The history of women wearing pants as power symbol

In 1943, sailors admire women workers at the Electric Boat Co. in New London, Conn., where submarines were built during World War II. (Photo: Bernard Hoffman/Getty Images)

Most years, the momentum of any given designated awareness month is muted by the time the second week rolls around. But as with Black History Month in February — when pivotal moments like the Black Panther movie premiere or the unveiling of the official Obama White House portraits took place — Women’s History Month 2018 might have impact that goes beyond a mere calendar observance.

The #MeToo movement and new wave feminism have reignited how women and men examine power dynamics personally and professionally at many levels, including the outermost: through clothing. During fashion month for the fall 2018 runways, which concludes this week in Paris, designers questioned what feminism means today through takes on 1980s power suits and bold colors.

Ann Taylor’s “Pants Are Power” 2018 campaign “commemorates the evolution of pants not only in fashion, but as a symbol of equality for women,” says the company. (Photo: Ann Taylor)

Off the runway, retailer Ann Taylor is launching its “Pants Are Power” campaign on March 1, which, the company says, “commemorates the evolution of pants not only in fashion, but as a symbol of equality for women,” and making the question of “who wears the pants?” in a relationship seem more than metaphorical.

Actress Sarah Bernhardt wearing a trouser suit as she sculpts a self-portrait, in a photo from the late 19th century. (Photo: Museum of London/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Of course, women wearing pants is only newly socially acceptable (in a society controlled by the patriarchy), relatively speaking. Joan of Arc famously cross-dressed, wearing men’s armor in the 15th century as a deterrent to rape (and was eventually burned at the stake in part because of this). By 1850, Amelia Bloomer, a women’s rights activist, popularized the “bloomer” pant, those baggy, knee- or ankle-length trousers Elizabeth Smith Miller created. By the 20th century, women’s pants were appropriate for “occasional dressing only,” worn at designated times as hostess pajamas or bicycling pants, Emma McClendon, associate costume curator at The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. By the 1920s and 30s, celebrities like Marlene Dietrich dared to wear full pantsuits to movie premieres (Dietrich’s came courtesy Gabrielle Chanel), and the “most daring thing about Katharine Hepburn” was her pants.

Katharine Hepburn in the stage version of The Philadelphia Story, late 1930s. (Photo: Getty Images)

McClendon points out that as celebrities, both of those women could get away with wearing androgynous looks without repercussions, while ordinary women elsewhere would have been fined, thanks to laws enacted by men. In France, women needed permission to “dress like a man” to work or ride bicycles or horses, a law that remained intact until 2013 (though it hadn’t been seriously enforced in more than a century.) In 1939, a Los Angeles woman went to jail for wearing slacks to court, the judge citing them as a distraction from the ongoing legal business at hand. Women in the United States Congress were barred from wearing pants on the Senate floor until the 1993 “Pantsuit Rebellion” overturned the archaic rule.

Gladys Bentley, an American blues singer, was an absolute pioneer as a black, lesbian, “cross-dresser.” (Photo: Alamy)

It’d be naive to think women’s garb isn’t policed in the new millennia: In 2009, a Sudanese woman was fined (but avoided whipping) for wearing green slacks, which violated “public decency laws”; a rule adopted in 2017 for women pro golfers stipulated they could be fined for wearing leggings; and, speaking of leggings, some now see them as the anti-pants pants — as oppressive as corsets and gowns, according to one New York Times opinion writer, whose recent “yoga pants are bad for women” Op-Ed ignited controversy around the matter. You get the idea.

An ad for Levi’s Freedom-Alls, which debuted in 1918 as a way for women to participate more comfortably in outdoor activities at “dude ranches,” which were a popular vacation choice at the time. Just over a decade later, Levi’s introduced “Lady Levi’s.” (Photo: Levi Strauss Co.)

Of course, there were political-as-sartorial strides that led us to where we are today. Levi’s, the American denim standard-bearer responsible for the image of the hardworking cowboy, created “Freedom-Alls” exactly a century ago, and eventually Lady Levi’s.

“In addition to referencing WWI, which ended in 1918 when Freedom-Alls were introduced, the name also implied liberation in women’s clothing, offering a suit women could wear to enjoy popular new outdoor activities, like hiking or driving, or to do housework,” Tracey Panek, Levi Strauss & Co. historian, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “One woman wore Freedom-Alls as her wedding dress, hopping on the back of a horse after the ceremony to tour her Arizona sheep ranch with her husband. Edith Kast Hartman of Reno, Nevada, wore Freedom-Alls when she was pregnant, adding a special panel to accommodate her pregnancy. Levi Strauss & Co. transitioned to pants as separates when it introduced ‘hiking togs’ in the 1920s — matching khaki pants and tops.”

In the world of fashion-with-a-capital-F, meanwhile, Yves Saint Laurent is perhaps the most notable figure when it comes to liberating women from the confines of a dress.

A model wearing a pinstriped trouser suit by Yves Saint Laurent. His plainer suit for evening wear known as “Le Smoking” became a signature piece. (Photo: Reg Lancaster/Getty Images)
A model in an alpaca spencer dinner jacket, jabot blouse, and black silk bow tie for the Yves Saint Laurent 1967 Spring-Summer haute couture collection. (Photo: AFP/Getty Images)

McClendon explains: “It wasn’t until the experimental ’60s and ’70s that we see a watershed moment, a real breaking down, in terms of fashion chronology, of women’s fashion. Yves Saint Laurent deserves a fair amount of credit for continuing to pave the way for women wearing pants for all occasions, with tuxedos for formal wear alongside gowns and women in safari suits. He was revolutionary in that he didn’t feminize pants at all. He was significant because he was literally putting women in menswear, presenting different archetypes of masculinity and femininity.”

André Courrèges, another French designer, is worthy of recognition for putting women in pants, and he did it before YSL’s “Le Smoking” suit debuted in 1966 at that. For spring 1964, Courrèges showed women in trousers and flat boots, and he encouraged the look for everyday instead of occasional dressing as McClendon describes.

Hillary Clinton was the first first lady to wear pants in her official White House portrait. (Photo: White House Collection)

Those pioneers bring us to the iconic, contemporary pop culture pants moments we can recall offhand: moments like Diane Keaton’s 1977 Annie Hall ensemble, or Brooke Shields and “my Calvins” in 1980. Indeed, there’s also a resurgence of the woman’s power pantsuit, as rocked best by the likes of Janelle Monáe. (Ah, and did you think we’d forget to reference Hillary Clinton at least once?)

“Clothes increasingly are becoming a frontier for political activism,” says McClendon. “We’re all becoming more aware of the power dynamics inherent in clothing.”

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