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Women, Pants, & Politics

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As I alluded in previous posts, adopting aspects of menswear had a direct relationship with the Women's Movement, socially and politically. For hundreds of years wealthy and impoverished women alike had worn heavy floor length dresses, even as unsanitary street filth dragged in the long skirts, even as the simple negotiation of stairs became arduous (and potentially dangerous), and even as a woman's ability to move freely and comfortably was hampered. Despite widespread discussion of the physical harm caused by corseting, women of society and women of the streets tightly laced their bodies into undergarments that constricted their waists to produce the exaggerated silhouette au currant. Women were even killed and disfigured by voluminous skirts catching aflame without their notice. Dress reformers in the 19th century tackled this issue of female oppression by fashion by promoting social improvement in practicality over trends, for health and comfort over convention, and rationality over conformity.

18th century society was highly influenced by the popular writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712 - 1778) who used the State of Nature as a normative guide in dress, child rearing, and more. Though female dress reform was not specifically addressed at this time (children's dress was), this Age of Enlightenment planted the seeds for the women's suffrage movement of the 19th century. The work of Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815 - 1902) and Lucretia Mott (1793 - 1880) produced the Seneca Falls Declaration of Sentiments in 1848 which demanded equal citizenship and equal political rights for women. A few short years afterwards in 1851, abolitionist and social reformer Amelia Bloomer (1818 - 1894) appeared in oriental trousers with a short skirt. This radical bloomer costume provided an obvious source of activewear for women by covering their legs while allowing them the freedom of a bifurcated garment:

However it had only ever been adopted by fringe Victorian dress reformers who were ridiculed by the press as radical feminists with silly, indecent (still!) sartorial selections, and it never achieved widespread acceptance in this form -- a woman would commit social suicide by marring her reputation in such suggestive garments. The bloomer costume was ridiculed for looking silly, even as men enjoyed the daring short skirts with distinguishable legs, discouraging even politically minded women from adopting dress reform. The associations of pants with Calamity Jane (1852 - 1903) did not help: though she was a strong, fierce, accomplished woman, her behavior was distinctly manly and she prostituted herself to boot: embodying all the fears of dress reform detractors (except perhaps lesbianism).


Calamity Jane, by H. R. Locke in 1895

Interestingly, the bicycle fad of the 1890s broke the social stigma of women wearing bifurcated garments and "bicycle costumes" were actually lauded as preserving modesty while preserving health. (See this post for more on athleticism's influence on fashion). These outfits bore suspicious (and unacknowledged) resemblance to the disparaged bloomer costume by alleviating some of the major fashion impediments with narrower skirts, fewer under-layers, and (minimally) raised hemlines. A description of an acceptable female riding outfit from 1895:

"A combination garment was worn next [to] the skin - all wool in cold weather and cotton in warm. Over this she wore no corset, but a patent waist without bones, to which were buttoned the circular bands of drawers and petticoats. It will be seen that the waist escaped much of the pressure and dragging incident to the old style of dressing, as the only bands were of the least trying shape. Her dress skirts and waists were hooked to each other all around, thus insuring their staying together, while they were loose enough for comfort."

woman cycling costume, 1895

By the early 20th century, the female bicycling outfit had become more risqué, with visible legs. (Note that corsets are worn):


detail of "The Cycle Hut in the Bois de Boulogne" by Jean Beraud, c. 1901-10

In preparation for the World's Colombian Exposition of 1893, a federation of several women's societies organized the National Council of Women who wanted to improve the political and social climate of the country and to overthrow the "ignorance and injustice" of women's clothing; that is, to tackle dress form once again. They attempted to outfit prominent women reformers (Clara Barton, Harriet Beecher Stowe, etc.) and ordinary businesswomen and college girls in the reformed outfits, but the clothes could not gain traction when explicitly paired with a women's movement.

Fabulously influential designer Paul Poiret (1879 - 1944) discarded corsets and successfully disseminated an exotic Middle Eastern look including Turkish harem pants (that again, resembled the Bloomer costume silhouette) in 1911. This was purely an aesthetic choice and not a political statement on his part (he was also the inventor of the distinctly impractical hobble skirt), but it was threatening to social and religious conservatives nonetheless and that same year the Vatican campaigned against the "harem trousers" as morally objectionable, even while women's legs were still completely obscured. While popular in wealthy fashionable society, Poiret's exotic styles were not worn by lower or middle class women or dress reformers -- but I believe the Parisian interpretation of oriental styles hastened the ultimate acceptance of trousers for women, since it removed the politically radical (and implied lesbian) stigma.


Paul Poiret harem pants, 1911

I cannot overemphasize how wars affect fashion and this was especially true of bending gender codes in clothes, as men allow women to take on "male" work and also functional dress out of pure necessity. Aptly named, the "slack girls" of WWI operated machinery for war plants in full knickers, a variation on the bloomers, to avoid factory accidents:


Women working in a factory producing airplane engine parts for the WWI effort, 1918

However, this kind of outfit was purely occupation-driven and women would absolutely not wear it outside the work environment.

The Women's Suffrage movement gained its greatest victory in 1920 when the 19th Amendment prohibited gender discrimination in the voting polls. This political gain opened a decade of many radical changes in the perception and presentation of women. While this progressive step was taken, the repressive prohibition of alcohol entered legislation in the 18th Amendment. Ironically (or not?) these Amendments hearkened a particularly hedonistic decade, and the new American jazz music invited a radically new, athletic dance style to accompany the illegal but widespread speakeasies. Many modern young women bobbed their hair in variations of gender-bending pageboy styles, the corset-less look that Poiret popularized and increasing female recreational athletic activity hastened a fad for flat chested, hipless, boyish female figures, and the garçonne became synonymous with the stylish flappers. Many of the '20s fashions were made with the explicit intention of allowing easy movement and looking good in motion to cater to exuberant dance crazes like the Charleston, with ropes of fringe, tassels, asymmetrical and much shorter hemlines that made visible the actual leg in transparent stockings.

The clip below is from the awesomely hilarious (that is, kind of bad) Julie Andrews / Mary Tyler Moore musical Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967). In the opening credits you see Millie (Andrews) transforming herself from a nineteen-teens woman to the radically modern 1920s flapper:

Even while women had short androgynous haircuts and manipulated their figures to be flat and boyish as well (though the corset was abandoned, stretchy tubular shapers were adopted to minimize feminine curves -- used as a sight gag in the video above), increased use of makeup counteracted the masculine look. This was the first time since the flamboyant 18th century when makeup was applied so un-subtly so as to leave no doubt a woman wore it. Black kohl eyeshadow, spidery mascara and bright red lipstick would have been reserved for women of the theater or women of the streets in previous eras. This change was documented in magazines like LIFE Magazine:

But to return to women in pants.

After WWI women returned to their kitchens, children, and dresses, but there were a few notable dissenters. While flying, the boyish pilot extraordinaire Amelia Earhart (1897 - 1937) "favored old, high-laced shoes, well-worn trousers, an ancient leather coat with deep pockets, a soft leather helmet and goggles. On land, she wore pretty much the same thing, without the headgear." After her 1931 solo flight across the Atlantic, Earhart started her own fashion line (to subsidize her next flight) which favored similarly masculine, practical styles, but they were never adopted by the general public in her own time.


Amelia Earhart c. 1930

Similarly freckled and slender Katharine Hepburn (1907 - 2003) flouted feminine styles in favor of pants, but hers was more leisure-based than professional. Known for her athleticism, Hepburn was an avid tennis player, swimmer, and golfer, and she chose to adopt menswear (that is, pants) to enjoy these activities. She carried this casual, cross-dressing style to the RKO studio lot where her pants were once stolen -- until she threatened to walk around in her underwear if the slacks were not returned. Below she is in a distinctly casual state of recline for a 1938 LIFE photo shoot by Alfred Eisenstaedt:

Open bisexual Marlene Dietrich wore pants and full men's style suits (in direct defiance of Paramount executives). As an eccentric European, she was perhaps given a smidge more leeway than Amelia and Katharine, but the fact that her manly ensembles were in no way related to a specific athletic activity made them that much more radical and liberating. She balanced the masculine tailoring with highly stylized, feminine makeup, appealing to men and women alike.

Another war was necessary to push pants from movie star aberration to clothes of the common woman. WWII saw record numbers of women in factories and men's denim overalls became typical work wear for them. Again, it's important to remember this was only appropriate during work hours; women would change into more feminine clothes to perform their feminine duties.Margaret Bourke-White did a photography series of Women in the Defense Industry that's available in their online archives. Below are women welders in Gary, IN in 1942:

However, even feminine styles started showing (masculine) military influence with sharply squared shoulders and slim, suit-like tailored (skirt) suits, as can be seen in this famous scene from Casablanca (1942). If you squint, Ingrid Bergman is hardly distinguishable from the men in her jaunty brimmed hat and tailored jacket with large, practical cargo pockets.

In England during WWII, many women actually wore their husbands' civilian clothes to work in and to save money. As the clothes wore out, pants made to fit women became increasingly popular so that by 1944, it was reported that five times more women's trousers were sold than in 1943.

Unfortunately, the return of the "boys" after the war heralded the '50s as the age of Dior's "New Look," hyperfeminine with its wasp waist, "bullet bras" (a sneaky connection to war) and voluminous skirts. Stars like Mary Tyler Moore in the Dick Van Dyke Show and Lucille Ball in I Love Lucy sneaked pants into their wardrobes even while they performed traditional familial obligations in the home. (They would always change into dresses and skirts to go out.)

Jacqueline Onasis Kennedy (1929 - 1994), as a woman of accepted impeccable style and also in the political eye, did wonders for popularizing casual clothes. Though she was occasionally criticized for dressing down in pants, the Kennedy's chic outdoorsy lifestyle, their political clout, and Jackie's undeniable femininity ultimately contributed to the dissemination and adoption of just that style.

The Sexual Revolution of the 1970s embraced the deliberate confusion of gender codes and sexual mores, and it had become so acceptable for women to wear pants by this time that Diane Keaton's mannish style -- complete with tie!! -- in Annie Hall (1977) was actually lauded and imitated (to this day, if I have anything to do with it). Below, Keaton graces the cover of LIFE magazine that same year, wearing a (male) vest and shoestring tie:

The 1980s saw the advent of the "power suit" by designers like Donna Karan who tapped into the female Baby Boomers who stormed the corporate work force. Coincidentally (or not), Diane Keaton was featured in a film -- Baby Boom (1987) -- that addressed the aspirations and difficulties of women who want to work and have families. She sports the hugely padded suit shoulders to achieve a masculine broadness that was popular in the middle aged female workforce.

Women's Movement progress has gradually plateaued in recent decades, with only a few battles fought and won, such as women in the U.S. Senate being allowed to wear pants in the 1990s (can you believe it?). This example highlights once again that women (and especially those in politics) must still ride the impossible line of being feminine (i.e. non-threatening) without being too sexy (i.e. distracting); this was brought to the forefront when Hillary Clinton was lambasted for showing too much cleavage on the Senate floor in 2007, even as she had many detractors for her unflattering pantsuits as well.

On a lighter note, Saturday Night Live's androgynous Pat character befuddles and uneases those s/he comes into contact with as they try to figure out his/her sex. I think these sketches are so funny because they speak to a true and pervasive anxiety around indeterminate sex and sexuality. We seem to need to compartmentalize gender, so gender roles may be assigned and expectations set.

In every major instance of feminist upheaval, women's clothing has been examined as both a symbolic and literal reflection of women's inequality in society. An over-arching irony is that fashion is a human construct. The things that we recognize as "feminine" and "masculine" are not inherently so, but have simply been designated as such by early human society, and reinforced in subsequently evolving fashions. The good news is that as attitudes about gender have changed, and as women and homosexuals have won political and social freedoms we should have had all along, the rigid distinctions between clothing styles for men and women have blurred. Clothing can make personal statements regarding gender and sexual politics, but it doesn't have to. However, though women may wear pants and full suits in the Western world now, there are still gender-based expectations in most of the business (specifically corporate) world that demands women wear makeup, skirts, and heels. I think we've hit the glass ceiling, but there's more progress to be made.

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