Research Paper- Pants Phenomenon: The Switch from Skirts to Trousers

             Trousers can be defined as, “a loose-fitting outer garment for the lower part of the body, having individual leg portions that reach typically to the ankle but sometimes to any of various other points from the upper leg down.” This simple piece of clothing has caused much controversy for women over the years. The social and technological changes of the 20th century propelled the movement of it being acceptable for women to wear pants. The act of wearing pants itself is a form of technology because wearing trousers makes almost any task easier than doing the same task in a skirt or dress. The revolution of women wearing pants is important because it traces the history of equality between men and women. This nonverbal communication of clothing changed dramatically when women regularly began wearing pants in the middle to late 1900s. Before the twentieth century, women were technically not allowed to wear pants because it was a masculine item, and they were looked down upon if they decided to wear them. It wasn’t until the Second World War that women began wearing trousers out in public, but it still wasn’t widely accepted. Finally in the 1960s, society decided that it was about time for it to be socially acceptable for women to wear pants.

            Prior to the middle of the 20th century, women had a very limited wardrobe of dresses and skirts. Women had a certain image that they were expected to obtain. Pants weren’t even an option for them during this time period because trousers were for men. Women were expected to wear corsets, which reduced their waist size so much that many were unable to breathe and often fainted. This was considered feminine, and females wore these to distinguish themselves from men. This was the culture of the 1800s. The way that women dressed during this time made them appear to be like dolls, and came across as fragile. Women were perceived as helpless females in frilly dresses, while men were strong and wore masculine pants. Women spent hours getting ready and would put on multiple layers of skirts.  Floor length skirts which picked up debris and constantly got dirty were what females were forced to deal with on a daily basis. Women would have to wear girdles, and hoop skirts, and clothes that weren’t too revealing. Petticoats, frilly slips worn under skirts, were yet another hassle in the daily dress for women. Fashion at this time was by no means about comfort, which is partially a reason why women yearned to wear pants.  They were much more convenient, comfortable, and easier to wear than multiple layers of skirts.  At this time, corsets and skirts were feminine and distinctly separated women from men. Women couldn’t wear trousers because that would portray females to be almost as equal as males.

            There was quite an uproar in society when women first began to wear pants. Elizabeth Smith Miller was the first American woman to wear trousers in public in 1851. She was gardening one day and was simply fed up with her long skirt getting dirty. She wore an early version of trousers, and was a brave soul for doing this because it was extremely uncommon to go out in public wearing pants as a woman during this time because trousers belonged to men, not women. Miller wore these pants when she visited her cousin Elizabeth Cady Stanton and both of them wore trousers to the Seneca Falls Convention for women’s rights. Wearing pants to a women’s rights conference was a bold move because they were expressing that they believed that they were just as equal as men. The culture of the 19th century clearly did not agree with that. The women who dared to wear pants “were denounced by preachers.”People of the church strongly believed that women should not wear trousers.  Deuteronomy 22:5 from the Old Testament of the Bible states, “the woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man, neither shall a man put on a woman’s garment: for all that do so are abomination unto the Lord thy God.”3 Many took this passage literally, and since men wore trousers, they believed that women shouldn’t wear them. Women were heckled and “tormented by small boys, who threw pebbles at them when they ventured out in public”4 wearing trousers. Society as a whole did not agree with women wearing anything but dresses during this time, which is clear if children were taught to attack women wearing pants.

            Even though society didn’t agree with women wearing pants, sometimes pants were a more practical option. Exercise was very difficult for women since they could only wear skirts or dresses. Even everyday tasks were difficult when wearing flowing clothes.  Amelia Bloomer invented bloomers, hence the name, which were a type of loose pants worn under a short skirt.  This outfit was sometimes referred to as the reform dress since it was new and different for the women at the time. In the 1890’s, women began wearing these bloomers to exercise. They were mainly worn for biking or by women in sanitariums.  The society at this time was not ready for such a change in culture. They were not ready for women to communicate by wearing something so similar to men’s clothing. This was unmistakably visible since the “reaction to the Bloomer costume was immediate and fairly hostile; the mainstream press in particular and men in general, objected.”5 There was an uproar about women wearing pants, but these bloomers were “one step toward trousers becoming accepted as standard items of female attire in the twentieth century.”6 There was objection from the men because pants were a big part of what made men masculine. Since women wanted to wear trousers, it was perceived that they wanted to be like men and have the same rights. Even though women were expressing their belief of equality through pants, the society at this time was not accepting and not allowing equality of men and women.

            In the 20th century there was an ease of the restrictions on women which foreshadowed the pants revolution in women’s style. It wasn’t until the 1900s that skirts were worn above the ankle. Finally it was becoming acceptable to wear something that didn’t get in the way of everyday tasks. Women still wore skirts and dresses during this time; they just weren’t floor length and tended to be much simpler.  Up until the 20th century, women had always worn loose, flowing dresses. This all changed along with the culture in the 1920’s. Hemlines on dresses became extremely high, and women began wearing tight dresses to show off their bodies. The women who followed this trend “were called flappers” 7 and they extended this culture shock by rolling “down their stockings to show off their knees.” 8 During this time women began to obtain more rights. The 19th amendment was passed which gave women the right to vote. These slight achievements in women’s right explain the dramatic change from full length skirts, to short revealing dresses, to eventually pants. The way women dressed communicated to society that they knew they had gained more rights and could therefore dress the way they wanted with some restrictions. They were still nowhere near being equal to men, but their actions were making the wearing of trousers a possibility for the future.

             Although there was a huge evolution of women’s rights, women were still by no means equal to men. Men were known to wear pants, and women couldn’t take that away from them. Women continued to wear dresses, shorter than before, but they were still stuck with dresses and skirts. Trousers were considered masculine, and women couldn’t be like a man in any way. In many cultures, “trousers had become fixed as a gender-specific garment for men.” Women were identified by skirts, and since skirts and dresses are feminine, they shouldn’t even want to wear something masculine such as pants. In the 1930s some of women’s fashions began to incorporate aspects of men’s fashion. “The buttoned shirtdress and versatile separates—sweaters and loose lounge pants with matching tops—showed the further appropriation of menswear elements into women’s fashion.” 10 Although some characteristics of men’s clothing were incorporated into women’s fashion, pants were still not accepted by society. In this culture, women were not equal to men, and therefore they couldn’t wear trousers.




Figure 1. Women in factories wearing pants.

From I Have a Degree in This, Why Americana Will Always Be In Style,

            Women were finally able to wear trousers, but it only lasted for a little while, and there were still restrictions. It wasn’t until the 1940s, during World War II when women truly began to wear pants. While the men were in Europe fighting the war, the women were in America producing the goods needed for the war. The women took it upon themselves to work in the factories to provide guns, bullets, food, and other goods needed for the war and to keep America running. Dresses and skirts were not practical attire to wear when working in the factories. Because of the technology and new machinery in these factories, women began wearing pants while they worked. It made moving around and getting jobs done much easier. They were also much safer since their skirts could easily get caught on the machinery. Figure 1 shows factory women wearing pants. Unfortunately when the war ended, “most women left those jobs and went back to wearing skirts.” 11 Pants were only accepted in the workplace, but once the men were back to work, the women went back to the house and their hard work in the factories went unnoticed. The rights that they gained during the war were taken away once the men came back. They went right back to being looked at as just housewives.

            Even though women gained rights and were able to wear pants during the war, they seemed to take a step backwards directly after the war. Although females could wear trousers while they worked, it was still not socially acceptable to wear them in public. They were expected to continue to dress feminine like in social settings outside of work. This has to do with women’s sexuality because since they are women, they should dress in feminine clothes, and not want to look like men by wearing pants. In the 1940’s it became socially acceptable for girls and women to wear pant suits, but only at home.  They couldn’t wear them in public yet, and “were expected—if not required—to wear only dresses for school, church, parties, and even shopping.”12 It was still considered “improper to indicate the shape of the leg with trousers.”13 It caused quite a stir when women “desired to wear trousers in public rather than reserving them for the seclusion of a gymnasium, their homes, or sanitariums.” 14 During World War II, “four female pilots who had been ferrying new military fighter planes to an airport in Georgia were arrested as they walked to their hotel for violating a rule against women wearing slacks on the street at night.” 15 These women fought in the war, and did jobs that men did, but weren’t able to wear trousers because they were women. Once the men came back from the war, everything went back to how it was before the war. Women’s jobs were to be at home in the kitchen and raise the kids. It was back to dresses and skirts for these women. “Most women did not choose to wear men’s clothing and they did not elect to reveal their legs, for both would have been improper.”16 The few women that did wear trousers were mistaken as actresses or prostitutes. Even though the technology provided a gateway for women to be able to wear pants, the culture once again changed at the end of the war, and the women were no longer needed in the workplace. Since America had just gotten out of the war, the society wanted to go back to the way it was before instead of trying to reform, which explains the halt in equality between men and women.

            The mid to late part of the 20th century was when reforms were made, and women could wear pants without being ridiculed. In the 1960s women finally started to wear pants on a regular basis, but the gender role still played a big part in their daily life. Women were still depicted in advertisements as wearing dresses, “whether they were lab workers at the General Foods Kitchens, an older housewife bent over with arthritis, or a younger one pulling sheets out of the washer.”17 This was because women were still housewives, and some still saw themselves as inferior to men. It was a dramatic change for women, even though they had been fighting for decades to be able to wear pants, skirts were the safe way to go. Pants were new while skirts were safe and familiar. In 1961 Audrey Hepburn’s role in Breakfast at Tiffany’s influenced women to wear pants. Her character in the movie wore black capris and because of that, more and more women began to regularly wear trousers. It finally became fashionable for women to wear pants. In the 1960s and 1970s, there were feminist movements. These caused the equal rights amendment to be passed, and since everyone was supposedly equal, it was finally socially acceptable for women to wear trousers out in public. The fact that women can now wear pants shows that women are equal to men in some aspects of life.

            Women communicate today by the clothes that they wear. The fact that women wear a variety of slacks indicates that women are as equal as men and are able to wear the same things. Clothing is a type of nonverbal communication because it shows a person’s personality. Pants are a form of technology because they have made tasks easier, and have helped bridge the gap of equality between men and women. Now that women are able to wear pants, they are able to express their personality as well as men have been able to for centuries. Women wear pants today because it’s normal and socially acceptable, but what most don’t realize is that they are displaying the equality of women by wearing the trousers. 


1. Trousers. Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc. Encyclopedia Britannica Inc… (accessed: October 20, 2011).

2.  Collins, Gail. When Everything Changed: the Amazing Journey of American Women, From 1960 to the Present (New York: Hachette Book Group, 2009), 30

3.  Jason Young, “Does the Bible Say It’s a Sin for Women to Wear Pants?” Acts  Eighteen, (accessed: November 8, 2011)

4. Collins, Everything Changed, 30

5. Lillethun, Abby. & Welters, Linda. The Fashion Reader: Second Edition (New York: Berg, 2011), 193

6. Lillethun, Fashion Reader, 194

7. Rau, Dana Meachen. Clothing in American History ( Milwaukee: Weekly Reader, 2007), 18

8. Rau, Clothing in American History,20

9. Cunningham, Patricia A. Reforming Women’s Fashion, 1850-1920: Politics, Health, and Art (Kent:      Kent State University Press, 2003), 31

10. Lillethun, Fashion Reader,196

11. Rau, Clothing in American History, 21

12. Lillethun, Fashion Reader, 195

13. Cunningham, Reforming Women’s Fashion, 33

14. Cunningham, Reforming Women’s Fashion, 37

15. Collins, Everything Changed, 31

16. Cunningham, Reforming Women’s Fashion, 55

17.  Collins, Everything Changed, 31


Collins, Gail. When Everything Changed: the Amazing Journey of American Women, From 1960 to the

                Present. New York: Hachette Book Group, 2009.

Cunningham, Patricia A. Reforming Women’s Fashion, 1850-1920: Politics, Health, and Art. Kent:

                Kent State University Press, 2003.

Lillethun, Abby. & Welters, Linda. The Fashion Reader: Second Edition. New York: Berg, 2011.

Rau, Dana Meachen. Clothing in American History. Milwaukee: Weekly Reader, 2007.

Trousers. Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc.., Encyclopedia Britannica Inc…

       (accessed: October 20, 2011).

VDW, Kimberlee, “Why Americana Will Always Be In Style,”I Have a Degree In This,


                (accessed November 9, 2011)

Young, Jason, “Does the Bible Say It’s a Sin for Women to Wear Pants?,” Acts Eighteen,

      (accessed: November 8, 2011)

By: Mary Van Alten

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