What do frivolous suits mean

Women in pants

Fashion history

The history of women's pants

Men in skirts

In most depictions of ancient cultures, both men and women wear skirts. The skirt is the simplest item of clothing: a rectangular piece of fabric is wrapped around the body and tied with a knot or fibula.
In some cultures, men still wear skirts as a matter of course, e.g. as lungi or sarong in India and Southeast Asia. In some cultures of the Middle East, trousers were even seen as exclusively female clothing, while men wore long tunics (i.e. dresses) or still wear them today.
The wide harem pants of Persian, Turkish, Syrian and Arab women caused a sensation in Europe from the 18th century and served western women as models for their own pants experiments.

The origin of the pants

The word “trousers” is probably derived from the Germanic term “huson”, which denotes lower leg or leg bandages or leg warmers. Today's trousers are more similar to the "bruoch", the underpants of the Teutons and Celts. The trousers as we know them today were created by joining bruoch and huson.
In the western world, trousers as an upper garment have been the usual item of clothing for men since the 14th century and only men had the right to wear them for several centuries.

Even in early Christian equestrian peoples there were trousers-like garments and in the Middle Ages trousers became part of the knightly war costume. Presumably, the resulting male connotation in Western Europe led to the fact that over time the trousers were increasingly worn by men and less and less by women, thus consolidating the gender dress code and in some cases also enshrining it in law. The idea that women wear a piece of fabric visibly and in public between their legs was considered obscene and highly scandalous until well into the 20th century.

Nevertheless, between 1350 and 1900 there were always women who wore trousers, e.g. to travel more comfortably, to be able to carry out certain work or activities, or to consciously expand the female sphere of activity and promote equality between women and men.

Women's trousers during the French Revolution

Since the beginning of the French Revolution in 1789, citizens and sans-culottes fought together with their male counterparts against the Ancien Régime and formed various activist women's associations, some of which made emancipatory demands during the course of the revolution and appeared provocatively in men's trousers, such as the "Society of Revolutionary Republicans". The masculine demeanor of the "Revolutionary Republicans" aroused a great deal of incomprehension, both among the male revolutionaries and among the less emancipatory women's associations. The lack of cooperation between the individual women's associations and a denunciation campaign by the men's united front led to the fact that all women's associations in France were banned at the end of 1793.

The law only allowed women to wear “pantaloons” if they received personal approval from the city authorities. This law was only deleted from the French constitution in 2013.

In the liberal bourgeois salons of women at the end of the 18th century, people hesitantly began to talk about discrimination against women and to question current gender roles. With the end of the French Revolution, a more revealing, more natural fashion emerged and the fashionably enthusiastic middle-class ladies wore ankle to calf-length, almost transparent chemise dresses made of the finest white mousseline and underneath pantaloons made of tricot with visible trouser legs - a rampant "nudity fashion", like German fashion magazines from the time were shocked to find out.

Women's pants in the 19th century

Outside of the French fashion scene of the Merveilleuses, in the first half of the 19th century in the western world and especially among middle-class women who did not work, it was still frowned upon to wear trousers in public. Even as underwear, in addition to the tightly laced corset, numerous layers of stiff underskirts weighing several kilograms were preferred, which offered only inadequate protection against the cold, severely restricted movement and often led to accidents in everyday life. Since the end of the 18th century, some doctors in Germany and Great Britain diagnosed the cause of various illnesses in their patients in heavy petticoats and began to promote the wearing of "trousers" as undergarments in order to achieve healthy reproduction. From 1830, women began to wear an open form of underpants: two tubes that were tied at the waist.

At the same time, there were various religious communities in Western Europe and North America that rejected fundamentally hierarchical structures and assumed gender equality, including the "Society of Friends", or community of Quakers, which was established in Great Britain. The first convention for equality for women was initiated by Quaker women in Seneca Falls, USA, in 1848; there the right to vote and to vote for women was demanded for the first time. Quaker women also promoted the first dress reform movement in the United States from the 1850s.

For practical reasons and in order to be able to do her gardening better, the women's rights activist Elizabeth Smith Miller wore ankle-length, wide trousers that were adhered to at the hem, over them a knee-length skirt and a loosely cut, knee-length coat. She had got to know this trouser suit, which resembled the “Turkish costume”, in a Swiss sanatorium in 1850, where women could recover from the effects of tightly laced corsets.

The bloomer costume

Elizabeth Smith Miller's friend Amelia Bloomer, editor of the emancipatory women's magazine "The Lily" and participant in the Seneca Falls convention, was so enthusiastic about Miller's idea that she adopted the look. Amelia Bloomer propagated Miller's type of trouser costume in her magazine, so that it became known as the "bloomer costume", caused a sensation worldwide and was considered the most radical proposal for reforming women's costume for decades.

In North America and Western Europe, some radical women followed “bloomerism”, had their bloomer costume re-tailored and began to get involved politically for equality between women and to fight for a reform of women's clothing. In the current clothing tradition, the "Bloomerites" saw a gender-specific disadvantage and an obstacle on the way to political equality of the sexes.
The questioning of the male sole claim to trousers and thus to social supremacy was, however, viewed by the general public as a threat and categorically rejected.
The Bloomerites had to expect to be laughed at, attacked or attacked by passers-by on the street; there were repeated arrests for improper wearing of men's clothing.
Elizabeth Smith Miller and Amelia Bloomer also finally refrained from wearing trousers, as wearing them resembled “martyrdom” and they preferred to put their energy into the fight for political equality and the right to vote for women.

With the “National Dress Reform Association” founded in the USA in 1856, the reform of women's clothing was on the one hand better organized, but on the other hand it was also politically defused; clothing should be reformed for reasons of rationality and health, but not profound social changes achieved.
The moderate dress reformers organized lectures, campaigns and exhibitions in North America and Western Europe to promote the idea of ​​healthy and functional women's pants. However, these were almost exclusively intended as underwear or since the 1880s as sportswear and should not visibly call into question the traditional social roles.

The dress reform in Germany

In 1896 the "International Congress for Women's Work and Women's Movements" was held in Berlin, at which the topic of dress reform was also dealt with. The subsequently founded “Association for the Improvement of Women's Clothes” campaigned for healthier, more rational clothing in order to achieve better performance and health of the female population. At the same time, the association recognized traditional dress codes as an expression of male supremacy and female immaturity. The dress reform movement existed in Germany until the 1930s and organized public meetings, working sessions for women in which reform proposals could be tailored, lectures, discussions and exhibitions and distributed leaflets.
As with the dress reform movements in North America and Great Britain, the supporters in Germany were educated women of the bourgeoisie. Accordingly, the proposals for reformed outerwear in terms of material and equipment were geared towards the income situation of wealthy women, while the broader female population had neither the financial means nor the time to implement the reform proposals, nor the desire to address the situation of women in general improve.
Although the dress reformers were able to discreetly achieve a reform of underwear and push through underpants instead of petticoats, the proposals for reforming outerwear met with skepticism and rejection.

Women's pants in sports

It was only with the increasing popularity of recreational sport that the sight of women in trousers in public normalized. The use of functional sports costumes and sports legwear for swimming, cycling or hiking was socially tolerated, as these physical exercises were physically strengthening and health-promoting; At times, cycling was even recommended by doctors to combat “women's ailments”. At the same time, the zeitgeist began to change and women's desire for freedom of movement, independence and independence increased.

Especially the pants combinations for cyclists, a pair of harem pants or knickerbockers and a calf-length lap jacket, were decisive for the normalization of women who wear pants in everyday life. Cycling, which was initially regarded as an exclusive leisure activity, spread from 1900 onwards as a mundane, fast form of transport that was used by women of all walks of life in everyday life. The cyclists had to get off in between, e.g. to enter shops or to visit someone and the tolerance of trouser costumes as everyday clothing increased as the population got used to this sight.

In tennis, too, performance-oriented female athletes tried to implement a sports costume that allowed more freedom of movement. In lawn tennis, invented in 1874 in England in its current form as a leisure activity for the upper class, women were allowed to participate in tournaments from 1879, from 1884 to the Wimbledon tournament and from 1900 at the Olympic Games. Nevertheless, until the 1920s, a floor-length and later ankle-length dress with long, narrow sleeves and even a corset were considered appropriate sports clothing, trousers were taboo until the 1930s. When some professional tennis players dared to play the Wimbledon court in shorts in the 1930s, it was a shocking scandal. According to the tennis associations, the players should demonstrate a sense of tradition in their sportswear and follow the dress guidelines of society's women. In 2018, female tennis professionals still have to bow to the misogynous clothing regulations of the tennis associations: Serena Williams wore a black compression suit instead of the usual white skirt at the French Open in May of this year for health reasons. The French tennis federation subsequently banned the wearing of catsuits at the French Open so that "the sport and the place are respected".

Changed life situation in modern society

Since the end of the 19th century, in the course of modern industrial society, the active employment of women was increasingly required.
Qualities such as toughness, willpower, productivity, health and independence have become positive characteristics for women who, previously ideally, were supposed to represent graceful, beautiful, delicate creatures of the "weaker sex".
The increasing professional activity of women required practical and safe work clothes, which from 1910 became the main topic of the "Association for the Improvement of Women's Clothes".

When, during the First World War, women had to take over work that had previously only been done by men on a large scale, trousers established themselves as part of functional, female work clothing; however, the majority of working women tried to change their clothes before and after work and to cover the crotch appropriately.

Trouser dresses and garçonnes

At the beginning of the 20th century, women's fashion by exclusive fashion designers from Paris and Berlin became increasingly narrow and floor-length skirts so tight that women could only take small steps. In order to be able to maintain the slim silhouette, some fashion designers, such as Paul Poiret in Paris, experimented with different variants of pant skirts and trouser dresses. The trouser dresses were ankle-length and narrow cut and had button slits up to the thigh. Narrow pants made of the same material as the dress were worn underneath. The fashion designers also discovered "Orientalism" and created wide balloon and bloomers made of flowing silk, based on the harem pants of women from the Middle East.
By the end of the First World War, however, the extravagant culottes proposed by fashion designers met with decided rejection from the majority of women, although women's trousers were already widely accepted in sport and at work.

Women's rights activists and the suffragette movement fought for the right to vote and stand for election in most countries of Western Europe and North America until the 1920s; as women became more active, so did their economic independence. For the first time, this created a kind of social equality between women and men and also increased the number of women interested in fashion.

The new independence of women was reflected in the androgynous Garçonne fashion with short hair, narrow pants, tie and cigarette holder, but was also seen by working women as too frivolous for everyday life.
Nonetheless, women's trousers and trouser suits became more and more part of everyday life; this could no longer be stopped by the Nazi propaganda in the 30s and 40s.
Actresses like Marlene Dietrich have appeared regularly in elegant trouser suits since the 1930s and even the first lady Eleanor Roosevelt appeared relaxed in trousers on a formal occasion in 1933.

The pants for all situations

The woman wearing trousers has normalized in the western world since the end of the Second World War, which is promoted not least by youth fashion and the growing consumer culture.

Since the 1960s, fashion designers such as André Courrèges and Yves Saint Laurent (“Le Smoking”) began to design formal and elegant women's trousers for official and festive occasions, but it took several decades before women were really allowed to wear trousers in all situations.

For example, female MPs have only been allowed to enter the US Senate in pant suits since 1993; British Airways female crew members have only been allowed to swap the classic skirt of their uniform for trousers since 2016.
Even if women are allowed to wear pants practically anywhere in the western world, women's clothing remains a political issue, about which social role assignments are negotiated (e.g. "Burkini-Ban" in several Western European countries).

Written by Galatea Ziss

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