Men have been wearing pants since they were introduced in Late Antiquity in Western Europe, but women were long prohibited from wearing them – to do so was seen as unfitting and usurping a man’s power. Pants were introduced into European society first as a garment that allowed the wearer to ride a horse with greater ease.
As pants became more popular among men, they became associated foremost with functionality, allowing men to do manual labor and fight in battle. Thus, when women started wearing trousers, men resisted, claiming it was unfit for women to have to participate in men’s activities like the hard manual labor of mines or factories, or going to war.
To combat this resistance, some women began to pose as men in order to take jobs or fight in wars alongside their husbands and brothers. Pants on women began to rise in popularity in the late 18th Century, first only for their functional use, and eventually finding their way into women’s fashion during the early 1900s.
The first incarnation of the modern pant on women was the bloomer. Popularized by Amelia Bloomer in 1850, the bloomer quickly became associated with feminism as these pants were adopted by outspoken women like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. Initially, bloomers were designed for health benefits. They allowed women to participate in certain leisure activities like bike riding and tennis (as advances in technology allowed them to spend less time on household chores). Bloomers also allowed women the freedom to choose their outfits as they were no longer restricted to a dress and corset.
Do Good Deeds – Wear Pants
In a town in Massachusetts, a women’s activist group unanimously voted to allow members to wear bloomers because the pants allowed them to participate in doing good deeds. With public figures like Bloomer, Stanton, Anthony, and a host of other women wearing bloomers, these pants quickly became associated with women’s activism. These women eventually shied away from wearing bloomers, choosing their traditional dress again so as to not draw attention away from the suffrage movement that was beginning at that time. These leaders made this decision because promoting bloomers as a style of freedom had already given them difficulty with the church and similar conservative circles who argued that they were a usurpation of men’s authority. Rather than fight battles on two fronts, these women decided to fight first for the right to vote, hoping that permission to wear pants would come later.
Don’t Call It A Comeback
Bloomers saw a small resurgence later in the 19th century. A few nurses in the Civil War wore bloomers in the field and the hospitals because the freedom of movement made their jobs easier. They also regained a slight amount of popularity again in the 1890s as women reminisced of their health benefits. In 1919, fashion designer Paul Poiret even tried reintroducing them under a new name, but pants on women failed to catch on as fashionable until after World War II.
Wearing Pants, A Jailable Offense?
The year 1919 marked the beginning of women in Western society adopting the modern trouser for everyday wear. Luisa Capetillo was the first woman in Puerto Rico to wear trousers in public. She was jailed for her actions, but the charges were later dropped. Throughout the 1920s and 30s, pants became more popular; first as leisurewear, then eventually women started wearing their husbands’ pants to work in the factories and then they just didn’t stop wearing them after the war.
Here’s a quick timeline of the modern history of women wearing pants:
- 1960s – Jeans for women are introduced by André Courrèges (he also popularized the pant suit).
- 1969 – Rep. Charlotte Reid wears pants in U.S. Congress.
- Pat Nixon is the first First Lady to wear trousers in public.
- 1970s – It is largely popular for women to wear pants, probably because they are no longer required to wear dresses at school.
- 1989 – First woman to wear pants in a U.S. State Senate – Rebecca Morgan
- 1993 – Hillary Clinton is the first First Lady to wear pants in her official First Lady portrait. Women are soon able to wear pants on the U.S. Senate Floor.
- 2012 – Royal Mounted Police women can now wear pants with all formal uniforms.
- 2016 – Female British Airways employees are no longer required to wear their “ambassador” uniform, which did not include an option for trousers.
Despite the fact that pants (or a variation thereof) have been around since before the Middle Ages, it’s really only recently become popular and publicly acceptable for women to wear pants. While the ban on pants for women may have stemmed from the chivalrous attempt to prevent ladies from having to fight in wars or work in mines, it seems surprising that trousers have only recently truly become acceptable fashion choices for women.
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