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The Trouser Question, by Novelist Vanda

27 May Posted by in Guest Writers | 3 comments
The Trouser Question, by Novelist Vanda

Fashion is about more than just clothes. Fashion is about what we wear to tell the world who are, what we’re feeling, what we’ve accomplished, and to what culture we belong. Wearing the clothing of our group is what helps us to fit in. Or not. How much room a culture allows us to deviate from clothing norms depends of the norms of the society and the emotional strength of the individual. Women are more affected by changes in fashion than men. Look at pictures of men’s fashion on the internet from 1910 to 2018. Yes, there have been noticeable changes over time, but the basic design of men’s clothing has remained the same. Now, look at a woman’s fashion magazine published in 1910; compare that with one published in 1920, only ten years later. We find huge differences between the two, not only in the length of the skirts, but in how much a garment must cover the body. At the same time, we also find huge differences in ways of thinking and degrees of self-expression. As clothing became more daring so did women. In the twenties, women openly smoked, drank and bragged about premarital sex, probably to the chagrin of their poor mothers. The differences between these two decades reflect the major changes in women’s place in society. Pants, trousers, whatever we call them, have acted as an exceptionally accurate barometer of women’s increasing freedom to be herself over time despite occasional backward dips.

Two women went walking on a public street in the middle of town. This might be considered an ordinary scene, but suddenly a photographer snapped their picture. On-lookers gaped at the women in disapproving shock. It wasn’t because these two women were lovers, which they were, but no one knew that yet. It’s not even because they were famous, which they were. No, the on-lookers were in a state of shock because these two women who happened to be Garbo and Mercedes D’Acosta, a famous scriptwriter, were wearing pants. The headline “Garbo in Pants” went out over the wire and ultimately landed in all the newspapers across the country.

In the 1940’s and ‘50s, Marlene Dietrich was frequently seen in pants; she wasn’t terribly concerned with who approved or who didn’t. Dietrich could get away with a lot more than most Hollywood actresses of her time. She had a husband she rarely saw, but his existence provided some protection against the suspicion that she could be a ‘baritone babe,’ as ‘those kinds’ of women were sometimes called back then. And she was a war hero. She had entertained the troops during World War II on the front lines. But even she ran into trouble when one day she showed up for lunch at the famous Brown Derby in a pair of pants. The management refused to seat her.

Katherine Hepburn was known for wearing pants, only she called them trousers like the English. Still, Kate Hepburn couldn’t completely escape the anti-pants dictate of her time. In 1951, when Hepburn was staying at London’s Claridge Hotel the management told her, with apologies, that women were not allowed to wear trousers in the lobby. That didn’t dissuade Kate; she used the staff entrance, instead.

It is well known that during World War II women began wearing pants en masse. They worked in factories and defense plants giving their all for the war effort. It would have been dangerous to do that in a dress. A dress could get caught in a machine. However, these dedicated war workers didn’t flock to Macy’s to buy their first pair of pants. They wore their husbands’ pants altered to their size. Further, World War II did not give women blanket permission to wear pants. It was fine to wear them to work and back, but it was not okay to show up in pants in public after dark. You could be arrested. Masquerading as a man was against the law and this law was taken seriously. Women were indeed, arrested.

Women were free to wear pants to garden, to go to the beach, to play sports and, as time went on, to attend some casual social situations. But even in the 1950s pants-wearing was restricted. Watch a few I Love Lucy episodes. Sometimes, at home, Lucy and Ethel would be hanging out in a pair of pants; more often, though, it was Ethel who donned the most unattractive, unflattering pair of blue jeans ever made. However, if they decided to go out, Ethel would always say, “I have to change.” You never saw Lucy or Ethel in an outdoor scene in pants.

Vogue had featured a line of women’s pants way back in 1939, but even a powerful fashion magazine couldn’t break through the prohibitions of the day. The acceptance of pants as part of a woman’s wardrobe was very slow, and the no-crossing dressing laws remained active. It took an explosion of new ideas for the norms to change and that explosion started in the 1960s when no one, but no one, was going to keep women from wearing whatever they wanted, and pants was high on the list. It’s been that way ever since.

Here is an excerpt from Juliana (Book 1:1941- 44)   Al (Alice) has come home with her first pair of pants:

I came home with a pair of slacks. I sat down on my bed holding my purchase in my lap. I loved Katharine Hepburn’s movies, but I was no Katharine Hepburn. And if they made fun of Garbo and kicked out Marlene Dietrich, what would they do to me?

Aggie walked in from an audition Max had set up for her and threw her purse on her bed. “What are those?”

I held them up. “You’re not going to wear those in public, are you? No decent place will let you in.”

“Well if I wear a coat over them maybe …?”

“It’s eighty degrees out!”

“Well, a light one,” I held them against me. “And if I keep my legs together real tight maybe they’ll look like a long skirt.” I looked at Aggie, hopefully.

“It’s up to you, but I wouldn’t be caught dead in public in those.” She flopped on her bed and wrapped her arms around Poopsie, her floppy teddy bear. “Oh, Poopsie, honey, I’m so exhausted. Hey, Al, say hi to Poopsie.” She faced the bear toward me.

“Yeah, hi, Poopsie,” I said. I hated talking to that dang bear.

“Say it like you mean it. You’re hurting his feelings.”

“HELLO, POOPSIE!” I shouted.

Aggie pulled the bear to her breasts, sheltering it from me. “She’s just mad ’cause she wasted her money on those silly trousers,” she told it.


The Girls by Diana McLennan

Women in Pants: A Two-Legged Revolution by Betsy Blodgett

Emma Snodgrass Arrested for Wearing Pants

Wikipedia: Women and Trousers

From Bloomer to Pants Suits: A Brief history of Women’s Dress Reform, The Saturday Evening Post, Feb 12, 2108

Iconic Actress Marlene Dietrich Made Women’s Pants Popular by Danielle Gonzales

Vanda is working on a series of novels about LGBT modern history beginning in 1941. Juliana (Book 1) and Olympus Nights on the Square (Book 2) are available at Paris, Adrift (Book 3) was released on May 15, 2018. 

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  • Gail Nascimento says:

    Very informative post. Thank goodness times have changed, I can’t think of the last time that I wore anything other than trousers/slacks/pants.

  • Holly Schneider says:

    Really enjoyed this article. Learned a lot about the feeling of the times.

  • Holly Schneider says:

    Already commented but want to sign up for mailing list