Archive | February, 2011

OFF THE CUFF: The Politics of Pants — Part I

23 Feb

“He who has pants, has freedom” – France, 1800s

In a spring season where menswear-inspired trousers have become a focal point of the collections and women are unequivocally ‘wearing the pants’ again in fashion, it seems appropriate to examine the impact that the trouser has had throughout history.

It seems strange to think that such a basic item of clothing can create so much turmoil — yet in 3,000-plus years of recorded human history, pants have only been considered acceptable public attire for women for the past 40.  Never in the annals of fashion has a specific garment been the object of so much ridicule, debate and polarized opinion.

Originally the mode of dress for both sexes was based on a sarong-like skirt or toga-like gown.  Over time, of course, cultures evolved and societies flourished.  The advent of more refined textiles and complex tailoring techniques paralleled this evolution, and a decidedly class- and gender-based code of acceptable dress came about.

The first fledgling appearances of women in trousers began in Europe around 1800 to the great dismay of the male ruling class.  In the misogynistic society that pervaded Europe at that time it was felt that, if women were allowed the freedom of menswear, what other emancipations would be desired next?

For much of the following century the concept of pants for women was regularly introduced and subsequently denounced as utterly unacceptable:

1800 — Around this first appearance of women in ‘men’s attire,’ an ordinance was immediately added to the Napoleonic Code in France that “all women desiring to dress like men would have to present themselves before the prefecture of police to obtain authorization to do so.”

"Off to Battle" -- Caricature, France, 1848

 

1851 — Amelia Jenks Bloomer, a suffragette pioneer and author of the feminist journal The Lily, began crusading against the tyrannies of the corset with the ‘anti-crinolinist’ movement in the United States.  She designed and wore a pair of long, full bouffant pants ( later called ‘Bloomers’ ) that were fitted at the waist and ankles.  Not surprisingly, the subsequent scandal that ensued lent the garment little support.  Many openly expressed that controversial apparel such as this should be reserved for those women – rebels, hygienists and feminists – who simply did not keep ‘acceptable’ company.

 

Bloomer in Her Namesake

1911 — Paul Poiret, one of the greatest and most forward-thinking couturiers in Paris, presented a series of sketches entitled “Four Ways to Dress Women in Pants” and introduced the ‘harem skirt’ – a long tunic with very full gathered pants of the same material underneath.  Several other couturiers began to experiment with the skirt-pant concept as daywear, prompting the Vatican to vehemently denounce the concept of women in trousers, describing it as “immoral in the extreme.”

It was not until the early 1920s that women en masse began to view the viability of trousers.  Vitality and activity, sports and resort travel became an integral part of any society woman’s life, and she must have the wardrobe to accompany it.  Parisian couturiers, acceding to their client’s demands, began to create sport, resort and après-ski pant ensembles – enabling a new generation of women to participate in sports activities as never before.

Jeanne Lanvin Ski Ensemble -- Mid-1920s

Though the trouser was still relegated to the shores or the slopes, these changes were not without impetus.  The winning of the long-fought suffragette movement, the upheaval of World War I, and later the introduction of jazz and its accompanying passions afforded women an entirely new view of their position in society – with it came garment choices seen not just as a form of attraction, but a statement of solidarity.

Corsets and complicated layers were, slowly but definitively, being relegated to the past.  To spend the weekend in an easy resort ensemble and then be expected to return home to the complexities of the corset was no longer feasible.  Women had had their ‘place’ in society, and their mode of dress had assisted them in this.  It was time for change – complex layers, bindings and accouterments were replaced with softer fitting, less constricting designs.

For so many women of this period the resort trouser represented both rebellion and emancipation – not only a release from the physical restraints of corsetry but from the broader, more ethereal constricts of morality that those garments represented.

Indeed, it was Chanel’s intense dislike of this concept of ‘women-as-ornaments’ as much as her desire for practicality that provided the momentum for her easily elegant designs.  She was one of the

Chanel & Serge Lifar, Deauville, France -- 1937

first to unashamedly don trousers while on holiday — not because they seemed stylish, but because they were comfortable .  Her creations , along with those of contemporaries like Patou and Lanvin, ushered in a new era that trumped the bound and corseted shapes of the time to eventually become the de rigueur silhouette of the era.

Styles remained predominantly unchallenged over the next decade, with pants continuing to appear on the fringes of sport and society.  It was not until the advent of World War II and its repercussions that trousers finally began to appear in every woman’s wardrobe…

 

 

…CONTINUED NEXT WEEK

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