FASHION Practical pants

'The liberating effect was phenomenal'

By Francine Parnes

Associated Press

Skirts may have ruled the runway previews for fall, but designers know that women are not about to abandon pants. The fall fashion forecast calls for narrow-leg stovepipes, flared-leg hip-huggers, leggings from the '80s and fly-front tailored trousers. This season, as always, pants have the full weight of fashion history on their side.

As a menswear statement for women, pants were popularized by notables from the heyday of Hollywood, such as Katharine Hepburn, whose death in June led to headlines such as "Remembering Hepburn, Floppy Pants and All" in The New York Times. Yet a century before, the stage was set.


"In the mid-nineteenth century, reforming women's dress -- making it healthier and more comfortable -- was a huge issue," says Catherine Smith, author with Cynthia Greig of "Women in Pants: Manly Maidens, Cowgirls and Other Renegades."

Full skirts below the ankles, a must-have for modesty, were cumbersome costumes that failed in practicality. "Long dresses dragged mud, tobacco juice and manure into homes," Smith says. "They made even simple tasks like climbing a staircase or taking a walk dangerous or impossible. Caged crinolines could expand skirts to over eight feet wide."

Indeed, a newspaper reported in the 1850s that a woman had been blown over by a strong gust of wind, rolled down the street on her skirt hoops and became wedged between a lamp post and a fire hydrant, Smith says.

"Newspapers reported that tight corsets and the weight of heavy skirts -- up to 30 pounds -- caused health problems, even deaths."

It was only a matter of time until women embraced the practicality of pants.

When Amelia Bloomer advocated women's trousers in 1851, says Smith, suffragists Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton adopted the costume along with thousands of others. Bloomer's costume was based on outfits seen by her friend Elizabeth Smith Miller at health retreats in Europe.

Bloomer's look was a skirt just below the knee, with pants underneath, and no corset. The pants eventually became known as bloomers.

"The garment imitated Turkish trousers or harem pants, full and gathered at the ankle. She thought these prettier and different enough from male attire," Smith says.


"The liberating effect was phenomenal," she says. "A woman no longer needed a man to help her into a carriage. She could venture outside in all kinds of weather. And she could engage in professions that were previously closed off to her because of her dress."

Ilene Beckerman, author of "Love, Loss and What I Wore," a memoir of her wardrobe through the decades, remembers the Hollywood heyday, when she viewed pants for women as an oddment of fashion.

When she saw pictures of Hepburn in pants, she thought, "Well, only a movie star like Hepburn could get away with that," recalled Beckerman, who was born in 1935 and raised in Manhattan. And when Rosie the Riveter, the World War II symbol of female laborers, was depicted in an ad wearing pants, "I remember thinking, but how does she go to the bathroom?" Beckerman said.

When actresses such as Ann Sheridan wore pants in wartime movies as part of their nurse uniforms, they conjured up the image: "What is the world coming to -- women in the war, women in pants," she added.

Other battles were being waged at home. "My mother and my father would have one of those arguments that married people have often," Beckerman said.

Her father would use the popular retort, "I wear the pants in this family!" she recalled. "That's how we thought about pants in the '40s and '50s. Ginger Rogers would never dance with Fred Astaire wearing pants. Gypsy Rose Lee would never start off a strip tease wearing pants. Pants meant you were tough."

Yet California was cultivating a more casual lifestyle that lent itself to swimwear, patio wear and activewear including pants, says Barbara Kerin, assistant professor of fashion design at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York.

"Women wore pants to ride a horse, to play golf, to ski, to hike and climb mountains, which were very popular sports in California in the 1930s," Kerin says. "Hollywood movie stars would go to Sun Valley and ski, and the women skied in pants. It was the whole idea of being outdoors and being active."

What To Read Next
Get Local