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Women, Pants, and the Backlash
July 9, 2014 4:51 PM   Subscribe

Margaret Perry's review of Women in Pants provides an interesting overview of those women (in the Western world) who chose to wore pants in the 19th and early 20th centuries when the standard gender norm dictated dresses for girls and women. R.S. Fleming has a great collection of Victorian women-in-pants images, particularly in non-American military garb. See also: Welsh pit miners, women fighting in the US Civil War (and support-staff), this cattle thief/gunfighter, some cowgirls, and Dr. Mary Walker - here she is in more traditionally masculine dress (second picture). In France, the artist Rosa Bonheur had to get permission from the police to wear pants (picture) while sketching in public (her license), while adventurer/archaeologist Jane Dieulafoy got a lifetime exemption to wear pants from France.

The Bloomer - a style Elizabeth Smith Miller introduced to the U. S. after a trip to Europe and Amelia Bloomer publicized (and primarily worn by a small number of middle and upper-class women) inspired scorn, taunting, mockery, and disapprobation and a constant negative focus from the press. Women who wore pants - especially more pants that were closer fitting - could be accused of fraud for impersonating a man or assumed to be prostitutes; they could be charged for being unwomanly or indecent or morally corrupt. In the 1850s, Emma Snodgrass was arrested over and over again all across the USA. In 1866, a California woman arrested in pants was released by a judge for not actually breaking any law. Similarly, in 1910, the Kansas Attorney General ruled it wasn't against the law for women to wear pants, particularly if they were the head of the household. In 1923, a 14 year old WV girl was arrested for wearing pants; that arrest led to a change in local law. In 1943, a Chicago woman was picked up for violating a 90 year old law against non-gender-conforming dress- a law which was modified slightly in the wake of the outrage against her arrest but didn't stop the arrests; in this case, the judge still sent the woman to a psychiatrist because she just wasn't feminine enough to get away with wearing pants.

The stigma of women in pants in western cultures has never gone completely away, even if it has diminished with time. In 1969, some NYC restaurants were still banning women in pants. Some big hotels wanted women in pants to leave via the kitchen if they must wear pants. In this latter case, the hotelier had to be informed that the woman he wanted to send out the back way was the First Lady of the United States. Just this year, a girl was booted from her prom because she wore pants.

Change comes slowly: In the 1990s, U.S. Senate rules were changed to allow women in pants onto the Senate Floor. In 2010, Wonder Woman got to wear pants. In 2012, female Canadian Mounties were finally given permission to wear pants to formal RMCP events. In 2013, Paris revoked a 200 year old law (however unenforced) preventing women from wearing pants in the city (in 1902, an exception was made for bike and horse riders). Even today, the web is littered with arguments from a variety of American religious traditions that women wearing pants is unChristian and Should Not Be Done.

Previously on MetaFilter:
Not All Our Foremothers Wore Taffeta and Lace, last week's pants and history FPP
posted by julen (25 comments total) 74 users marked this as a favorite

 
Whooo! Fantastic post. I thought WWII made pants-wearing more acceptable for womenin the U.S., and the dress was reinstated (or propagandized) again with Dior and The New Look in the 1950s.

Obligatory link to Kate the Great.
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome at 4:56 PM on July 9 [3 favorites]


From the second link:
While mentioning women soldiers, the Vivandières have to be examined. The tradition of wives travelling with their husbands on campaign goes back centuries. Some time around 1700 the French Army formalized a system where certain wives were given the right to maintain a regimental canteen, which also brought them into the fold of military discipline. The word vivandière comes from vivand, meaning an article of food. Cantinière (from canteen) came into use in the 1790s, particularly with the French during their revolution (1789-99), but other countries favoured the old term. A canteen was a place soldiers could purchase alcohol, extra food, personal items like socks and handkerchiefs, perhaps bring their laundry and mending, or whatever else the women could do to make a little money and help look after the “regimental family” as a whole. In garrison the canteen may have been a room within the fort, or just a corner of the barracks, while on campaign it would have been a tent, probably set up near the cooks.

Vivandières served with many European armies during the 1800s; Spain, Italy, Belgium, Austria, Switzerland, Russia, the Netherlands, and German states. The Dutch and Belgians called their female soldiers Marketentsters, the latter country allowing one per company, and there is a statue commemorating their service at Leopoldsburg, in the north-eastern Flemish Region of Belgium. The Austrian high command stipulated that their vivandières could march with the men provided they had no children and were supplying the troops with brandy, otherwise they travelled with the baggage train.
OK, the next time I have the chance to direct or costume a procuction of HMS Pinafore, Little Buttercup is going to be kitted out in full Vivandière uniform. They are absolutely ass-kickingly gorgeous, and I bet they'd be great to dance in.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 5:11 PM on July 9 [2 favorites]


Whoa. This is astonishing. Thanks for this post. And for contemporary history, about 1995, when I worked for EDS, I repeatedly got letters from HR pointing out that I was supposed to be in skirt, hose and heels, even though my job required climbing over water cooling pipes in the supercomputer area. I never complied...and eventually they found a reason to replace me with a man.
posted by dejah420 at 5:15 PM on July 9 [10 favorites]


My Grandma started wearing trousers during WWII and never looked back, except for church weddings or the occasional work uniform.

Me, I'm more comfortable in a skirt. Even though I'm not a bad tailor, I'm built oddly enough that it's practically impossible to find a pair of women's trousers that fits me well enough to not be both uncomfortable and unflattering, and stay where they belong. Especially now that you can't get any that don't sit below the natural waist and contain spandex.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 5:17 PM on July 9 [2 favorites]


I thought WWII made pants-wearing more acceptable for women and the dress was reinstated (or propagandized) again with Dior and The New Look in the 1950s.

From what I've read, it seems like a lot of society had the same mostly unspoken expectation about pants-wearing in WWII as they had with the (much smaller number of) women in WWI who wore baggy pants in mechanical war work: you wore your pants to work and back, and you wore dresses the rest of the time like the good little woman your (future) man or son was coming home to - in public, at least. You couldn't wear pants to a canteen or dance or to the train station to give muffins to the troops on a train headed to the coast.

That didn't stop people from being arrested for pants-wearing going to work or back (and with multiple shifts in a day, that meant commuting could happen at all times), but I would imagine most women were merely clucked at if it seemed obvious you were going to do warwork especially if you wore other traditional badges of femininity.

I've also seen the implication that after the war, societal powers jerked the fashion back to being ultrafeminine to help solidify traditional gender roles - if women weren't working, they didn't need trousers, and these boys were over there fighting for hearth and home, and getting things back to normal... In the US, women got access to finer fabrics (and everything) far faster than our European counterparts, so our culture could push the luxurious rewards of re-inspired femininity as a carrot for going back into the barn even after women had been through those doors into a new world.
posted by julen at 5:34 PM on July 9 [1 favorite]


Visitors to San Francisco often wonder what the landmark Coit Tower is all about. It was built to resemble a fire hose nozzle, because Lillian Coit loved the fire department and often would go on runs with the firemen, which they would allow because of all the support she gave the department.

'Firebelle Lil' Coit was considered eccentric, smoking cigars and wearing trousers long before it was socially acceptable for women to do so. She was an avid gambler and often dressed like a man in order to gamble in the male-only establishments that dotted North Beach.

posted by eye of newt at 5:41 PM on July 9 [5 favorites]




I wish I could get a license to wear pants in public. It would set me apart from the was horde of pantless (disempanted?) MeFites.
posted by GenjiandProust at 5:55 PM on July 9


My mom was sent home from her community college in 1967 for wearing pants on campus. On her way to a phys ed class.
posted by Sophie1 at 6:15 PM on July 9 [1 favorite]




Per my mother (who went to college in the '40's), pants were for stuff like war work or painting your apartment, otherwise for an office job, or going to college classes, or going out and about in general, you were expected to wear skirts. This did not change till the '70's and even now there are some restaurants and workplaces that require and expect skirts for women.

Ah the '60's and early '70's, remember it well. Skirts were short (till more below the knee skirts came in), but you better be wearing one if you went to my grade school/junior high. In my small NJ town, we all had to walk or bike to school, a combined grade school/junior high, rain or shine. There were no buses. It got darn cold going to school in a mini skirt in the winter. We begged to be allowed to wear pants. They finally grudgingly allowed up to wear pants under our skirts to school, but we had to take them off when we got there. I was so happy when I hit high school, because we were allowed to wear not only pants but actually jeans, and it was a regional school so there were buses (or friends with cars)! Not long after I graduated from junior high in '71, they finally changed the dress code at my grade school to allow pants for girls.
posted by gudrun at 6:37 PM on July 9 [2 favorites]


Ah the '60's and early '70's, remember it well. Skirts were short (till more below the knee skirts came in), but you better be wearing one if you went to my grade school/junior high. In my small NJ town, we all had to walk or bike to school, a combined grade school/junior high, rain or shine. There were no buses. It got darn cold going to school in a mini skirt in the winter. We begged to be allowed to wear pants. They finally grudgingly allowed up to wear pants under our skirts to school, but we had to take them off when we got there.

My mother's public school allowed girls to wear trousers one Friday a month, but she was in the secretarial training program and they were expected to dress in officewear. So, she and the other girls in her program either had to miss out or bring skirts and stockings with them and change between classes.

My parochial primary school was skirts only for girls, so I also well remember pants-under-skirts on the way to school all winter! (It was a dress code rather than a uniform, so Mom made us quilted maxi skirts for an added layer of warmth.)
posted by The Underpants Monster at 7:21 PM on July 9 [1 favorite]


Wow, such a great effort!! Thanks!
posted by pearlybob at 7:35 PM on July 9


When I was in 4th grade in 1969, the kids in my neighborhood had about a half mile walk to school, sometimes in sub-freezing high-wind steppe-climate weather in rural-ish Nevada. The girls were required to wear dresses to school which meant bare legs during the walk. A huge debate/struggle ensued over whether girls could wear pants to school in this weather. Finally a compromise was reached: girls could wear pants under their skirts for the walk to and from school, but had to remove the pants during the school day. All over the country apparently!
posted by telstar at 8:18 PM on July 9 [2 favorites]


Some of my favorite pictures of my grandmother were taken in 1932 and 1933 (self links), and she is wearing these lovely stylish pants with straight legs and very sensible-looking but nice shoes. In almost all the pictures of her from then on, with the exception of birthdays and other dressy occasions, she wears pants while all the other ladies are wearing dresses. I think it says a lot about her as a person, and feel that it speaks well about my grandfather (who died long before I got to know him). Once I tried to explain to her why I loved those pictures in particular, but she gave me the equivalent of a "pish, posh!" and a hand wave of dismissal, like it was nothing. She's been gone for a long time now, but she's still my role model!
posted by gemmy at 8:32 PM on July 9 [7 favorites]


One of the biggest fights I ever had with my dad was on a bitterly cold Sunday morning when I refused to wear a skirt. Pants were not ok on Sunday mornings at church (other church events at other times, pants were ok). God would be offended. Something something. I can't remember if I won or if he made me stay home (which was also a win) but I did not put on a fucking skirt that day.

The pants battle is really one of the stupidest of all battles women have had to fight. It's also no doubt responsible for the fact that if you want pants with decent pockets, you should probably find the men's size that fits you. Women's pants don't have 'em.
posted by emjaybee at 9:11 PM on July 9 [5 favorites]


Wow, I didn't realize that I broke the law when I wore jeans/trousers while visiting Paris in the 80s (like a significant percentage of the women I saw in the city, tourist and resident).
posted by immlass at 9:39 PM on July 9


Helga Estby wore the bicycle skirt when she walked across America with her daughter. It was the sort of thing that required 10,000 back-in-the-day dollars to be worthwhile.
posted by aniola at 9:40 PM on July 9


Great post! (Although I keep having to change "pants" to "trousers" in my head otherwise the post and comments are just too funny)
posted by billiebee at 3:44 AM on July 10 [2 favorites]


My crowning achievement of procrastinating writing my MA dissertation was bringing Mme Dieulafoy's article over to the English Wikipedia. Reading about her was way more fun than actual work.
posted by Gordafarin at 3:49 AM on July 10


I repeatedly got letters from HR pointing out that I was supposed to be in skirt, hose and heels [...] eventually they found a reason to replace me with a man.

Did he wear a skirt, hose and heels?
posted by Joe in Australia at 4:08 AM on July 10 [5 favorites]


I also remember wearing pants under my dress in fifth grade but at least we were allowed to keep them on. But this was only for bitterly cold days.

The ban on pants was lifted a year or two later to my immense relief.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 5:58 AM on July 10


(Although I keep having to change "pants" to "trousers" in my head otherwise the post and comments are just too funny)

Me, too! I'm American, but for some reason, my mother's family has always used the word "pants" the British way.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 6:10 AM on July 10 [2 favorites]


When I was in 4th grade in 1969, the kids in my neighborhood had about a half mile walk to school, sometimes in sub-freezing high-wind steppe-climate weather in rural-ish Nevada. The girls were required to wear dresses to school which meant bare legs during the walk. A huge debate/struggle ensued over whether girls could wear pants to school in this weather. Finally a compromise was reached: girls could wear pants under their skirts for the walk to and from school, but had to remove the pants during the school day.

"When I was growing up, we had to walk to school, in the snow, uphill, both ways. And your aunt had to do it IN A SKIRT."--My dad on his childhood going to Catholic school in Montana.

I'm pondering writing a kind of battle-of-the-sexes-ish book right now and a thought I had earlier yesterday was what the folks would wear. In my head, I started designing really fancy pants and skorts (which is what you come up with looking for "bicycle skirt") for the more feminist population, because that's just more practical.
posted by jenfullmoon at 6:33 AM on July 10 [1 favorite]


I worked at a small, formerly all-women's college in the late '80s. I didn't wear pants to work - no female employees did - until the fall of 1991, when a sassy new hire showed up in a pantsuit. It was *scandalous!* for exactly one day, and then we all went out and bought them ourselves. So I thank PP for that, even though she was a horrible person and coworker otherwise.
posted by Sweetie Darling at 7:06 AM on July 10


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