It’s FRIDAY FASHION FACT time! Last week I gave an overview of the history of trousers (read here.) Today I’m going to talk about how pants became womenswear in the western world. While there were rare cases of women wearing trousers in the ancient world, it was not until relatively recently that women wearing trousers became an acceptable fashion.
In the early 1850s, there was a very small group of women who advocated for a bifurcated (aka, divided in two) garment for women. This was during the early days of the crinoline trend, when layers of petticoats made skirts extremely heavy and restricting. Activist Libby Miller promoted wearing full, loose trousers cinched at the ankles, similar to the Turkish style. She introduced the garment to Amelia Bloomer, editor of the first women’s newspaper, The Lily. Bloomer loved the garment, wore it often, and advocated for it in her newspaper. Thus, these loose trousers were dubbed “bloomers.” However, once the cage crinoline was created, Bloomer declared that was change enough, and so abandoned the bloomer trouser. The garment did not disappear completely, though. A modified version became a popular undergarment, allowing women to adopt reform without shocking polite society.
As technology and society developed towards the end of the 19th Century, there were many who recognized that women’s fashion needed to shift along with it. In the early 1890s, the bicycle became extremely popular, as the “safety bicycle” was invented, and costs came down. It allowed women an independence and freedom they had yet to possess. Yet cycling in a long skirt was extremely difficult, and so the newly formed Lady Cyclists’ Association promoted the Bicycle Suit, a menswear inspired garment with full, knee-length trousers. They became very popular, yet were still considered shocking by many, and scandalous when worn outside of cycling.
It wasn’t until the 1910s that it became somewhat acceptable for women to wear trousers outside of active wear. During World War I, when nearly all the working-age men were off fighting, women took their place in the working world. Those who had jobs in factories, and other such hard labor positions, altered their husbands trousers to wear while working. This was both for the freedom of movement trousers allowed, as well as to save money and preserve their skirts for social situations. Even during this time, a woman wearing trousers in public was still considered scandalous. When the war ended, there were a bold few who were not so quick to give up the freedom which trousers allowed.
Throughout the 1920s and 30s, it became increasingly common for a woman to wear trousers for leisure. Women more commonly participated in sports, and the rise of the aviator meant an increasing number of female celebrities seen wearing trousers. This was also the case with the rise of the Hollywood Movie Star, with actresses such as Marlene Dietrich and Katherine Hepburn frequently photographed in trousers.
When World War II hit, the situation from WWI repeated itself, with women entering the workforce and wearing their husband’s altered clothing. This time, however, it occurred to an even greater extent, with vast material shortages and clothing rations. This solidified trousers’ position in women’s wardrobes. Though they were still only accepted in casual situations, they continued to increase in popularity throughout the next several decades. There was an additional boost in the 1960s when Yves Saint Laurent introduced the formal trouser. Despite the development, though, women’s trousers are still mainly acceptable only in more casual situations to this day. As we know, though, fashion is constantly changing.
Want to learn more about the history of women wearing pants? Check out these books:
Women in Pants, by Catherine Smith and Cynthia Greig
100 Years of Fashion, by Cally Blackman
Have a question about fashion history that you want answered in the next FRIDAY FASHION FACT? Just click the ASK button at the top of the page!
IT IS HIGHLY SUGGESTED YOU DO NOT READ THIS IF YOU HAVE NOT FINISHED THE ENTIRE ANNE OF GREEN GABLES SERIES (ANNE OF GREEN GABLES, ANNE OF AVONLEA, ANNE OF THE ISLAND, ANNE OF WINDY POPLARS/ANNE OF WINDY WILLOWS, ANNE’S HOUSE OF DREAMS, ANNE OF INGLESIDE, RAINBOW VALLEY, AND RILLA OFINGLESIDE). YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.
Believe it or not, there are two ways we can look at the timeline of the Anne of Green Gables series. The first way is what I guess you would call the traditional way, and the second way is one that I truthfully, just recently realized, and is based on content.
Americans of the 19th century came to live in a world bursting with color, made possible when a young German playwright named Alois Senefelder (1771–1834) developed a new printmaking process called lithography in the 1790s. Lithography enabled Senefelder to make more copies of his plays in less time and for less money than ever before. Little did he know that his discovery would also start a marketing revolution far from home.
images: The “Duchess Collection” of New Cannas, color plate illustration, ca. 1897, H. M. Wall, Brooklyn NY, color lithograph on paper, 9½” x 6½”. Gift of Jay T. Last. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.
The Wonderful New Rose Crimson Rambler, trade card, ca. 1900, Vredenburg & Co. Rochester NY, color lithograph on paper, 3½” x 5¾”. Gift of Jay T. Last. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.
Poppy, trade card, 1888, unidentified printer, color lithograph on paper, 4¾” x 3”. Gift of Jay T. Last. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.