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One of the earliest accounts of women wearing pants is seen in Herodotus’s description of the Greeks going to war with the Scythians in around 520 BCE. At the time the Greek soldiers were shocked to see Scythian women on horseback. Not only did they ride astride like men, but the did so fully armored, and in pants! For a culture that, like much of the ancient world, wore variations on a dress for both men and women, this was completely shocking. So novel was the sight that when the soldiers returned home they shared tales of these warrior women, immortalizing them in art and legend.

In Western Europe women did not start wearing pants until the mid-eighteen hundreds. In fact in a lot of places it was actually illegal to do so. There was even a law in France that forbade women from wearing trousers in public unless the got specific permission, and while it hasn’t been enforced for decades, the law itself was not repealed until 2013.

Of course the fact that it was unlawful wasn’t a deterrent for everyone. Life for women was not always easy and if you were orphaned or widowed and had no family to support you, there weren’t a lot of options. For those who decided that starvation and prostitution were not acceptable choices — and really who could blame them — there was more than one industry out there that was willing to take on workers and not look too closely at who was wearing the pants, as long as they kept their head down and didn’t cause trouble — most specifically the military. From the Golden Age of piracy to the American civil war, there are tales of women concealing their gender and fighting beside their husbands and brothers, or disappearing within the ranks to flee less pleasant circumstances.  Evidence suggests that the number of women who lived their lives disguised as men number in the thousands, some of the most notable among these women were Hannah Snell, Mary Read, and Anne Bonny.

One place where there was less reason for disguise was in the American West. In a place where hard labor was a necessity just to survive, skirts were nothing but a hindrance. Aside from being heavy and cumbersome, the way they often dragged on the ground, picking up all kinds of unmentionable filth, was also a tremendous health risk. As mining jobs were plentiful, and because like the military they didn’t ask too many questions about a person’s background, it became another haven for women who disguised to escape their limited prospects. However there is also documentation of women wearing men’s clothes while working at logging camps or herding cattle and operating machinery, so even though wearing trousers was generally frowned upon, there did seem to be some reasonable exceptions in place within working hours.

One of the earliest forerunners of dress reform was Amelia Bloomer, who introduced her own style of long, poofy pants in 1851. Of course the appearance of these trousers, worn under knee-length dresses, caused quite the scandal as for the first time in centuries it meant that people could see  that women had legs and did not in fact just roll along on wheels under their thirty pounds of skirts and petticoats.


The Rational Dress Society was formed not long afterwards, advocating a weight limit of seven pounds in women’s undergarments — a marked difference from the combined weight of hoops and petticoats worn at the time. They claimed that corsets and the masses of petticoats were unhygienic, immoral, and generally dangerous (and if you’ve read my article on corset you’ll understand that they weren’t exactly wrong). This started up a huge rivalry with conservative factions who believe it the sum total of a woman’s duties in life to look pretty, bear children, and keep a neat household, and that as such if a woman was uncomfortable, she should happily bear it in order to uphold those responsibilities. Other conservatives worried that women wearing pants would lead to immodest behavior — specifically sexual promiscuity — and would incite such bold behavior that the entire gendered power structure of society would be flipped on its head, and that society as a whole would eventually collapse as a result.

One of the primary turning points in terms of dress reform was the Great War. In the early nineteen-hundreds, the roles of women in society were starting to broaden. The sphere of influence was expanding outside of the home and as the classes mixed, the styles of clothing worn began amalgamate into something more relaxed and casual that had been worn in the past.



French designer Paul Poiret introduced his own style of harem pant into the fashionable pages of Vogue in 1913, they were still considered more of an avant-garde statement than a common mode of dress

The Great War’s influence on fashion came on two fronts: a redirection of resources, and a change in the role of women in society.

When the war began, most men in Europe and the Colonies were sent off to fight, leaving most of the women behind to manage the industries of the home-front. This meant taking up more labor, factory, and law-enforcement positions that were, until that point, run predominantly by male staff. Of course performing these kinds of tasks in layers of skirts and petticoats was incredibly dangerous. For safety reasons, most female factory workers took on the uniform of a simple blouse and peg-top trousers, which were eventually replaced by khaki coveralls in some businesses.

Other women chose to go to the Front themselves, taking on positions as field nurses, or even as soldiers. While most of the uniforms provided to them included calf-length skirts, there were some that elected to wear pants for ease of movement.

The rationing of resources on the home-front also contributed to the change in clothing styles. With supplies being funneled into the war effort, it was unreasonable for civilians to continue to wear the long, multi-layered skirts that had been worn the last few centuries. Over the course of the war years, skirts became less voluminous and came down a little past the knees instead of reaching the floor. Some women even chose to don trousers like the men for versatility and ease of movement.

Despite the freedom given to women during the war years, pants remained more of a fringe garment in terms of women’s fashions. Knickers and Palazzo pants emerged as sports and leisure-wear, but even those came with pretty firm restrictions on when it was acceptable to wear them.

Things continued much the same way through the 1930’s and 40’s. Styles for everyday-wear became more masculine but most women drew the line at wearing actual pants, particularly after the end of WWII. At this time the house of Dior was pushing for a return to the classic feminine silhouette, with an emphasis on full skirts and narrow waists.  There were, of course, exceptions to this. Famous designers like Coco Chanel, and actresses like Audrey Hepburn and Marlene Deitrich integrated trousers into their everyday style, and their influence revolutionized the fashion industry.

By the 1960’s many women didn’t think twice about pulling a pair of jeans from their closet on the average day. It should, however, be noted that while pants were fully acceptable for women to don as street-wear, they were generally frowned upon within the workplace.

This all changed in the 1970’s when the suit took over the fashion world. Leisure suits, pant suits, jumpsuits, tracksuits — if there was an occasion for it, there was a suit to wear to it.

As we move through the twenty-first century it is not uncommon for western women to spend most of their lives wearing pants. Dresses, once the cornerstone of every woman’s wardrobe, are now saved predominantly for special occasions, or for days when we feel like looking a little fancy. The styles evolved as we did, our freedom of dress mirroring our freedom and growth in society.

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