A brief history of women and trousers

For the first time in its 182-year history, women will be allowed to wear trousers to the Henley Royal Regatta.

The Oxfordshire-based rowing event has updated its dress code for the Stewards’ Enclosure, so women can wear “jackets or blazers with trousers, or trouser suits”, as well as jumpsuits and culottes – but only if hemlines fall below the knee.

The change comes after a petition launched by Oxford student and University Women’s Boat Club member Georgina Grant garnered 1683 signatures. “Excluding, discriminatory and sexist dress codes are rife and we need to change this,” she argued.

Sir Steve Redgrave, chairman of the regatta, told the Telegraph it was an “evolution not revolution” which he was “very much in favour of”.

Even though women wearing pants is hardly as scandalous today as it once was, the update to the regatta’s dress code is a big step for such a traditional event. The history of ladies in trousers has certainly come a long way.

Hidden beginnings

Our short history focuses on the Western world, where there are examples of women wearing trousers in ancient China and the Ottoman Empire dating back centuries.

Read: Seven of the most stylish celebrities over 70

During the 19th century, women in the US and UK were expected to wear big, billowing skirts – they were a sign of femininity and conservatism, as they didn’t show off the shape of ladies’ legs. Contrast this to men wearing trousers, which are easier to move around in. This isn’t to say women didn’t wear trousers at all. Sometimes they were worn for horseriding, but even then, they were hidden underneath skirts – that’s how taboo the style was.

In the mid-1800s, activist Amelia Bloomer discovered Turkish-style pantaloons, and advocated for women to wear these loose trousers (which famously became known as ‘Bloomers’), although they were frowned upon by wider society.

As the decades progressed, there were a few other examples of women wearing trousers – most notably during the world wars, when women took on traditionally male jobs. However, it was definitely not the norm, and ladies were still expected to stick to skirts.

Pants continue to be taboo

After the First World War, there were a few famous examples of women donning pants. Hollywood stars such as Marlene Dietrich and Katharine Hepburn were known for their androgynous style in the 1930s, while later on, Audrey Hepburn made a splash in cropped slacks in the 1957 film Funny Face.

However, trousers were by no means mainstream attire for women in the early to mid-20th century and it would still be something of a shock to see ladies wearing them.

Read: The scandalous history of the bikini

Finally breaking through

There was a shift in consciousness in the late 1950s with the explosion in popularity of capri pants, but trousers really had a breakthrough in the 1960s and 1970s thanks to the women’s liberation movement.

Women were calling for equal rights – at home, at work and even in their wardrobes. This meant breaking free from the strictures placed on them by society, and that included the pressure to wear skirts and behave in a way that was considered feminine and demure.

Designer Yves Saint Laurent helped bring this even further into the mainstream with Le Smoking, a tuxedo debuted in 1966 specifically tailored to women’s bodies.

Trousers today

The fact the Henley Regatta’s dress code is only changing now suggests there’s still a certain amount of stigma attached to ladies wearing trousers.

Read: 11 fashionable women in suits

Incredibly, a 200-year ban on women wearing trousers in France was only overturned in 2013. Of course, it hadn’t been strictly policed, but it was still there. Plenty of schools still enforce a skirts-only uniform for girls, and female flight attendants on Virgin Atlantic couldn’t wear trousers until 2019.

However, the way we see fashion is slowly shifting. There’s a more androgynous approach to style – both on the red carpet and in the streets – meaning pants aren’t nearly as taboo as they once were. It’s no longer just about allowing women to wear trousers – it’s about letting anyone wear whatever they want, free of shame or judgement.

Do you prefer skirts or trousers? What do you think of women’s fashion today? Why not share your thoughts in the comments section below?

– With PA

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Written by Prudence Wade



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