The adoption of pants as a popular item of dress for women in Western society traces its roots to the mid-19th-century dress-reform movement. Although there were women of this time who were already wearing pants like clothing if they were engaged in physical exercise or household work, the garments were typically worn out of the public eye. Most women usually wore long skirts that felt heavy, looked bulky, and limited their range of motion. Some women, embracing the concept of “rational dress,” wanted the option to wear pants in public. Some wanted it for purely practical reasons, such as for comfort and ease of movement. For others, the freedom to wear pants was tied to the women’s rights movement, a radical and controversial crusade at the time.
In the United States, Elizabeth Smith Miller designed an early version of pants like clothing for women around 1851. It consisted of a skirt extending below the knees and loose “Turkish” trousers that gathered at the ankles, and it was worn with a short jacket on top. Known as “bloomers,” this garment took its name from an early advocate of Miller’s design, Amelia Jenks Bloomer. Other early supporters of pants for women were physician and reformer Mary Edwards Walker and suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Despite enjoying popularity in some circles, bloomers generated much controversy. Their everyday use faded away after a few years, and pants for women were again relegated to a limited range of activities, such as exercise or chores, or were worn in private.
There were short-lived revivals of pants-wearing in public by women, such as during World War I (1914–18), when civilian women who took over jobs traditionally held by men sometimes wore pants. During World War II (1939–45), pants were more widely worn by civilian and military women, both at work and socially. Although women continued to enjoy wearing pants after the war, particularly for sports or leisure, style trends for women remained fixated largely on skirts or dresses until the 1960s and ’70s. Then, buoyed by the women’s rights movement, pants became firmly established as popular and appropriate clothing options for women at home, in public, and in many workplaces.
Around the turn of the 20th century, though, something else was happening that would change how Americans and Europeans dressed. Formality’s grip on fashion was weakening, and sportswear was beginning to find a place in the everyday wardrobe. Ease of movement was starting to become a priority. In the 1910s, a young designer named Coco Chanel helped to spur this shift with her popular, sporty clothes; through the latter half of the 1920s, she also helped bring menswear staples into women’s wardrobes, including tailored jackets and trousers. While she wasn’t the only designer showing pants for women, her influence was strong.
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Pants steadily migrated beyond the realm of leisure in women’s wardrobes, though there were still strict limits on where women could wear them. In 1933, actress Marlene Dietrich, who tantalized audiences as a tuxedo-clad cabaret singer in the 1930 film Morocco, caused a minor uproar by turning up to famed Hollywood hangout the Brown Derby in pants.
Yet for all these strides forward, the establishment has been slow to embrace trousers for women: it wasn’t until 1969 that Barbra Streisand became the first Best Actress winner to wear trousers to the Oscars (a daring sheer black pair by Arnold Scaasi).
It took another 22 years for women to wear trousers on the floor of the US Senate. The most recent win came in Victoria just last month, when girls were finally permitted to wear trousers and shorts in public schools.