It’s hard to imagine that women tested the waters of equal rights and freedom of dress by wearing bloomers, but in 1851, a bold new “bloomer craze” took hold among a small group of women looking to push the boundaries. Visible, yet worn under skirts, the poufy bloomer looks silly in retrospect, but we should thank our forward-thinking foremothers: Their bloomers represented the humble beginnings of women’s pants. (Better late than never!) Though pants are a staple in most western women’s closets today, flaunting pants, even under skirts, required a dose of fashion fortitude in the mid-1800s.
The first trousers for women were strictly for mobility and work-related purposes, not fashion. Droves of women during WWI went to work in factories at home while their men charged off to war. As women assumed men’s responsibilities in the workforce, they did it while literally wearing their clothes, in many cases altering the men’s pants so they could work with ease.
In the 1920s, the innovative Coco Chanel stole her lover’s clothing for herself, this time his riding trousers, causing a bit of an uproar among polite society. This gave her the idea to design the first women’s trousers -- though they were for the sole purpose of horseback riding. One step at a time, as they say.
The ’30s and ’40s
Hollywood Glamazons Marlene Dietrich and Katharine Hepburn not only adopted masculine tailored trousers as a part of their signature looks, they wore the suit from head to toe. Dietrich is famously photographed in a man’s tuxedo, top hat and all. She once said, “Darling, the legs aren’t so beautiful, I just don’t know what to do with them,” referring to her preference for trousers.
Fearless and free of society’s constraints, celebrity status gave them the freedom to try trousers. But slowly society came around. Bombshell performer, Josephine Baker, who is more famous for wearing showgirl costumes and skirts made out of bananas than anything of substance, also indulged in androgynous dress, donning a man’s tux in the 1930s.
Women in the ’50s toed the line between the good girl archetype and the bad. Likewise, women’s trousers went from the tailored, baggy styles of the previous decade to form fitting, ankle-baring pants, now much more feminized than ever before. This shift finally gave women the opportunity to show off their figures in a socially acceptable way.
Audrey Hepburn demonstrated an elegant way to wear trousers in the 1956 film “Funny Face,” which mockingly documents the fashion magazine business with great wardrobes, fabulous dancing and some outrageously humorous moments. Hepburn’s character goes through a Beatnik phase, dressed head to toe in black, smoking and skulking in a Paris café. Her svelte, sophisticated form in those simple, black cigarette pants remains a classic look for women today.
The Brit explosion of the Youthquake shook everything up. Topless swimsuits, mini-skirts, bare legs and designer jeans were introduced. A mod mood in fashion steered clothes into the space age, with pants made in stretchy wool jersey and the first bell-bottoms. While most women, particularly young women, preferred the scandalous new mini skirt, wacky (and tacky) pants of all kinds were worn.
Hippie culture celebrated androgynous dress, putting women and men in matching polyester shirts and pantsuits. High-waisted, overly-fitted pants and jeans with uber-wide long legs made longer with clunky platform shoes became the height of cool in the ’70s. This disco-centric feeling held sway for most of the decade, until the punk rockers came along with their own fearless new attitude in the late ’70s.
For the first time ever, it was cool to wear pants in public that were ripped, shredded and beaten up. Punk’s hardcore philosophy strove to tear down rigid standards that were held about society, class, music, beauty and of course, fashion. Designer Vivienne Westwood and partner Malcolm McLaren set the tone for this tough new look, encompassing a complete counterculture lifestyle.
The ’80s were a decade of experimentation and conflicting influences of a new pop culture -- spearheaded by Madonna, the remaining punk and new wave movements (which tapered off by the middle of the decade), Dynasty-chic and the new power suit look -- all jumbled into one crazy decade of some-good-mostly-awful fashion.
Giorgio Armani outfitted women in elegant trousers, showing ladies how it was done with Lauren Hutton in “American Gigolo,” a film he styled. His message was that women can be powerful and sexy in trousers -- although you probably weren’t very powerful or sexy in the cropped, baggy, pleated pants that were favored by many women of the decade (and look dangerously close to what we’d refer to as Mom Jeans today). Another style that took hold was the stirrup pant: the first stretchy, fitted pant that kept its taut look with attached straps that looped underneath the foot. Good concept, but bad fashion.
The ’90s was the decade of denim. Relaxed, boot cut, slim, acid wash, boyfriend, dirty and super stiff, jeans were the pants of popular culture.
In contrast to denim’s casual nature, the chic all-black minimalist movement that was brewing gave women a fresh alternative and polished look: the black trouser. This new, flat front, slimming black pant worn long with a high heel elongated women’s legs and became the uniform standard.
2000 and Beyond
Women’s pants have taken on every shape imaginable in the new century. Tailored menswear, cropped, skinny, harem, whatever. For the first time in history, we’re able to comfortably choose what suits our careers, lifestyle, bodies and personal taste.
While women from all Western cultures are able to value their freedom of dress, some women around the world aren’t quite as lucky. It’s still illegal for women of Sudan to wear pants, even today. They face arrest, stoning and fines if they are caught wearing them, proving that as far as we’ve come, there’s still plenty of progress to be made. But we’re optimistic we’ll get there -- one (pants-suited) leg at a time.