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Trousers (Enter the New Woman #AtoZChallenge 2022)

T (AtoZ Challenge 2022) Enter the New Woman - Trousers

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

Mary Edwards Walker wearing bloomers
Mary Edwards Walker wearing 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 Share on X

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. 

Pinterest pin. The text reads, "Enter the New Woman - Trousers". The picture shows a vintage photo of a group of girls, probably from the 1920s, in overalls.

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


RESOURCES

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…


10 Comments

  • Joy Weese Moll
    Posted April 23, 2022 at 23:10

    Yay for trousers! I rarely wear anything else, and it doesn’t merit comment these days. I’m so glad of that and grateful to the women who came before me to make it happen.

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted April 27, 2022 at 21:17

      The same for me. I hardly remember the last time I wore a skirt. It’s hard to imagien that a woman might have received criticism for wearing them.

  • Tarkabarka
    Posted April 24, 2022 at 08:30

    Who would have thought that pants would be this controversial, less then 100 years ago…

    The Multicolored Diary

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted April 27, 2022 at 21:23

      I know, right? And as Kalpana said, imagine calling them ‘unpatriotic’!

  • Kristin
    Posted April 24, 2022 at 14:52

    I have a photo of my maternal grandmother cutting the grass wearing trousers in the 1940s. I don’t remember ever seeing her in anything but dresses. I also have photos of my mother and her sister and friends wearing shorts and longer trousers in the 1940s. Usually they were wearing skirts and dresses though. In the 1950s they appear more often. In the 1960s my mother began to wear pantsuits to her job as a teacher. It must have been the late 1960s because in the early 1960s we were not allowed to wear pants to school.

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted April 27, 2022 at 21:26

      I don’t think any of my grandmothers routinely wore pants, not even my actress gradma. I rememer that when I was very little (it must have been the mid-1970s) she still insisted that I wore a skirt over trousers.
      But in later years, she didn’t have any problem with patns. I never saw her wearing them, but she didn’t have any problem with other women do so.

  • Ronel Janse van Vuuren
    Posted April 25, 2022 at 14:58

    I’m so glad they stuck to their guns and we can wear trousers today without anyone commenting on it.

  • Pradeep
    Posted April 26, 2022 at 07:04

    Long trousers can be uncomfortable at times, especially while working. In those circumstances, the shorts is always preferrable.
    T = Thunder

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted April 27, 2022 at 21:30

      But that was a patter for another women. New Women lived in to early a time.

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