The Politics of Pants

I’m wearing pants to work today—mainly because I can. Women’s clothing is often political and I’d like to look at a few examples throughout history. Some of it recent. This post is the fourth installment of the Feminist Fashion Bloggers weekly posts celebrating Women’s History pants Check out what everyone else wrote about.

To this day, many women around the world aren’t allowed to wear pants. As recently as 2009, Sudanese officials handed out corporal punishment to thirteen Sudanese women; the women were arrested in a restaurant in the capital, Khartoum. They received 10 lashes each for their crime of wearing pants.

Ah, but that’s a different culture, you say. True, but not until January 1995 did the California legislature actually prohibit employers from implementing a dress code that does not allow women to wear pants in the workplace. That means, before then, employers could tell women “dresses only” and there wasn’t a damn thing they could do about it.

It’s not fair to make generalizations. Throughout history and in different cultures, clothing has changed a lot. For most of history, men didn’t wear pants either. They wore robes, tunics, kilts, dolmans, hakama, dhoits, sarongs, the fustinella, you get the idea. When men wear “skirts” (outside of the west—with the exception of kilts), it’s not seen as feminine. But when women wear pants, it’s perceived as somehow upsetting the whole balance of things.

However, the horse-riding peoples—men and women—of the Persian Empire wore pants as early as 600 BCE. Koreans of both genders wore pants as early as the 15th century. Many Native Americans wore leggings too.

Other women throughout history have been mocked and persecuted for their adoption of “men’s clothing.” Joan of Arc was known for wearing pants; she traveled with the army and wore their attire. She wore pants in prison and was said to have been executed in them. A few weeks ago I wrote about Qiu Jin, modern China’s first feminist. She chose to wear men’s clothing, much to the chagrin of onlookers.

BloomersIn the west, pants had a hard time getting a foothold.

Amelia Bloomer gets the credit, but Elizabeth Smith Miller created bloomers. These women were involved in women’s rights, temperance, abolition, and were social activists. They were also ridiculed by their attempts to reform women’s clothing.

During this time, some women advocated other changes too, such as simplified garments for bicycling or swimming. The availability of inexpensive bikes helped women gain independence and created a need for more practical clothing. Corset controversy began (and in China, Qiu Jin was unbinding her feet and fighting against that practice).

Nineteenth century coal-mining girls wore trousers, and throughout the world warWigan Pit Brow Lasss working women donned slacks—but they didn’t come into fashion until later. Marlene Dietrich and Katharine Hepburn caught the world’s attention by wearing pants. Audrey Hepburn popularized capris. The 1960s introduced us to bell bottoms. The 1970s brought us pantsuits, and the rest is herstory.

Pants are political. As much as I like dresses, I am thankful for pioneers who fought for the right to choose one’s attire. Women’s clothing has been seen as a threat at so many points throughout history—and still is. Exercise your right today!



Filed under Fashion, Feminism

9 responses to “The Politics of Pants

  1. Cool post, very informative. I am wearing pants today too.

  2. carmen

    Great article! In the 60’s – girls were not allowed to wear pants to school. I remember blustery, winter days wearing pants under my skirts and having to take them off when I got to school.

    We’ve come a long way, baby!

  3. Great post and very informative. Raised many points that i didn’t know about. How surprising that californian women could be told not to wear trousers as recent as that.

  4. I love your cross-cultural historical overview, it really lets one appreciate how relative, how arbitrary gender-based dress-codes are! And it’s really scary that the possibility to prohibit women from pants-wearing was still in place in California (of all places) as late as 1995! (But then, one is always astonished to find how long other relics of patriarchy remained in place; I think the possibility of rape within a marriage was introduced into law as late as the 1990s, too – at least in Germany, I don’t know about the US)… I’m glad that today there’s no question I’m allowed to wear pants, even though I prefer to wear skirts for a variety of reasons, because sometimes pants are indeed more practical.

  5. Wow this was so interesting to read. Plus, I’m wearing pants today too!! And that is really a rare thing for me. My boyfriend occasionally wears skirts and sarongs, he’s pretty freaking awesome 🙂

  6. I did not realise it was a big thing for women to wear trousers in some societies and I can’t believe that about california. I suppose, school uniforms here are still that way in the UK – girls have to wear skirts. I think the most important thing about trousers is the ease of movement they have allowed in comparison to complex types of skirts ion which you basically couldn’t move!

  7. Fantastic historical journey, loved it!

    But…1995? Are you freaking kidding me?! My mum used to (in the 70s) go to job interviews in trouser (pants)suits (and occasionally hot-pant suits – woah) to test the employer: if they didn’t like her wearing trousers, she wouldn’t work there. Go mum!

  8. Really enjoyed this insight! I too can’t believe the legislature was introduced so recently – I suspect that there are ‘unwritten’ dress codes still in place, however. We were not only forbidden from wearing pants to school, we were also made to wear white rather than dark tights (with a navy uniform). Ridiculous for teenage girls – they were ruined frequently. Perhaps we weren’t demure enough… 😉

  9. Thanks all! It was fun and sometimes alarming to research this topic. I learned a lot while writing this post. There’s still more to say – can’t fit it all in a reasonable space. I’m really interested in how clothing is political. Colors, styles, heels, pants…there’s a lot to look at, especially i context of culture and history.

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