The early history of pants
The Greeks never figured out how to make pants. They made their clothes by pinning material so that it hung nicely. But then, they didn’t have severe winters, and they weren’t an equestrian society. So the Greeks looked down on the Scythians, who spent much of their time on horseback. The Scythians, nomads of the steppes in Siberia, invented pants. All Scythians wore them: men, women, and children. They were comfortable, practical, warm, and protective.
The Persians, and eventually the Romans, discovered that pants made sense and started wearing them. From there, the fashion spread throughout Europe. But trousers became associated with masculinity, as soldiers adopted them for fighting. The concept slurred masculinity with power, and women were definitely out of the running. Once this idea took hold, women were forbidden to wear them in Western societies. Pants were strictly for males. No women need apply.
Women’s rights movement
The restrictions placed on women by men have always chafed. Not until the late 19th century and early 20th century, did women really fight back against repression in sufficient numbers. Men finally had to accept the fact that women were humans, too. That fight continues today.
Trousers were a part of that struggle. In the middle of the 19th century, women were getting restive. They didn’t like being second class, and they didn’t like their clothes: corsets and hoops and bustles. A new style of pantaloons, looking something like harem pants, was popular for a few years. Amelia Bloomer, the editor of the first women’s magazine, wrote about them and the style picked up the nickname of ‘bloomers’.
Women in pants
At the end of the century, bloomers were forgotten, but women were participating in sports. Pants became acceptable while riding horses and bicycles. Then along came designers like Coco Chanel, who incorporated trousers into the female wardrobe. Movie stars, like Katherine Hepburn and Marlene Dietrich, wore them everywhere, meeting criticism with disdain. Then along came World War II, and women began taking over men’s factory jobs, joining the military, doing work that was nearly impossible in skirts.
The 1950s produced an opposing fashion wave, led by Christian Dior, featuring full skirts. But the 1960s and jeans and bell-bottoms buried that trend.
Restrictions, even laws, have persisted. France just got rid of a law that stated women could not wear pants on the streets of Paris. In schools across the United States, as few as five years ago, girls had to bring suit against the school board to be allowed to wear slacks at graduation. Even U.S. Senators, women, who routinely wield power, were forbidden to wear pants on the Senate floor until the 1990s.
Like every aspect of the fight for equality, the right to wear whatever she wants has been a power struggle for women. The battle has not been entirely won, but at least we can wear pants.