Trousers remained controversial as a women’s attire throughout the New Woman’s historical arc. Only towards the end of the 1920s did women wearing trousers start to be accepted in public, if only on certain conditions.
In the Western World, women had not worn trousers for such a long time that by the 1800s, a woman wearing pants was unthinkable.
Meanwhile, women’s clothes had become increasingly cumbersome. By the mid 19th century, women started to demand a fashion reform that would allow them to move more freely and engage in more outdoor activity.
On these grounds, some women did something shocking: they started to wear pants!
The controversial bloomers
In 1851, Elizabeth Smith Miller designed one of the first pants-like clothing for women. It consisted of a skirt reaching below the knees and loose “Turkish” trousers that gathered at the ankles. It was often worn with a short jacket on top. This attire became known as bloomers after Amelia Jenks Bloomer, a journalist and activist who was among the earlier adopters and advocates of the dress.
Bloomers were never widely accepted because they were clearly the ‘uniform’ of women reformers. They were a declaration of intent – and quite a rebellious one.
Commentators were always quite harsh with women who wore bloomers. They called them ugly and unattractive. They ridiculed them with cartoons in the papers. Episodes have been reported of cafes managers who refused to serve women wearing bloomers in public and sometimes receiving insults in the streets. It could get ugly, sometimes.
This apparent controversy about the bloomers prevented them from ever becoming mainstream. Women didn’t want to be caught in that debate and certainly, didn’t want to be called ugly or ridiculous.
When she appeared decades later, even the New Woman tended to stay away from bloomers when she started demanding a more comfortable cycling costume.
The bloomers faded away in a matter of a few years. They would return between the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, but only as sportswear. They never became an acceptable public dress.Trousers (Enter the New Woman #AtoZChallenge 2022) For a very long time, and through the entire New Woman's historical arc, trousers remained controversial clothing for women #WomenFashion Click To Tweet
Trousers creep into the New Woman’s life
It would be untrue to say that women never wore trousers. They did if they engaged in heavy labours. Many women wore trousers during WWI as they entered factories to replace the men off at war. After the war, trousers became acceptable for some sports.
But it was generally understood that it was an item of clothing not acceptable in public. Even sports were supposed to happen in private places rather than publically. Some women dared to wear pants when going tracking on the mountain, though that was quite edgy too. Daredevils like Amelia Earhart regularly wore men’s attires in public. But those were exceptions. Women didn’t wear pants – it was just so. And the women who did were either considered freaks, agitators, rebels or just out of their minds.
Yet, trousers were starting to be attractive, if not accepted. A few courtiers – among them Coco Channel and most prominently Paul Poiret – included pants in their designs. Poiret introduced the Harem pants in many of his dresses: a trouser full in the leg and gathered at the ankle, usually covered by a long tunic. He would later adopt pyjama-like trousers in many of his models.
But only very daring women would wear them. Usually, they were upper-class women who could afford to wear what they wanted or bohemians who wished to make a statement with their looks.
During the 1920s, trousers slowly started to creep into women’s lives.
Beach pyjamas became quite popular towards the end of the decade. Lounging pyjamas – or lounjamas, as they were sometimes called – started to be worn while relaxing at home.
It was only in the 1930s that trousers really started to be accepted as women’s clothing, and only around the 1950s they stopped to be so controversial.
1920s Women’s Trousers
The Sunday Evening Post – From Bloomers to Pantsuits: A Brief History of Women’s Dress Reform
HuffPost – Women And Pants: A Timeline Of Fashion Liberation
Quartz – A brief history of women’s fight to wear pants
Britannica – When did women start wearing pants?
Vintage Dancer – Did Women Wear Pants in the 1920s? Yes! sort of…