Who Wears the Pants: Attorney General Legalizes Slacks for Women
In May 1923, the U.S. Attorney General gave America’s women the legal green light to wear slacks anywhere they wished — even in public. These crazy kids with their Rudy Valentino flickers and Louise Brooks bobs — the whole world is going to hell in a handbasket, I tell ya.
It seems a bit odd a century later that grown women needed an OK from the government to pick their wardrobe. But then again, women weren’t even given the right to vote until three years earlier, so there you go.
Way back in the day, both sexes wore skirts, or at least skirt-like clothing such as togas, tunics, kilts — you get the idea. These sorts of garments made practical sense as they were simple to construct and provided built-in ventilation.
Summer Breeze makes me feel fine
When horseback infantries became more common, men began wearing below-the-waist items of clothing including breeches, tights, and codpieces, as bouncing around on a horse commando would probably not be the most pleasant of experiences. (Judging from the wince I got from my other half when I asked him, in the name of research, how he’d feel about pants-less horseback riding, I’m pretty comfortable with that statement.)
In the western world, ladies continued to wear skirts, and with each passing century, they became more elaborate and heavy. Skirts became multi-layered, floor-length monstrosities that often required under-garment support such as petticoats, or even steel reinforcement to achieve the desired “puff” effect reminiscent of an explosion in a fabric factory.
Some ladies were willing to deal with the discomfort of clothing that required infrastructure and being a walking fire hazard in the name of fashion and propriety. Others, not so much.
Thankfully for the Others Not So Much club, the “rational dress” trend caught on in 1851, fueled by the liberal views inspired by the Enlightenment. Amelia Bloomer shocked contemporary sensibilities that year when she introduced her loose, ankle-length trousers designed to be worn under a shorter dress.
In the 1880s, The Rational Dress Society in London was fighting for a woman’s right to wear no more than seven pounds (!) of undergarments, which by Victorian standards would have been positively airy. Women wore bloomers as the bicycle became more popular, but pants as a singular item of clothing had to wait until the 20th century.
In the early years of the twentieth century, pants were mostly worn in Paris and in the pages of Vogue magazine. By the 1930s, Hollywood legends Marlene Dietrich and Katharine Hepburn were seen and photographed sporting slacks on and off-screen. When women entered the workforce in droves during World War II, pants were more often than not worn on the job, although dresses were still considered proper attire for everywhere else. This was truer than ever during the post-war period.
It was only in the ’60s and ’70s that women began wearing pants as a matter of course. It may have been legal for them to do so since 1923, but for a variety of reasons, mostly societal, women didn’t wear pants in large numbers until forty years later.
Incredibly, it was technically illegal for women to wear pants in Paris, the fashion capital of the world, until early 2013. The law was originally put in place in the late 1700s, supposedly to keep women from being mistaken for men during the Revolution. There had been several attempts to repeal it, the last being in 2010 when the Powers That Be brushed it off saying it would be a “waste of time.”
France’s minister for women’s rights, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, disagreed, and rendered the law null and void. Part of a statement she released read in part:
“This ordinance is incompatible with the principles of equality between women and men.”
Yeah. Maybe just a little.