Women’s Trousers History: 1900s to Now
Today’s women under the age of thirty may not know realise that wearing trousers has not always been commonplace for women. Sure, it’s widely known that women in the early twentieth century only wore dresses and skirts, but many younger women might not realise how recently this shift took place and just how young the women’s trousers history actually is.
While socially acceptable for casual pursuits, the wearing of trousers by women in the workplace was a widely accepted faux-pas well into the 1980s and even into the 1990s. In fact, it was commonly written into the employee dress manuals for many corporate and governmental workplaces! There was even a social stigma against women wearing trousers to dressier events like weddings. There is still a lingering disfavour even to this day, as I routinely get chastised by elderly relatives for wearing trousers to family functions! Someday all that will pass as today’s current generation becomes society’s elders. This is a brief history lesson for those younger women to understand the journey of the modern women.
Marlene Dietrich wearing trousers in the early 1940s. Image via fineartamerica.com.
The wearing of trousers in the Western world did not become at all commonplace until the later part of the twentieth century. Prior to that women did wear trousers for necessity’s sake in limited settings: women ranchers in the American West, during WWII for factory work, female coal miners in the early 1900s and aviators like Amelia Earhart are all examples of women wearing trousers out of necessity prior to social acceptance.
Kennedy’s at leisure in 1940. Image via LIFE magazine at Google.
So, what changed? During and after the WWII period there was a cultural shift that loosened the taboo on the wearing of trousers by women. Seeing women in trousers working in the factories and fields during the war became commonplace. Additionally, women came to see the benefits and comfort of wearing trousers. As a result, the wearing of trousers became acceptable as casual wear for gardening and other leisure activities in the post-war era. It’s important to note that trousers were still not worn in professional or formal functions at this point.
Katherine Hepburn in trousers in the 1940s. Image via suckitmartha.com.
Now, some women pushed and tugged at the boundaries of what was socially acceptable. Celebrities like Marlene Dietrich and Katherine Hepburn wore trousers regularly and it could be said that they were important elements in the cultural change making trousers acceptable for women.
Unfortunately, the 1950s in a response partly to the austerity of the WWII period saw a return to an ultra-feminine look (think Dior’s New Look), which meant most women did not wear trousers outside of the home.
After the prim and proper 1950s, in which women for the most part eschewed trousers, the 1960s saw an explosion of trouser wearing by women. The suit designs of André Courrèges and Yves St. Laurent helped things along as did the burgeoning women’s movement. Additionally, the 1960s and 1970s saw an increase in the popularity and acceptance of more casual dressing by everyone–men, women and children. As a result of all these changes, by the end of the 1960s trouser wearing for women was widespread.
Le Smoking evening attire from YSL in 1966. Image via blacktieguide.com.
Finally, even though by the 1970s trousers were widely worn by women, they were not widely accepted as appropriate attire for the workplace. It wasn’t until the 1980s and 1990s that women in the Western world saw a complete lifting of that final taboo.
Liz Claiborne designs in the 1980s. Image via visionaryartistrymag.com.