I love dresses. There’s always something about a flowy skirt or elegant dress that makes me look and feel beautiful. I grew up wearing dresses and skirts. I went to a private school that had pleated skirts for uniforms and only got to wear P.E. jogging pants once a week.
I didn’t get my first pair of jeans until I was nine. At first, I hated it. I hated that the denim was wrapped around my legs, trapping them. I didn’t like how they shaped the lower part of my body. I hated how it covered up my legs and, in a shirt or blouse, I felt so plain.
But as I grew up and discovered fashion and the various jean cuts, I saw a different way of looking at pants. I’ll still always prefer dresses and feel more comfortable in them, but what I love about pants on is that, when worn and styled right, there’s a certain power to the power-dressing that oozes out of a strong woman.
And apparently, that feeling I get when I see a stylish woman in pants isn’t just a coincidence. Today, more women are given bigger roles in bigger businesses. Given the history of women and their fight to wear pants, a woman in pants today may be commonplace everywhere you look, but decades ago, it became a symbol of women taking over and defying norms placed by the patriarchy.
Women and Pants: A History
Pants have existed for centuries, but until the 20th century, pants were generally delegated to men. Women were expected to dress modestly and wear shifts and loose drawers to avoid showing off their bodies. Any woman who showed too much skin were immoral, while women who did wear pants were labelled cross-dressers. While there is evidence that some women were already defying societal standards on pants by the 1800’s, this wasn’t generally accepted.
Amelia Bloomer coined the term “bloomers,” which were ankle-length trousers worn under the dress for modesty. This was in the 1850s, but it wasn’t until the 20th century when it was acceptable for women to wear modified bloomers for tennis, cycling, and horseback riding. Eventually, women were allowed to wear knickerbockers. Women were then allowed to wear pants only for “occasional dressing.” Apart from activities where it was convenient for women to wear pants, they had to wear dresses during business and formal occasions, and it wasn’t socially acceptable to do otherwise until the 1970s.
During the 1900s to the 1920s, some countries could arrest a woman for cross-dressing if she was seen wearing pants during a non-occasion. However, some celebrities could get away with it, such as Marlene Dietrich’s iconic tuxedo and fedora during the 1932 premiere of her film, The Sign of the Cross. Ordinary women, however, could be arrested, fined, or publicly ridiculed.
In fact, in France, women legally needed a man’s permission to wear pants or dress like a man. While no one has practiced this law for decades, it wasn’t repealed until 2013. And in the United States, women in Congress were “distracting” when they wore pants, so they weren’t allowed to attend Congress in pants until 1993.
1940’s-1990’s: Gaining the Right to Wear Pants
This began to change when, from the 1940s to 1950s, men went off to fight in the war, leaving many jobs unoccupied. To help continue the economy and support the industrial sector, women began to enter the workforce. However, skirts were a major hindrance in their job, so women began wearing their husbands’ trousers to work. However, once the men’s clothes wore out, women began buying their own trousers. Rules were then modified so that women were given the right to wear pants.
Until the 90’s, pants had become a symbol of women empowerment and equality. Give a woman a pair of pants and she can do the same work a man can, yet women were shamed, fined, and arrested for wearing pants and were expected to uphold gender stereotypes.It wasn’t until the 90’s when women were no longer sold unisex pants and were given their own line of pants for all occasions.
The Gender Politics in Your Jeans
Today, we can wear a pair of jeans and no one would bat an eye. If you were wearing your favorite pants and top almost a hundred years ago, though, you would not only be humiliated, you could also be arrested. But the fact that women in the past had to fight for this right says a lot about our place between men and women.
Women needed men’s permission to wear pants. Women could be penalized for wearing pants because it distracted men. Women shouldn’t wear pants simply because men say so. Men are the breadwinners, women are the child-raisers, so why do women need to wear pants? Women had helped in World War II when the industrial sector needed it the most. But when that was over and the men came back, we were given a pat on the back and then expected to return to the expectations that women were once more not allowed to wear pants.
It’s only a pair of pants, yes. But it symbolizes so much more when you think about it. When you consider the struggle women went through in the past and the ubiquity of it in the present, it kind of makes you think about the barriers that had to be broken before we could reach this point in women’s progress for equality.
You see a pair of pants. But women in the past see so much more. It’s a symbol of a woman proving that, regardless of her sex, she is every bit as capable as she is compared to her male counterpart. Whether she chooses to be a housewife or a CEO, she can put on a pair of pants if she pleases – the same way women are allowed to wear skirts any time they please. And no man should have to tell her that she shouldn’t be allowed to wear one simply because he prefers her in skirts.