As a woman in the 21st century, whether you wear a skirt or trousers can be dependent on many things. It could be the occasion, or the weather, but I bet one thing you aren’t considering while rummaging through your wardrobe is the politics of your fashion choices.
In France it is technically illegal for women to wear trousers. A 200 year old police ruling has never been repealed, meaning that Mademoiselles should only wear trousers with special authorisation. These days it’s highly unlikely the police will hand cuff you for wearing skinny jeans, (at least in the Western Hemisphere) but old laws like this one show us how fashion has changed for women over the last century.
Marlene Dietrich in 1930s Morocco
In the West during the first half of the 20th century a woman wearing trousers meant one of three things: She was either a part of the war movement, working in a factory or in the fields where skirts were impracticable. She enjoyed gardening, or liked to wear them for comfort during other ladylike household tasks. Or, she was strong willed and ‘difficult’. A woman wearing trousers in public was the equivalent of a cross dresser, and was considered socially unacceptable until the 1970s. Trousers were strictly for men, women were expected to wear dresses and skirts.
When legendary German actress Marlene Dietrich wore a suit in public in 1933 it caused an uproar. In her personal life Dietrich was unconventional in many ways and enjoyed challenging gender roles, whether she was boxing for fun or embracing the newfound gay and drag scene of the 1920s. Of course all of this was kept out of the public eye, but her alternative lifestyle was reflected in her fashion choices.
Although an actress who sustained her popularity through reinvention, Dietrich’s signature touch was to bring masculine undertones to her outfits. On and off screen she often wore full men’s attire. Films such as Morocco, where Dietrich played a cabaret singer who performs in a man’s dinner suit, showed that an androgynous look could be sexy. It helped to solidify her image as a femme fatale and an early Fashionista.
Today she is remembered in the fashion world via the Marlene trousers. High waisted with a flagging cut that tapers in at the ankles, the trousers are both stylish and practical and is usually paired with a shirt and blazer.
A modern day fashionista sporting a pair of Marlene trousers
The spirited and independent Katharine Hepburn was another pioneer of trousers for women. Like Dietrich she was considered an unconventional dresser in the 30s and 40s and her fashion sense is still widely admired in the 21st century.
In 2012 the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts honoured her innovative approach to fashion with an exhibition entitled Dressed for Stage and Screen. The exhibition included everything from the actress’s false eyelashes and make up trays, to her sensible shoes.
The secret to Hepburn’s effortlessly glamorous style are the same foundations required in men’s tailoring, good fabric and good construction. Hepburn is quoted as saying: “Anytime I hear a man say he prefers a woman in a skirt, I say, ‘Try one. Try a skirt.” She loved to be comfortable but she also wanted to be fashionable, everything she owned was couture.
Although a feminist icon who is now respected for her strong personality, Hepburn was resented in her own time. Alongside Dietrich, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, her individuality made her ‘box office poison’ as she fought against the public image the studio heads tried to craft for her.
Despite the efforts of these Hollywood leading ladies the 1950s saw a resurgence of ladylike styles. Post war fashion embraced Haute Couture after the penny pinching of the war years. Christian Dior unveiled his famous ‘New Look’ silhouette. With a fitted waist, a long sweeping skirt and soft feminine shoulders, Dior’s latest creation emphasized the female form.
It was also time to say goodbye to designers such as Italy’s Elsa Schiaparelli, who incorporated typically male dominated materials and styles into her clothing and had styled Katherine Hepburn. She found it difficult to adapt to the feminine styles of the Post War scene, and her business closed in 1954.
As well as changes to the economic climate Post War culture also included many social changes, the most significant perhaps being the rise of the teenager. Many young people who would have become independent wage earners were now staying at home for longer, forming a new stage of life development. Previously young people had dressed in the same styles as their parents, but after World War Two the American fashion industry began to target teenagers as a separate market segment. The birth of the ‘Greasers’ in America and the ‘Teddy Boys’ in the UK symbolised a bold new generation of men’s style. However, there wasn’t an edgy equivalent for the girls, who wore the typical ‘co-ed’ uniform of a short sleeve sweater and a pencil skirt, until the arrival of the Beat generation.
A group of artists, poets, and intellectuals against the conservative ideals of the day, female Beatniks kept their hair natural, did not use make up, and wore all black attire. Audrey Hepburn in the 1950s classic Funny Face represents the Beatnik stereotype: a quirky woman with strong opinions who is slightly out of touch with the real world, and this type of woman liked to wear trousers.
The 1960s was the era of worldwide revolution, and this included changes in women’s rights. This liberation of women was reflected in fashion, and when British designer Mary Quant introduced the mini skirt in 1964 the fashion world was changed forever.
Even though it wasn’t until the 1970s that women in trousers became common place, the counter culture of the Sixties set the precedent. Beginning at the start of the decade with the drainpipes worn by rockers, and finishing the era with hippy bell bottoms, throughout the decade both men and women who wanted to make a statement wore trousers.
The unisex hippy look continued throughout the early seventies and gave way to more androgynous trends. Thanks to Glam Rock stars like David Bowie and Marc Bolan, men and women’s fashion began to blend. Men started to embrace typically female styles and accessories. Glitter was everywhere and make up for both sexes was sparkly and over the top. The invention of platforms meant that even the shoes were agamous, with both sexes wearing heels that were at least four inches high.
This man needs no caption!
What is most important about the clothing trends of the 70s is that women in trousers became mainstream, and it is no coincidence that it overlapped with further progression of women’s rights. Most efforts of the feminist movement, especially those aimed at social equality were successful, and Margaret Thatcher became the first British Prime Minister.
Despite this, in the 1980s it was still considered a ‘faux pas’ for women to wear trousers to work, and even in the 21st century some schools still ban girls from wearing trousers as part of their uniform.
So next time you put on that fabulous pair of palazzo pants, the ones that are super slimming and fill you with self-confidence, remember that once upon a time you might not have been so lucky.