Trousers as women's clothing
Trousers or pants (American English) first appeared in recorded history among nomadic steppe-people in Western Europe. Archaeological evidence suggests that men and women alike wore trousers in that cultural context. However, for much of modern history, the use of trousers has been restricted to men. In many regions, this norm was enforced not only by social custom but also by law. There are, however, many historical cases of women wearing trousers in defiance of these norms, for a variety of reasons, including comfort, freedom of movement, fashion, disguise (notably for runaway slaves), attempts to evade the gender pay gap, and attempts to establish an empowered public identity for women. Especially in the 20th and 21st centuries, the customs and laws restricting this manner of dress have relaxed dramatically, reflecting a growing acceptance and normalisation of the practice.
Various US cities, in the 19th and 20th centuries, passed legislation barring women from wearing trousers. Representative among these was an 1863 law passed by San Francisco's Board of Supervisors criminalizing appearing in public in "a dress not belonging to his or her sex", although similar laws existed in Columbus, Ohio (passed 1848); Chicago, Illinois (passed 1851); Houston, Texas (passed 1864); Orlando, Florida (passed 1907), and approximately two dozen other US cities. (Anti-crossdressing laws continued to pass well into the 20th century, with Detroit, Michigan, and Miami, Florida, passing laws as late as the 1950s, and Cincinnati, Ohio, passing one in 1974.)
Additionally, existing laws such as anti-vagrancy statutes were pressed into service to ensure that women would dress in accord with the gender norms of the time. One such instance would be New York's anti-vagrancy statute of 1845, which stated that "Every person who, having his face painted, discolored, covered or concealed, or being otherwise disguised, in a manner calculated to prevent him from being identified, shall appear in any road or public highway, or in any field, lot, wood or inclosure, may be pursued and arrested”. This law was used to prosecute women for cross-dressing, on the grounds that their dressing outside of gender norms constituted a "disguise". Boston used similar anti-vagrancy laws to arrest Emma Snodgrass and Harriet French in 1852. (Snodgrass would be arrested again in Cleveland in 1853, and French would be arrested again in New York in 1856.) French reportedly broke with convention in order to pursue job opportunities open only to men: she claimed to the New York Daily Times that she could "get more wages" dressed as a man.
Anti-vagrancy laws were also used to arrest Jennie Westbrook in New York, in 1882 and 1883. Westbrook's case was said at the time to have "awakened deep interest" among the public, as it was understood that she was attempting to "escape from that bondage [to] which social laws have subjected the sex". Like Harriet French in Boston, Westbrook identified work opportunities as her reason for cross-dressing: "Her excuse was that she could make $20 a week in her disguise, while as a 'saleslady' in a fashionable store the pay would be only one-third that amount."
The teaching of Orthodox Jews and some Christian denominations, such as the Methodists of the conservative holiness movement, continue to enjoin women to wear full-length dresses, rather than trousers in order to maintain what they see as a distinction in the sexes.
Early dress reform
In 1851, early women's rights advocate Elizabeth Smith Miller introduced Amelia Bloomer to a garment initially known as the "Turkish dress", which featured a knee-length skirt over Turkish-style pantaloons. Bloomer came to advocate and promote the dress, including instructions for making it, in The Lily, a newspaper dedicated to the "Emancipation of Woman from Intemperance, Injustice, Prejudice, and Bigotry". This inspired a craze for the dress, which came to be known as bloomers.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Lucy Stone, other early advocates for women's rights, also adopted this style of dress in the 1850s, referring to it as the "freedom dress".
Concurrently, some female laborers, notably the pit brow women working at coal pits in the Wigan area, began wearing trousers beneath a short skirt as a practical component of their uniform. This attracted the attention of the public, and various photographers produced records of the women's unconventional manner of dress through the mid- to late 19th century.
Another woman who advocated publicly for dress reform was Mary Edwards Walker, the abolitionist and Civil War surgeon. Walker, who had worn bloomers while working at a military hospital, wrote in 1871 that women's dress should "protect the person, and allow freedom of motion and circulation, and not make the wearer a slave to it". Walker openly wore men's trousers, and was arrested several times for wearing male attire (her earliest arrest was 1866, in New York, and her final arrest was in 1913, in Chicago, at the age of 80 years.
United States and Europe
According to Valerie Steele, by the end of the 19th century, Parisian women were wearing bloomers more commonly than English and American women, probably because bloomers were presented as a fashionable item in France rather than a quasi-feminist statement, which fashion writers strongly disliked. By 1895, however, many middle-class American girls had adopted the bike and the bloomer and began to call themselves 'New Women', despite society's resistance. Meanwhile, these early women's trousers diversified according to their uses for gymnastics, bathing, cycling or titillation.
An updated version of the bloomer, for athletic use, was introduced in the 1890s as women's bicycling came into fashion. As activities such as tennis, cycling, and horseback riding became more popular at the turn of the century, women turned to trousers or knickerbockers[failed verification] to provide comfort and freedom of movement in these activities, and some laws made allowances for women's wearing of trousers during these activities.
During the First World War (1914–1918), many women in countries such as France, the United Kingdom and the United States were recruited to work in factories, especially munitions factories, to aid the war effort, or to replace men in service sectors such as public transport. While many men were sent to the frontline to fight, their wives often started to wear their trousers or boilersuits inside the factories for better safety and comfort. Over time, specific designs tailored to the practical needs of female industrial workers were developed by other women. Although it was considered daring as they challenged dress norms in doing so, necessitated by the circumstances, women's trousers gained some social acceptability during the war years.
However, arrests for women wearing trousers did not cease. For instance, in 1919, labor leader Luisa Capetillo became the first woman in Puerto Rico to wear trousers in public. Capetillo was sent to jail for what was then considered to be a crime in Puerto Rico, although the judge later dropped the charges against her. She would repeat this act of rebellion again stepping off the boat into Cuba where the judge was not so lenient leading to her serving time.
During the post-war years into the early 1920s, French and American clothing manufacturers appear to have been confused on what kind of clothes to make for women, as some thought pre-war norms should be restored, whilst others sought ways forward. With economies still in tatters and certain fabrics in short supply, this forced designers to be creative, with most initially focusing on new types of skirts and dresses. Meanwhile, however, after gaining more socio-economic independence by doing paid work in the absence of their husbands, women in many countries successfully campaigned for the right to vote, obtaining more political power and social autonomy. Athleticism and sports were increasingly accepted as activities for women, wearing more convenient trousers which were decreasingly called 'bloomers', and no longer explicitly associated with feminist activism.
Women increasingly wore trousers as leisurewear in the 1920s and 30s, and working women, including female pilots, often wore trousers.
Actresses Marlene Dietrich and Katharine Hepburn were often photographed in trousers in the 1930s; Dietrich famously appearing in a black tuxedo and matching fedora at the 1932 premiere of The Sign of the Cross.
Eleanor Roosevelt became the first First Lady to appear in trousers at a formal function, presiding over the Easter Egg Roll in 1933 wearing riding trousers, a consequence of not having time to change after an early morning ride. However, she seemed to embrace the unconventional circumstance, posing for a photo in the trousers on the South Portico of the White House.
During World War II (1939–1945), history repeated itself on a larger scale, with more women than in World War I cutting their hair and donning trousers to work in factories more safely while men were sent to the battlefields. In 1942–1945, more American women entered the workforce than ever before. Unlike previous decades, American manufacturers did not look to Parisian couture designs for inspiration, but developed their own clothing styles, within the limits set by war-time necessity. Only cotton, wool blends, or synthetics such as rayon were available; fabrics reserved purely for military used included pure wool (uniforms, military coats and blankets) and silk and nylon (primarily for parachutes). There was little colour and ornamentation, since these were regarded as inappropriately ostentatious and unpatriotic in war time, when conservation and self-discipline were critical. Women working in industrial work in war service wore their husbands' trousers.
Similarly, in Britain, because of the rationing of clothing, many women took to wearing their husbands' civilian clothes to work while their husbands were away in the armed forces. This was partly because they were seen as work garments, and partly to allow women to keep their clothing allowance for other uses. As the men's clothes wore out, replacements were needed, so that by the summer of 1944 it was reported that sales of women's trousers were five times more than in the previous year.
Unlike the Interwar Period, women's trousers made a lasting breakthrough after World War II, both as a piece of clothing for everyday use and as a fashion statement. In the post-war era trousers or slacks were still common casual wear for gardening, socialising, and other leisure pursuits; apart from leisure, however, only actresses such as Marlene Dietrich, Katharine Hepburn and Audrey Hepburn or other fashionable women such as Coco Chanel wore them in public for everyday use. In general, most women had reverted to skirts and dresses as the standard outfit in workplaces such as offices by the late 1950s. It wasn't until Capri pants became fashionable in the late 1950s that significant changes began to manifest.
In 1959, the Government Code Section 12947.5 (part of the California Fair Employment and Housing Act, passed in California) declared in part, "It shall be an unlawful employment practice for an employer to refuse to permit an employee to wear pants on account of the sex of the employee", with exceptions only for “requiring an employee to wear a costume while that employee is portraying a specific character or dramatic role” and when good cause is shown. Thus, the standard California FEHA discrimination complaint form now includes an option for "denied the right to wear pants".
1960s and 1970s
In the 1960s, André Courrèges introduced jeans for women, leading to the era of designer jeans. And in 1966, Yves Saint Laurent introduced Le Smoking, a woman's tuxedo intended for formal occasions, famously photographed by Helmut Newton in a manner emphasizing the wearer's androgyny and suggesting lesbian overtones.
In 1972, Pat Nixon was the first American First Lady to model trousers in a national magazine. However, First Ladies had been seen earlier wearing trousers, including Lou Hoover (photographed privately wearing riding trousers at the presidential retreat Camp Rapidan) and Jackie Kennedy (photographed wearing trousers and a sweater on Cape Cod in 1960 and wearing palazzo pants in Italy in 1962).
In 1972, the Education Amendments of 1972 passed in the United States, which, as part of the Title IX non-discrimination provisions, declared that dresses could not be required of girls. Dress codes thus changed in public schools across the United States.
In the 1970s, trousers became quite fashionable for women. Jane Fonda, Diana Ross, Katharine Hepburn, Tatum O'Neal, and Diane Keaton all helped to popularize the wearing of trousers, appearing at high-profile awards ceremonies dressed in suits or trouser ensembles; Tatum O'Neal notably accepted an Oscar at age 10 while wearing a tuxedo.
1980s and 1990s
Women were not allowed to wear trousers on the U.S. Senate floor until 1993. In 1993, Senators Barbara Mikulski and Carol Moseley Braun wore trousers onto the floor in defiance of the rule, and female support staff followed soon after, with the rule being amended later that year by Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Martha Pope to allow women to wear trousers on the floor so long as they also wore a jacket.
In 2013, a bylaw requiring women in Paris, France to ask permission from city authorities before "dressing as men", including wearing trousers (with exceptions for those "holding a bicycle handlebar or the reins of a horse") was declared officially revoked by France's Women's Rights Minister, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem. The bylaw was originally intended to prevent women from wearing the pantalons fashionable with Parisian rebels in the French Revolution.
Also in 2013, Turkey's parliament ended a ban on women lawmakers wearing trousers in its assembly.
In 2014, an Indian family court in Mumbai ruled that a husband objecting to his wife wearing a kurta and jeans and forcing her to wear a sari amounts to cruelty inflicted by the husband and can be a grounds for divorce. The wife was thus granted a divorce on the ground of cruelty as defined under section 27(1)(d) of Special Marriage Act, 1954.
From 1991 until 2019 in Sudan, Article 152 of the Memorandum to the 1991 Penal Code prohibited the wearing of "obscene outfits" in public. It was controversial for various reasons, for example, because it was used to punish women who wore trousers in public by lashing them 40 times. Thirteen women including journalist Lubna al-Hussein were arrested in Khartoum in July 2009 for wearing trousers; ten of the women pleaded guilty and were flogged with ten lashes and fined 250 Sudanese pounds apiece. Lubna al-Hussein considered herself a good Muslim and asserted: "Islam does not say whether a woman can wear trousers or not. I'm not afraid of being flogged. It doesn't hurt. But it is insulting." She was eventually found guilty and fined the equivalent of $200 rather than being flogged. On 29 November 2019, Article 152 of the Criminal Code (commonly referred to as the Public Order Law or the Public Order Act) was repealed as part of the 2019–2022 Sudanese transition to democracy. According to Ihsan Fagiri, leader of the No to Oppression Against Women Initiative, around 45,000 women were prosecuted under the Public Order Act in 2016 alone. The repeal was seen as an important first step towards gradual legal reform to improve the status of women's rights in the country as envisioned by the Draft Constitutional Declaration (or Charter).
In 2017, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced that its female employees could wear "professional pantsuits and dress slacks" while at work; dresses and skirts had previously been required. In 2018 that same church declared that their female missionaries could wear dress slacks if they wanted, except when attending the temple and during Sunday worship services, baptismal services, and mission leadership and zone conferences.
Most UK schools allow girls to wear trousers, but many girls still wear skirts in primary and secondary schools, even where the choice of trousers is given. In the late 20th and early 21st century, many schools began changing their uniform rules to allow trousers for girls amidst opposition to skirts-only policies - the most publicised possibly being Jo Hale vs Whickam Comprehensive in 2000. Although it is commonly accepted that girls may wear trousers to school, no test case is known to have been brought before the courts, making the legal position uncertain on requiring skirts as part of girls' uniforms. The rule is still enforced in many schools, particularly independent and selective state schools. In fact, government guidelines expressly state the decision of allowing girls to wear trousers is with individual schools.
There are a number of denominations within mainstream religions, such as in Judaism and Christianity, that wish to enforce what they see as a distinction in the sexes, as well as the prohibition of women revealing the contour legs, requiring all women and young girls to wear a long dress or skirt rather than trousers.
In Orthodox Judaism, the wearing of trousers by women, which they consider to be men's clothing, is forbidden biblically under the prohibition of Lo Silbash in the Bible ("A woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man", Deuteronomy 22:5). As such, Orthodox Jewish women wear headcoverings, as well as dresses whose sleeves extend beyond the elbows and hemlines fall below the knees.
Methodist Christians of the conservative holiness movement, believe that modern popular practice of the wearing of trousers by women blurs the distinction between men and women; adherent Muslims teach that trousers should not be worn by women as they reveal the contour of the legs that should be hidden to maintain traditional religious definitions of modesty, in addition to the belief that trousers are male clothing. Methodist Christians belonging to the conservative holiness movement thus wear dresses or skirts with hemlines that extend beyond the knees; this practice extends from daily wear to activities such as swimming, in which many Holiness Methodist women wear swimming dresses, rather than contemporary bathing suits (cf. Wesleyan-Arminian doctrine of outward holiness). The 2015 Discipline of the Evangelical Wesleyan Church, a Methodist denomination in the conservative holiness movement, teaches:
We require our women to appear in public with dresses of modest length, sleeves of modest length, modest necklines and modest hose; the wearing of split skirts, slacks, jeans, artificial flowers or feathers is forbidden. Moreover, we require our men to conform to the scriptural standards of decent and modest attire; we require that when they appear in public they wear shirts with sleeves of modest length. We require that all our people appear in public with sleeves below the elbows. Women's hemlines are to be modestly below the knees. Our people are forbidden to appear in public with transparent or immodest apparel, including shorts or bathing suits. Parents are required to dress their children modestly in conformity with our general principles of Christian attire. We further prohibit our people from participating in the practices of body-piercing, tattooing or body art.
Quaker Christians, such as those belonging to the Central Yearly Meeting of Friends, practice the wearing of plain dress in which females wear dresses with sleeves that do not expose elbows and hemlines that reach the mid-calf level, or skirts that are similarly designed (cf. testimony of simplicity).
Among traditional conservative Mennonite Christians, sometimes referred to as "Old Order Mennonites", long skirts or dresses covering most of the legs are required, along with head coverings. They also wear dresses and skirts because they believe men and women should be distinguished from one another, citing Deuteronomy 22:5, “The woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man, neither shall a man put on a woman's garment: for all that do so are abomination unto the Lord thy God." (KJV) Conservative conferences usually demand that women wear a specific style of dress. This is usually in the style of the cape dress, with a double covering or "cape". Most non-conservative conferences of Mennonites allow for the wearing of trousers by women.
In many traditional Catholic Christian circles, the wearing of trousers is discouraged, especially while attending church. The Sacred Congregation of the Council under Pope Pius XI issued guidelines for women's dress in 1956: "A dress cannot be called decent which is cut deeper than two fingers' breadth under the pit of the throat, which does not cover the arms at least to the elbows and scarcely reaches a bit below the knees. Furthermore, dresses of transparent materials are improper." Cardinal Siri's letter on dress has been cited as justification for women wearing skirts and dresses as opposed to trousers. In addition, Saint Thomas Aquinas, the Church's principal theologian, also taught that "outward apparel should be consistent with the estate of the person, according to the general custom. Hence it is in itself sinful for a woman to wear man's clothes, or vice versa; and it is expressly forbidden in the Law (Deuteronomy 22)..." As such, the Society of Saint Pius X have spoken of the preference of women's wearing skirts rather than trousers.
Pentecostal Christian women typically wear long skirts because of the Biblical commandment in the Old Testament that women must not wear men's clothing; this is mandatory in Holiness Pentecostal churches, as well as in Oneness Pentecostal churches, such as the United Pentecostal Church.
Many Independent Fundamental Baptist churches, colleges and universities prohibit females from wearing trousers. For example, at Pensacola Christian College, female students may only wear trousers or shorts for "recreational purposes" only. They are also required to wear skirts or dresses until 5:00 PM on workdays.
In 2012 and 2013, some Mormon women participated in "Wear Pants to Church Day", in which they wore trousers to church instead of the customary dresses to encourage gender equality within The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church). Over one thousand women participated in this in 2012. In 2017, the LDS Church announced that its female employees could wear "professional pantsuits and dress slacks" while at work; dresses and skirts had previously been required. In 2018 the LDS Church declared that their female missionaries could wear dress slacks if they wanted, except when attending the temple and during Sunday worship services, baptismal services, and mission leadership and zone conferences.
Many forms of dancing require females to wear skirts or dresses, either by convention or competition rules. In Scottish highland dancing, for example, women do not wear trews, but instead either wear a skirt or dress including the Aboyne dress (for the national dances) or the kilt-based outfit for the Highland dances. However, tartan trews can be worn by women in the United States.
Trousers and sexual violence
In Rome in 1992, a 45-year-old driving instructor was accused of rape. When he picked up an 18-year-old girl for her first driving lesson, he allegedly raped her for an hour, then told her that if she was to tell anyone he would kill her. Later that night she told her parents and her parents agreed to help her press charges. While the alleged rapist was convicted and sentenced, the Italian Supreme Court overturned the conviction in 1998 because the victim wore tight jeans. It was argued that she must have necessarily have had to help her attacker remove her jeans, thus making the act consensual ("because the victim wore very, very tight jeans, she had to help him remove them...and by removing the jeans...it was no longer rape but consensual sex"). The Italian Supreme Court stated in its decision "it is a fact of common experience that it is nearly impossible to slip off tight jeans even partly without the active collaboration of the person who is wearing them." This ruling sparked widespread feminist protest. The day after the decision, women in the Italian Parliament protested by wearing jeans and holding placards that read "Jeans: An Alibi for Rape." As a sign of support, the California Senate and Assembly followed suit. Soon Patricia Giggans, Executive Director of the Los Angeles Commission on Assaults Against Women, (now Peace Over Violence) made Denim Day an annual event. As of 2011 at least 20 U.S. states officially recognize Denim Day in April. Wearing jeans on this day has become an international symbol of protest against such attitudes about sexual assault. As of 2008 the Italian Supreme Court has overturned their findings, and there is no longer a "denim" defense to the charge of rape.
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This usually means the following for Orthodox women: trousers are not worn, and skirts and dresses must fall below the knee, including when sitting; arms are covered to the elbow, and necklines are high-cut.
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Muslim, Jewish, and Pentecostal women who adhere to their faiths’ requirements of modest dress wear clothing with sleeves, high necklines, and longer hems.
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A believing Muslim woman will not wear pants (bantalon) for two reasons. Firstly, pants might reflect the contours of limbs that are supposed to remain hidden. Secondly, items of clothing associated with men are off limits, just as men are forbidden to wear women's clothing. According to the Prophet, Allah curses the woman who dresses in clothing meant for men, and the man who wears clothing meant for women.
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The Christian churches and the traditional culture agree that people should dress decently in church and at home. Some churches forbid women to wear pants/trousers and mini-dresses to church. Some Roman Catholic parishes demand that all women put on veils before receiving Holy Communion as a sign of reverence.
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Under mandate of Pope Pius XI, the Vatican's Sacred Congregation of the Council (January 12, 1930) issued guidelines to all bishops on the subject of women's dress which was reiterated by the Cardinal Vicar of Pius XII (Imprimatur dated September 24, 1956): "A dress cannot be called decent which is cut deeper than two fingers breadth under the pit of the throat; which does not cover the arms at least to the elbows; and scarcely reaches a bit beyond the knees. Furthermore, dresses of transparent materials are improper."
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