How women’s trousers transformed from radical to wardrobe staple

Marlene Dietrich, circa 1950.

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In her 1928 novel Orlando, Virginia Woolf wrote, “Clothes have more important offices than merely to keep us warm; they change our view of the world and the world’s view of us.” In the wardrobes of women, rarely has this held more true than in the case of trousers. From harem pants to jumpsuits, via slacks and skinny jeans, in the mere 150 years of female trouser-wearing, this item of clothing has proved scandalous, suspect, seductive – and played a pivotal role in the sexual revolution.

Today, most of us wear trousers without hesitation and with delightful innovation. We wear them in the workplace, as a functional, uncomplicated uniform, and we wear them just as readily for nights out, spruced up with a pair of heels or a glamorous top. We barely blink when we see them in the public eye – Evan Rachel Wood and Meryl Streep wore trousers on the red carpet this past awards season.

But it’s really not so very long ago that a woman in trousers was a scandalous matter. While women in many cultures have traditionally worn trousers under tunics without leading to any great moral degradation, in the West a woman wearing anything other than a dress or a skirt was cause for concern – the wearer was believed to support radical thought, social reform, perhaps even lesbianism.

In fact, some of the early steps towards widespread trouser-wearing began, prosaically enough, on the coalfields of industrial Lancashire in the UK in the mid-19th century.

There, the “pit-brow lasses” – the women who worked at the top of the mines, picking up stones from the coal hauled to the surface by the men – developed a distinctive style of dress to keep them warm as they laboured in often bleak weather: in addition to clogs, shawls and headscarves, the women would wear men’s trousers beneath their skirts and aprons.

Though a practical move, at the time this was deemed so unorthodox that photographic studios in Wigan began producing postcard portraits of the local pit-brow lasses to sell to visitors.

Around the same time, in the US, a campaign was begun in the pleasingly titled health periodical Water-Cure Journal to liberate women from the starchy, whale-boned clothing of the day, promoting wide-legged “Turkish-style” pantaloons as a less restrictive alternative. Amelia Bloomer, owner of The Lily – the first newspaper edited by and for women – was an early adopter, explaining the new style of dress to her readers. The prototype trousers soon became known as “bloomers”, in turn leading to the “bloomer craze” of 1851, with its bloomer parties and bloomer festivals.

Inevitably bloomers, and their close cousin “bifurcated skirts”, made their way to the UK, where their cause was championed by the Rational Dress Society. They captured the mood of the time – an age in which women began to enter the workplace, and when healthy athleticism was seen as a desirable feminine attribute.

The six published issues of the Society’s gazette in the British Library make fascinating reading, telling of the sheer weight of women’s clothing – six kilos of undergarments alone – and noting that “succeeding generations [will] look back with contempt and wonder at the ignorance and obstinacy of their ancestors”.

The wartime demands placed on women – leading them out of the domestic sphere and into work in factories and on the land – made trousers into a functional form of dress that women were unwilling to abandon when peacetime came.

Meanwhile, stars such as Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich and Katharine Hepburn introduced a new kind of woman – modern, independent and defiantly trousered. Coco Chanel, too, helped speed the cause: the pair of sailor pants she wore on the beach at Deauville were swiftly emulated by her devotees.

Then, in 1966, Yves Saint Laurent unveiled his legendary Le Smoking – the first tuxedo suit for women. It would prove deliciously outrageous in an era when many formal restaurants were still turning away women in trousers, and in the years that followed the silhouette was taken up with gusto by celebrities such as Catherine Deneuve, Lauren Bacall and Bianca Jagger. Even today it stands as an iconic look, possessed of an unapologetic power and sultriness.


Brooke Shields in Calvin Klein jeans.

Brooke Shields in Calvin Klein jeans. Photo: Agency Pictures

Yet for all these strides forward, the establishment has been slow to embrace trousers for women: it wasn’t until 1969 that Barbra Streisand became the first Best Actress winner to wear trousers to the Oscars (a daring sheer black pair by Arnold Scaasi).

It took another 22 years for women to wear trousers on the floor of the US Senate. The most recent win came in Victoria just last month, when girls were finally permitted to wear trousers and shorts in public schools.

But look around at the women you know and the wardrobes they wear and you’ll see that after 150 years our love for trousers is beyond question. Because, for all the joy of a frock or thrill of a mini, in trousers we feel something else: strong and direct, level-pegging with our male counterparts. They change our view of the world, as Woolf put it, and the world’s view of us.

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