The pantsuit-clad women of the Walt Disney Studios Ink & Paint Department in the early 1970s.
For many of us, the choices we make as we get dressed in the morning, are probably not that much of an issue. With so much happening in this world, putting our pants on each morning is likely something we give little or no thought to. We often take this daily effort for granted, but in many ways, the clothing we wear makes a much larger statement. As the saying goes..."he put his pants on one leg at a time." This testament of normalcy is perhaps more resonant than one might realize, especially for women.
While ladies' hemlines have steadily risen over time, revolutionary change may not initially seem related to 'pants', but for women, 'Pants-related activism' and 'dress reform' is still relevant and necessary. "Not only is the choice to wear trousers a victory for equality," noted a legal brief from a landmark 2016 case, "it is also a victory for common sense." In this case, female flight attendants at British Airways won a two-year battle to wear pants on the job. Of this victory, their union representative noted: "Female cabin crew no longer have to shiver in the cold, wet, and snow of wintery climates, but also can be afforded the protection of trousers at destinations where there is a risk of malaria or the Zika virus." Seems odd that this is STILL an issue, but women in pants have endured a long "her-story" of controversy...
2016 – Flight Attendants for British Airways won the right to wear pants on the job.
For centuries, women were constricted with multiple layers of undergarments and outerwear, tight corsets synched to form a 'pleasing' figure. Heavy fabrics and cumbersome layers made life difficult and even dangerous for women, particularly in summer heat. Customs and laws forbade women from wearing pants, but they did anyway, and it was often a matter of life or death. Prior to the late 1800s, for single women with no means to support themselves, the difference between starvation and prostitution was donning pants and serving within the military, disguised as men. Of the over 400 accounts of women who chose to cross-dress and fight in the Civil War, many of these women continued their pant-wearing lifestyle long after the war as they enjoyed the newfound freedoms and power that came with pants.
Dr. Mary Edwards Walker in the 1870s received the Medal of Honor serving as a surgeon during the Civil War. She wore a black suit for the rest of her life.
In the earliest stages of the women's suffrage movement, many of the 19th Century feminists advocated for 'rational dress,' including Elizabeth Cady Stanton. The limitations of corsets and massive skirts was daily apparent and these women, who also sought power, fought for the right to wear pants. Their efforts, deemed radical, only added to the fury they seemed to be stirring up. The creation of a costume with a short skirt draped over loose trousers was developed by activist Elizabeth Smith. In 1851, when Amelia Bloomer defended these pants in her newspaper "The Lily" (the first U.S. "ladies journal"), both the clothing, and those who wore it, were forever referred to as "bloomers." Leading feminists of the day reluctantly returned to their cumbersome, "lady-like," full-skirted costumes, to avoid detracting from their primary objective to win the vote for women.
Amelia Bloomer wearing the "bloomer" attire later named after her.
Early in the 20th century, WWI brought women into the workplace where the factory jobs they worked were better managed in trousers. Women were reluctant to relinquish their freedom of dress when returning to 'normal,' following the war. Pants re-appeared, as women who 'dared' were featured on magazine covers in ski-suit attire as early as 1927.
Actress Katharine Hepburn sporting slacks.
Hollywood made its mark on the advancement of two-legged garments. Legendary actress Katharine Hepburn's love of slacks and loafers forever cast pants as a fashion staple for women. "I wore pants when they weren't fashionable" Hepburn noted. "I did what I wanted and what I thought was reasonable as long as I didn't hurt anyone. But is that so unusual?" Vogue Magazine followed suit by later featuring slack-adorned models in 1939. Hepburn later told Calvin Klein, "I realized long ago that skirts are hopeless. Anytime I hear a man say he prefers a woman in a skirt, I say, 'Try (wearing) one.'" Actresses such as Marlene Dietrich and Audrey Hepburn made iconic statements with pants, adding to sophisticated fashion choices which many women soon emulated. With women stepping into the factories during WWII, thousands of "Rosies" sported denim dungarees as they kept industry moving. Women WASPS clad in flight suits took to the skies to keep our forces fighting.
WWII Women Airforce Service Pilots – Frances Green, Margaret Kirchner, Ann Waldner & Blanche Osborn
Postwar, campaigns were launched to get women back into dresses and back into the home. Decades passed before pants and power were linked once-again, when in 1969, Illinois Congresswoman Charlotte Reid became the first woman to wear slacks on the chamber floor. The notion of a woman in pants was deemed abhorrent to the men of Congress. One Representative noted: "I was told there was a lady here in trousers, so I had to come over and see for myself." Rep. Reid later noted "I thought it would be fun on the last day of session and people wouldn't mind." A gift from her staff, Reid's bellbottoms were apparently a bit too much and she announced that she would likely not wear them again, stating: "I am really quite serious about my service in the Congress and I wouldn't want to do anything that seems facetious."
Rep. Charlotte Reid the first woman to wear trousers in Congress in 1969.
In January of 1970, feminine staffers at CBS protested the company's 'no-pant' policy for women. Around this time, the women of Wall Street won their right to wear slacks based on two points: first—there would be fewer sick days, and secondly—the men would be more productive without the distraction of the women's exposed legs. Title IX also marked a landmark decree with the prohibiting of discrimination on the basis of sex, as well as eliminating gender-specific dress codes. In the 1970s, these changes spread across the nation and after a brief lobbying campaign, the women of Walt Disney's Studio in Burbank, CA, won the right to wear slacks to work. "Dress pants, not jeans," noted legendary Ink & Paint artist, Carmen Sanderson. "That was a big deal for us girls."
Senator Barbara Mikulski leads a meeting of staff and constituents in Baltimore.
In 1993, with women still barred from wearing pants on the upper U.S. Senate floor, a small army of female senators and their staff, led by Democrat Barbara Mikulski of Maryland and unified in their pant-suited wardrobe, marched on the Senate floor to finally abolish this prohibition. Progress continued in September of 1994, when then Governor Pete Wilson of California, signed a bill into law barring employers from prohibiting their female employees from wearing pants while at work. Twice killed on the Senate floor, Assemblywoman Diane Martinez of Monterey Park led a march of the other assemblywomen on the chamber floor, stating: "If women's legs are covered, our brains still function! Women should be judged on their work performance, not whether they wear skirts or pants." The "Women's Pants Bill," designed to prevent gender-based discrimination, was passed on a 42-30 margin. "Women make important business decisions every day," declared Governor Wilson. "Indeed, working women should be able to make the simple choice on the professional business attire they wish to wear."
Today, with a White House where the unofficial dress code is "...the shortest skirt possible," 'Pants-related activism' is alive and well as women continue to cause change...wearing pants. The first woman to pose for her presidential portrait as First Lady wearing pants, Hillary Clinton's wardrobe choice still ignites opinions, inspires movements such as "Pantsuit Nation," and makes a bold statement about the equalities women are still marching towards.
Hillary Clinton, the first woman to wear pants in her official portrait.
Looking back on this topic, one has to ask—why is this still an issue? What is so terrifying about a woman in pants? Is it the position of power this represents? ...or the loss of this position of power? Is this all a lot of "...much ado about nothing?"
'Pants-related activism' speaks to issues far beyond what we wear or how we appear. As you get dressed tomorrow, whether in pants or skirts, give some thought to those whose rebellious choices and revolutionary efforts continue to create positive change within so many critical areas that directly effect our world. Then, make a conscious choice to step out into the world with a new perspective and keep marching forward—one leg at a time.
The 2018 Women's March