. Film star Marlene Dietrich led the way on trousersuits in the 1930s, wearing them both on set and to film premieres, galvanising other leading ladies to follow suit. Nevertheless, opinions on women wearing trousers were still divided: daring, stylish, shocking and even horrifying. Many continued to consider women wearing trousers as masculine and unnatural.
As women once again stepped into traditionally male roles during World War Two, the trousers were back on. Women set to work in a variety of new settings from ambulance drivers to air raid wardens, you name it, they did it and they did it wearing trousers. The shortage of stockings also added to the popularity of trousers, which then fell during the 1950s only to return in the 1960s and 70s as fashion became more casual. Whilst the 1960s saw women wearing trousers under tunic dresses, by the 1970s trousers were a garment in their own right with the rise in popularity of flares for both men and women.
In 1966 Yves Saint Laurent changed the perception of women wearing trousers once again, Emma McClendon, associate costume curator at The Museum at The Fashion Institute of Technology, New York explains: “He was revolutionary in that he didn’t feminise pants at all. He was significant because he was literally putting women in menswear.” His ‘Le Smoking’ tuxedo suit became a signature look for evening wear, making both a political and fashion statement.
In more recent times, there can be no better example of the power of the trouser suit as a self-empowering sartorial tool than Hillary Clinton, the first First Lady to wear trousers in her official White House portrait. Her well-known uniform; a host of trouser suits in different colours, acted as a ‘visual clue’ that she was ‘different from the men but also familiar’ as she worked towards levelling the playing field in her roles as First Lady, politician and presidential candidate. The #pantsuitnation trend caused a staggering rise in women’s trouser suit sales in the USA during Clinton’s 2016 election campaign, embodying the role trousers have long played in the pursuit for gender equality.
Discover more about Michelle on Instagram @stitchywhitney and join in one of her sewing workshops at www.facebook.com/thesewcialgathering