Today, we don’t even bat an eyelash whenever we see women’s trousers. But throughout most of Western History women mainly wore skirts. And not just any skirts either; they were multi-layered, floor length and often came with a cage crinoline or bustles (depending on the era).
For hundreds of years wealthy and impoverished women alike had worn these heavy floor length dresses. Eventually, they became more of burden than luxury. Something as simple as the negotiation of stares became arduous (and potentially dangerous), their ability to move freely was obviously hampered. Women were even killed and disfigured by voluminous skirts catching aflame without their notice.
It wasn’t until the Age of Enlightenment in the 19th Century that planted the seeds for the women’s suffrage movement. Abolitionist and social reformer, Amela Bloomer appeared in oriental trousers worn under a short skirt. This radical “bloomer costume” provided a source of activewear for women by covering their legs while allowing them the freedom that a petticoat like pant allows them. It never achieved widespread acceptance in this form; the only ones who took to it were Victorian dress reformers who were ridiculed by the press as “radical feminists with silly, indecent sartorial selections.”
In the 1890s is when the social stigma of women wearing bifurcated garments was broken. Bicycle costumes were lauded as preserving modesty while preserving health. The popularity of women in trousers came during World War I when women had to start working in factory jobs while the men fought in the war. Women began wearing trousers and overalls because it was easier for work conditions. After the war, in the 1920s, Coco Chanel designed horseback riding trousers for women, who had previously ridden sidesaddle in heavy skirts.
During the 1930s pants continued to be stylish, although they were still shocking to many. Audiences were both fascinated and horrified by glamorous actresses of the time, such as Marlene Dietrichand Katharine Hepburn, who wore trousers regularly.
By 1939, Vogue pictured women in trousers for the first time, and many women wore pants for playing golf or tennis and riding or bicycling. The 1940s placed more women in wartime jobs as World War II began, and trousers once again got a boost in popularity.
And by the late 1960s pants on women became completely accepted, first for casual wear and finally for the workplace. Today, we see everywhere not just in the workplace. We see them in different fabrics, flared, bootcut, and in different colors with different patterns. The once stigma turned into everyday wear.
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