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…





5 Responses to “OFF THE CUFF: The Politics of Pants — Part I”

  1. Janet Tong March 24, 2011 at 3:22 PM #

    Greeting Chris,

    Hope this message finds you well. It’s been a while. It’s not a surprise to see you talk about your favorite designer, Yohji Yamamoto, in this month’s blog. And might I add that I DO have a constant battle with Mr. his pants zipper. I guess my first try last year to sign up for your blog failed, hopefully, this time it will work. Wish you well. Bijou and Boo talk about you all the time. 🙂


    • Christopher Forte March 24, 2011 at 7:13 PM #

      Janet !! I’m so happy to hear from you — and happy that you’re enjoying the blog — I’m really enjoying working on it…
      I’ve honestly been avoiding talking about Yohji at all because, frankly, I think everyone who knows me expects this blog to be rants and raves about Japanese designers — so I’m trying hard to not discuss them for a while…
      Give Bijou, Boo, Kai and the gang my love…I will talk to you soon !!! xxx

  2. Cormac January 21, 2012 at 10:53 PM #

    “…in 3,000-plus years of recorded human history, pants have only been considered acceptable public attire for women for the past 40. ”

    I understand you mean this to be hyperbole, but you know it is completely inaccurate, right? In fact, pants have been worn for thousands of years by women of the Near-East, Far-East and Indian subcontinent. The fashion for them to be male-specific is a particular European phenomenon dating really only from 18th Century, or from the 15th if you want to include breeches. In fact, European women of certain nationalities and certain classes wore pants in earlier periods – including even Roman noblewomen at one point.

    As you imply, pants and hose of various kinds were worn by the upper classes of both sexes through the middle ages. They were more and more revealed in men as sexual display while Christian culture disapproved of such display in women. Really, trousers had only just begun to be universal (breeches had a long lingering fade-out) when women began the righteous and noble struggle you discuss in this article.

    Fighting for the right to wear bifurcated garments was a good, noble, and significant part of the feminist struggle for liberation from patriarchal norms. But lets not overstate it.

    • Christopher Forte January 21, 2012 at 11:06 PM #

      Thanks for your feedback and such a detailed account of historical wear — yes, the article was a very broad overview of trousers and their history in womenswear — the average reader really has no interest in such an intensely detailed account of fashion history.
      Yes, breeches were fairly common in certain sects of society on women for centuries, but my focus and purpose in writing the piece was to discuss the intriguing connection that the wearing of trousers has with the liberation of women on numerous fronts.
      Appreciate the feedback, look forward to your comments and observations in the future.
      One thing, though — I don’t ‘overstate’ — accept your opinion on that, but don’t appreciate the deprecating tone.
      Be well, and keep reading. New posts coming in the next week…


  3. Cormac January 21, 2012 at 11:19 PM #

    I’m sorry if you found my comments depreciating in tone. They are not meant to be, I think it is an excellent column and a wonderful blog. Apparently we just have very different linguistic styles.

    However, I don’t quite understand how “overstating” is a matter of opinion. I mean, “30,000 years of recorded human history” vs. “300 years of Western European history” seems to be pretty objectively an overstatement. (It isn’t even as if Western Europeans were the majority of the world population in that time.)

    As I say, I get that it is meant to be hyperbole, but in my opinion (and this is opinion and a matter of linguistic style) you’ld be better to avoid such clear overstatements.

    Just opinion from a well-wisher.

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