Wearing the pants: The problem with women's trousers

by Margo White / 21 April, 2017

Women’s trousers were once associated with emancipation, so why are they now such a problem?

When you feel overwhelmed by anxieties, about the present, the past, the future, you can always mentally distract yourself with minor concerns, like the cut of your trousers. Some recent ruminations spring to mind: are pants with elasticised waistbands and elasticised ankle bands really appropriate for the office, at your age? Nice to see that wide-legged pants are back, but if your legs weren’t slim enough for skinny pants, are they too short for wide ones? And those trousers that end just above the ankle – now that you think about it, now you’ve bought them, are you sure you don’t look like they’ve shrunk in the wash?

Which pants are hot pants? Don’t ask me. If I knew, I wouldn’t have asked myself the above questions. Still, having worn jeans and trousers almost exclusively for some decades now, and having been around long enough to see numerous abominations come and thankfully go – like harem pants and pants with pockets beside the knees – you’d think I’d have learned. That is, the pants to avoid, and what pants work well enough to wear in public. But as God is my witness, pants are complicated, particularly in middle age.

What is an appropriate waistline, for instance? Now that low-slung pants are being edged out of vogue, how high is too high? What about hem length? It’s currently impossible to get trousers that actually end on the ankle, so should you go for trousers that are deliberately too long and collect in pools of fabric around the ankle, or those that end somewhere below the knee? What shape leg: flared, straight, skinny, tapered, baggy or bootleg? What type of front: flat-front or pleated? What, by the way, are “steal your boyfriend jeans”, a descriptor I only came across while researching this column? I assume they have some masculine quality but, with a cute name like that, I can’t imagine asking a shop assistant 30 years my junior to point me towards a pair of them.

Left: Marlene Dietrich, an early trouser adopter, in 1942. Right: Hillary Clinton in trademark trouser suit during her successful campaign to become a US Senator in 2000.

Digital media has changed everything, including the speed at which versions of what is seen on the catwalks turn up in the shops. Some say this is creating chaos in the fashion world, making it impossible for anyone to keep up. Some have argued it has led to the democratisation of fashion, and as a result, anything goes. Maybe, although it seems to me there’s a remarkable lack of variety in the high street shops in any given season, a lot of stupid trousers, and a striking absence of what I’d call a classic pair of pants that can be worn for at least as long as they fit you, without making you look like a misfit trying to fit in. In my book, that is a pair of reasonably high-waisted pants with a straight-ish leg that reaches down to my ankles. Having written that, I acknowledge some might call what I’ve just described “granny pants”.

Well into the 20th century, French women had to ask for permission from city authorities before “dressing as men”.

Fashion is often criticised as a frivolity, a frippery, a form of economic enslavement that encourages people to ditch perfectly good clothes at the end of one season and replace them with a bunch of new ones the next. Which is true, partly, but fashion can and should be fun. It’s just that too many trousers are designed for women of a certain age and dimension, like women who actually look good in a pair of patterned, bi-stretch, skinny ankle pants.

Maybe this is just what happens when you get older and your shape changes: you get and feel left out. And things could be worse. If I were a man, for instance, I might have been persuaded to do something silly, like going out in public in a pair of pants with the crotch around the knees. I still don’t understand how grown men were persuaded to do that, as if those pants weren’t supposed to be a bit of a laugh.

It’s worth remembering trousers were only introduced to the wardrobes of Western women in the early 20th century and were, for a long time, seen as an emblem of emancipation. Actresses Marlene Dietrich and Katharine Hepburn were two of Hollywood’s earliest trouser champions, and were often photographed wearing them from the 1930s. Hillary Clinton is rarely seen wearing anything but, yet women weren’t allowed to wear pants on the US Senate floor until the “pantsuit rebellion” of 1993, when Senators Barbara Mikulski and Carol Moseley Braun wore them onto the floor in defiance of the rule, and female support staff followed their lead.

Their protest had actually been preceded by Illinois Representative Charlotte Reid in 1969, when she wore a black wool, bell-bottomed pantsuit onto the floor, although according to an article published in the Washington Post that year, she wasn’t planning to make a habit of it. The pantsuit had been a Christmas present from her staff, and they encouraged her to wear it that day. “I thought it would be fun on the last day of the session and people wouldn’t mind,” said Reid. According to the same article, they didn’t, although everyone noticed. “One incredulous congressman told her, ‘I was told there was a lady here in trousers, so I had to come over and see for myself.’”

It took until 2013 before Turkey’s parliament ended a ban on women wearing trousers in its assembly. Even into the 20th century, women in Paris had to ask for permission from city authorities before “dressing as men”, and often needed a medical excuse to get it; the bylaw was revoked in 2013 (although by then it wasn’t enforced and regarded as something of a joke). It dated back to the French Revolution, when trousers were considered objectionable not because they signified masculinity but, being the uniform of the common man, were associated with the rise of the working class against the bourgeoisie.

The British press had a lot of fun late last year, after new PM Theresa May was photographed in a magazine shoot wearing designer leather trousers that cost close to a thousand quid. Her former education secretary, Nicky Morgan, criticised her publicly for such extravagance. The subtext was that only the out-of-touch would spend that much on a pair of pants but, as one Guardian columnist noted: “The ensuing sanctimony about how much people receive in jobseeker’s allowance each week misses the point that male politicians regularly spend this kind of money on clothes. David Cameron apparently had suits costing more than £3000.”

But women have always taken trousers seriously, too seriously, beating ourselves up about them – whether our bum looks big in them, or too low to the ground in them, and now, two centuries after the French Revolution, even whether our bum looks bourgeois in them. 


This was published in the March 2017 issue of North & South.

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