We might have forgotten, but women had to travel a long way to be able to cover their legs as they choose. Would you believe that in countries such as the US, England & France women could actually be jailed for wearing pants in the 18th and 19th centuries?
The fight to make it permissible for women in the US and Europe to wear pants began in the 1850s, with the women’s rights movement. Feminists were seeking liberation, not just from patriarchal oppression, but from the restrictions of corsets. Suffragists such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton saw dress reform as part of their battle for rights, and some adopted an alternative outfit in the form of baggy “Turkish” pantaloons worn with a knee-length skirt, called the bloomers.
Bloomers were not exactly a battle cry for equality in the form of trousers, though. The argument that they’re making at this time is that it’s more practical for women as wives and mothers in the home. Bloomers did not suddenly break down the wall between women and pants. In fact, bloomers were only popular for a few years, in part because women didn’t find them attractive.
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, 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, vests and pants.
While she was not the only designer showing pants for women, her influence was strong.
However devoted the anti-pants faction, it couldn’t stop change. During World War II, for instance, practicality trumped propriety and many women pulled on pants as they entered the workplace to fill the jobs left vacant by men going off to fight. Even after the war, as women returned to the home, the notion of a woman wearing pants was losing its shock value—in the home at least, if not yet so much outside it.
By the time the counter-culture movement of the 1960s had reached its height, a woman in pants wasn’t much to be outraged by, even if in workplaces pants remained the preserve of men for a while longer. Until 1993, it was the unofficial rule on the floor of the US Senate that women were not supposed to wear pants.
Still, there are lingering reminders that women have had to travel a long road to get to a point where they can cover their legs as they choose. As recently as 2013, France revoked a law that barred women in Paris from wearing pants.