Wearing the Pants: A Brief Western History of Pants -The Toast

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270px-Amazon_trousers_BM_VaseB673According to Herodotus, when Greek soldiers met the Scythians in battle, they were amazed to see Scythian women on horseback fighting alongside the men, all wearing pants and decorated armor. When they went back to Greece they immortalized those Scythian women for posterity as the legendary Amazons in their poetry and art. Painting them looking both chic and fierce, their pictures of the Amazons are some of the earliest Western artworks showing women in pants. But even though pants came to the West from the Scythians and others (along with riding horses), in the West, wearing pants was associated with warfare and restricted to men only. Perhaps, remembering those Amazons, men feared what might happen to them if women were able to wear pants and get their hands on some weapons.

By law and custom, for centuries women have been forbidden from wearing men’s clothes. But women did it anyway, taking the risk of discovery to escape a life of confinement and drudgery. Many ran away to join the military or to take a job restricted to men, and sometimes to be able to live with another woman in peace. If a woman had no family or husband to support her, sometimes her only other options were prostitution or starvation. Choosing to wear pants was often a matter of life or death. Faced with these stark choices, some women took to the sea. (The British Navy always needed sailors and clearly had very lax recruitment standards. It was basically, “are you capable of hauling on a rope? Welcome aboard!”) The notorious Hannah Snell (pictured below) served in the British Marines for many years as a man and eventually received a pension for her service. Many other uncounted women joined the Army. In the days before official ID, a clever woman could fool most people into believing that she was a man if she dressed the part. We may never know how many uncounted women went “off the grid” in the past, but there are clues that they numbered in the thousands. 


As evidence, we know that there are more than four hundred documented cases of women serving in the Army in the Civil War alone. Dressed as men, they served alongside their husbands or brothers, or took their places in secret. Some were only discovered after they were wounded or killed. Many of these women continued to dress and live as men for the rest of their lives, preferring the freedom that wearing pants gave them. Ironically enough, current day female Civil War re-enactors frequently face resistance to their participation from the male re-enactors. Even though the presence of women in uniform on Civil War battlefields is historically accurate, some men continue to deny that women have a right to participate as soldiers.

Cowgirl_at_the_Pendleton_Round-Up_(4986473545)Women in the American West wore pants as a practical necessity. The West was no place for long skirts: it was either muddy or dusty and skirts were a hindrance while doing the physical labor that frontier life required. City records show that a “Marie Susie” lobbied the Board of Aldermen for the right to wear pants in Gold Rush-era San Francisco, saying that she had worn “masculine habiliments” for twenty years and wished to be protected against arrest for doing so. (Police then would routinely harass anyone dressing “differently.”) She said that she had started dressing as a man when she first came to in San Francisco, and had gone to work in the gold mines, (wishing to be neither a prostitute nor a maid) eventually earning enough money to start her own business. Many women worked then disguised as men, because mining jobs were plentiful, (they needed workers and didn’t ask too many questions); and while the work was hard, the pay was good. A smart woman could set aside a small fortune; for example, Ferminia Sarras came from Nicaragua with her family to work, and was so successful in mining she is now known as Nevada’s Copper Queen.

Out on the frontier, old photos show us women in pants working in logging camps and operating heavy machinery. Dressed in men’s work clothes, women rounded up cattle, raised families, and ran businesses. It’s no coincidence that women had the right to vote in Western states first; there they were able to show that they were more than equal to the men. Wearing pants will do that for a woman.

Back in the cities, Rational Dress Reformers campaigned for pants for women as a more healthful alternative to Victorian fashion. They claimed that corsets and heavy skirts had rendered women virtual prisoners of their clothes, arguing that the confining clothes were both unhygienic (because long skirts dragged in the dirt) and immoral because they changed a woman’s shape for fashion. The Pro-Corset conservatives argued that looking respectable and being properly dressed was a lady’s duty, and if ladies were uncomfortable, being uncomfortable was a burden that all moral women should happily bear. Anything less would be shirking their duty to husbands and families. When Amelia Bloomer lobbied in her newspaper for a shorter dress over loose “bloomer pants,” (which she thought that women should wear so they could exercise) it was considered a radical idea, as exercise for women was considered dangerous. Most doctors advised against it, saying that it would adversely affect a woman’s fertility. (Members of the IOC still seem to think so.)  Besides, it would take a woman out of the home, where she belonged. Pro-corset apologist Arabella Kenealy felt that this exercise idea was preposterous nonsense, decreeing, “If women needed to exercise, all they needed to do was the commonplace household chore.” But the growing number of middle-class women with new leisure time didn’t want to do more chores. They wanted to play popular sports like tennis and bike riding, and so they modified their clothing to participate. And even though wearing trousers was considered shocking by many women at the beginning of 20th century, as women became more active they began to wear easier, more pant-like alternatives to “lady-like” Victorian Dress for sportswear.


As always, not everyone was in favor of radical ideas for change. Prominent feminists were more concerned with gaining women’s rights than dress reform, and most of them dressed like “ladies” to avoid detracting from their main cause of securing the vote. Conservatives ridiculed “rational” styles, and warned that allowing “ladies” to wear pants would be more dangerous than a ticking time bomb. Many religious leaders feared that women wearing pants would become immodest (code for promiscuous.) It wasn’t “ladylike” (code for questioning male authority.) Girls would be wild, instead of quiet and modest, and no one would want to marry them. The family would be destroyed. Men would become weak and effeminate. They wrote editorials fretting that cross dressing by women would cause social and moral chaos, ranting that that the differences between the sexes “would be obliterated.” 

As any rational adult knows, the best way to make something more popular is to write sermons and editorials against it. Fashion and attitudes gradually turned away from heavy Victorian and Edwardian-style dress as women’s clothing evolved toward simpler and looser styles in the years just before and after WWI. More women were working outside the home in factories and offices. As younger women gained greater freedoms they embraced the popular and more androgynous fashions of the Twenties. Maybe those young women were feeling just a little rebellious. Influential designers like Paul Poiret and Coco Chanel included pants for women in their collections, showing pants as a fashionable wardrobe choice for entertaining, and for tennis, riding, and other sports. Actresses and socialites wore the new pants to be just a little naughty and to look more modern.


During WWI and WWII women wore pants while working as conductors, miners, factory workers, and many other jobs previously limited to men. When the wars were over women were fired and told to go back home and wear dresses. But after WWII wearing pants had become more socially acceptable as well as fashionable for sportswear and casual dress. Movie stars like Marlene Dietrich, Katharine Hepburn, and Audrey Hepburn had made wearing pants seem cool and sexy. By the fifties many young women were comfortably choosing pants for casual wear. In the sixties most young women were wearing pants and even the more radical jeans without thinking twice (it was just a bonus when old people didn’t approve.) With the popularity of designer jeans and pant suits, in the seventies women of all ages were wearing pants at work and at home. With increased numbers of women both entering the workforce and getting elected to both Congress and state governments, women were able to flex their growing political power and challenge laws restricting women’s clothing choices. In a great moment in pants-wearing history, Rep. Charlotte Reid wore pants on the floor of the House in 1969 with no known adverse effects to society.

With the passage of Title IX in 1972, schools receiving Federal funds were prohibited from discriminating on the basis of sex. Title IX made it law that school districts could no longer require that girls wear dresses to school. (They still try though, continually banning short skirts, leggings and other “dangerous” fashions.) In a landmark victory for Equal Rights, the California employment code was changed to say that businesses could no longer require women to wear dresses as part of their dress codes. Even so, many places still have obsolete laws on their books that prohibit pants on women. Only recently a student named Shafer Rupard was asked to leave her High School Prom for wearing pants, even though there are no rules against them.

In the nineties, Hillary Clinton made history by being the first, (and so far, only) First Lady to wear pants in her official portrait. She wore her pant suit as a not-so-subtle political statement. If you look at her picture, you’ll see from her body language that she is posing as if she were a man. (Her portrait reminds me of one of George Washington’s.)

In 2012, after intense pressure from Canadian citizens, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police announced that they had changed their policy against women in pants and would “permit” them in full dress occasions. (I especially like their phrasing, “Earned the right” to wear pants, as if women did not have this right to begin with.) 


Some conservative evangelical sects still prohibit women from wearing pants, citing Deuteronomy 22:5. They aren’t considering that at the time the Bible was written, not even men wore pants. Most Old Testament scholars dispute their ultra-conservative interpretation, but the evangelicals probably won’t change their minds. In their view, women and their clothing are still as dangerous as dynamite if left uncontrolled.

Parisians only recently repealed a law dating back to the French Revolution that required women to ask city officials for “permission” to wear pants. Even though the law had been unenforced for decades, men had not thought to change it. The law was finally officially revoked by France’s Women’s Rights Minister, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem in 2013. 

Mormon women chose to wear pants to church in a gesture of solidarity to protest women’s unequal status in the Mormon Church. Nothing says equality more than a nice pair of pants. In the language of clothes, pants equal power. Pants on a woman disrupt the status quo. They certainly aren’t “lady-like.”

What we will be wearing in the future is harder to predict. Many designers have shown men in skirts, but skirts haven’t yet caught on with men. (Men’s skirts are in the “ridicule” stage now, just as trousers were on women 150 years ago. It did take a few centuries for women’s pants to be socially acceptable, after all.) Who knows what clothing the next visionary designer, our Paul Poirot of the future, will design? Maybe she sees us all wearing sleek futuristic unitards, like Catwoman or Mrs. Peel. Advances in fabric technology may allow our future clothes to render us invisible, or change colors while we wear them, or glow in the dark. The new 3-D printers will enable us to print individualized clothes for every person, in a custom size and color. Our new customized clothes might monitor our vital signs with microcomputers, helping us to stay cool or warm, and relieve anxiety by monitoring stress. Our phones could be built into the very fabric of our Catwoman unitards, and the GPS could speak directly into our ears. 

It won’t be long before our future clothes will be programmed to look like business casual during the day, and timed to look like formal wear later that evening with the new programmable fabric. That means that soon we’ll have the power to look thinner or shapelier, taller or shorter, while wearing what looks like work clothes, even though we’re all really wearing pajamas in disguise.  


Kathleen Cooper is a writer from Virginia. Her work has appeared in The Toast, The Airship, The Washington Post, and Medium. When she isn't rooting for the California Golden Bears, she designs textile art, reads cookbooks in bed, and wrangles two cats, a golden retriever, and her husband.

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