Tag Archives: WWII

OFF THE CUFF: The Politics of Pants — Part II

6 Mar

“I don’t know why, but for me, pants are ‘battle.’  For women, it was an enormous revolution which was linked to liberation…”

—  Yohji Yamamoto

The advent of World War II began a period of major change in the fashion industry.  Many European couture houses were forced to shut down or relocate while American fashion designers began to be recognized for their easy approach to style.  High fashion, however, took a back seat to the war.  A world focused on conflict and an industry hobbled by rationing restraints turned the 1940s into a decade of “making do.”

The iconic image of Rosie the Riveter

Women on both sides of the Atlantic rushed to the causes of the war effort, many of them taking up the tasks and responsibilities traditionally held by men.  Rosie the Riveter convinced a generation of wives and mothers that “we can do it” – and do it they did.

Clad in boilersuits and work trousers, overalls and head wraps, they led the war effort in factories and production lines.  Fashion may have been on hold, but American women did not abandon their sense of style – as efficient as they were, these female factory workers never thought twice to keep up their appearances – wearing makeup, jewelry and attractive hairstyles.  During this time pants began to slowly ebb outside the confines of the work arena.

Americans, being more sportif and pragmatic, took to the trouser more easily, prompting French Marie Claire magazine to haughtily question whether “a woman, even a ravishing American one, be permitted to consider this extravagant cross-dressing and that rag knotted on the head as ‘fine dinner attire?’”

The end of the war ushered in a renewed devotion to fashion.  Women relinquished their places in the workforce and were relegated once again to the home, where their responsibilities as wife and mother took precedence.  Gender roles returned with unprecedented vigor, and fashions followed suit – Christian Dior’s ‘New Look’ reintroduced volume and femininity to the masses, along with a curved shape that required a return to restrictive undergarments.  Though criticized by some as setting fashion back, the New Look quickly became the most influential silhouette of the time.


Dior's "New Look" 1947

Yet throughout the 1950s pants were seen increasingly on beloved celebrities, and the public avidly followed their lead.  As Brigitte Bardot and Audrey Hepburn meandered French resorts in capris and stovepipes, the debate over women in pants raged.  Editors and fashion critics alike were vehemently divided as to the trousers’ place in a woman’s wardrobe.  Magazines on either side of the Atlantic were polarized on the issue, with opinions ranging from pants as “a symbol of moral decadence” to “a form of women’s emancipation responsible for the edging towards an equality of the sexes.”

“I want to find for women an equivalent to the men’s suit.”

— Yves Saint Laurent, 1968

It was not until a decade later, when a young designer from Algeria, breaking away from his post at Christian Dior to design his own eponymous label, did trousers finally become part of the mainstream.  It was during the 1960s – the space race capturing imaginations, the London Youthquake in full swing and the Vietnam War channeling a youth culture finding its voice for the first time – that Yves Saint Laurent presented his first couture collection.

YSL circa 1968

Saint Laurent was less a fashion anarchist than he was a visionary, capable of seamlessly merging forward-thinking fashion with his client’s desires.  While many of his contemporaries challenged the public with looks that were new to the point of being avant-garde (Mary Quant’s miniskirted youth, Courreges’ all-white ‘Moon Girls’, Paco Rabanne’s garments-as-armor), YSL earned his mantle as a design genius among fashion’s cognoscenti with his devotion to the finest fabrics, the best tailoring techniques and an aesthetic that was as desirable as it was advanced.

Pinstriped Suit 1968

Saint Laurent included trousers with matching tunics in his couture presentations as early as 1963.  In comparison to his more cutting-edge contemporaries, his tailored pants seemed positively sedate.  YSL’s tunic-and-pant pairings were followed by trouser suits over transparent blouses and finally, in 1968, his piece de resistance – ‘Le Smoking’ – a simple, impeccably fitted trouser suit with satin lapels, playing off of classic men’s evening attire.  The unapologetic androgyny of ‘Le Smoking’ made it that much more sensual, inspiring a new attitude and sense of freedom heretofore unseen in haute couture.

"Le Smoking"

The arbiters of fashion are nothing if not fickle.  Once YSL made pants not simply respectable but truly chic, the same writers and editors who had censured the ambiguity of the trousers suddenly became its greatest advocates.  “Saint Laurent is at the head,” one French fashion tome wrote, “the youngest of couturiers has set the tone, the momentum and the shape of the new fashion.”

Of course there were occasional holdouts – when socialite and couture client Nan Kempner arrived one afternoon in 1968 at New York’s Cote Basque bistro clad in one of Saint Laurent’s tunic ensembles, she was barred from entering because she was wearing trousers.  Being the formidable presence that she was, she asked to step into the coat room and decided upon a rather unique course of action.  “I took them off,” she remembered, “I wore the tunic as a dress.  I couldn’t bend down, of course, as the waiter had taken my pants away.  I had to sit with a napkin on my knees.  ‘Do you find this better?’ I asked them.”

Today it’s difficult to comprehend women not wearing trousers as part of their everyday wardrobe — it’s something that is, as it should be, taken for granted.  It’s both ironic and amusing to realize that, regardless of gender, every time you slip on a pair of pants you innocuously partake in a revolution.

Pants are, more than any other garment, a powerful representation of struggle – struggle for power, freedom, autonomy, recognition.  It’s unlikely at this point in the history of fashion — where so much has been done, so many boundaries challenged and so many claims made to the effect that nothing ‘new’ is left to create — that any other piece of clothing can ever again have the same impact on society.

As always time, and fashion, will tell…

Be well, all, and thank you for reading…

…Christopher Forte


Katherine Hepburn