Suede harem trousers: COS
The FFB series is where we reflect on what it means to be a feminist with an interest in fashion. The post for this week is a discussion on what we have learnt from other bloggers' FFB posts. In a previous FFB event I read a thought provoking personal experience which highlighted that up until quite recently, wearing trousers as a working woman was considered inappropriate. In response I have written this post as an ode to the trouser and our right to wear them.
Cargo pants: Topshop
I have illustrated throughout with trousers from my wardrobe that have been inspired by men's trousers from various occupations. As food for thought I have labeled each pair with the job title or occupation historically associated with the garment, in part to illustrate the importance of using gender free nouns. Which comes to mind first when you read each of these labels - a man or a woman? Your response may depend on when you were born but a lot of these titles are probably still associated with men for a significant amount of people.
It took two world wars to get women into trousers as work wear and although I have read that it was only in the seventies that they became considered acceptable for Western women to wear we still hear woeful tales of discriminatory attitudes to women wearing them still kicking around as late as the nineties.
Motorcycle trousers: Topshop
Have you ever heard the question "Who wears the trousers in this relationship?" Was it asked of a boyfriend/partner/husband after a public demonstration in front of his mates that you had as much say in decisions about what you did as a couple as he did? I always found it one of those patronising statements that firstly was never directed at you, despite the fact it was something you had done to provoke it being asked. Rather it was directed at your other half, not so much a question, but more a demand to the beleaguered male being addressed to put me, as the woman in the relationship, back in my place for the sake of all men.
Embellished Trousers: Topshop
The question implies that whoever wears the trousers wields the power in the relationship and that it is the man who is addressed when asked is a thinly veiled reference harking to those times when it had traditionally been the male ruling the roost by the seat of his pants. Every boyfriend I've ever had has always been asked this question. It was always another who man asked and he would always think it was acceptable to ask my boyfriend as if I wasn't there, effectively robbing me of my voice.
Harem trousers: Cos
In the posts about how we express our feminism through dress I was shocked to read a post by Vintage Vix recounting how she "received an unofficial warning for daring to wear such an outrageous item in the workplace" where the offending item was a pair of trousers! This was not in the fifties or even sixties but in the shockingly recent nineties! Vix also shared that she campaigned for the right to wear trousers at her school.
All this got me thinking about how we take for granted how far we've come in being able to wear traditional male garments without it being considered a taboo. Especially when attitudes of the older generations still rear their heads long after we have considered that we have freed ourselves of such conservative sartorial shackles.
Fashion has played its part in this liberation, hijacking so many menswear items that were once off limits to women and making them staples in the modern woman's wardrobe. It is hard for me to imagine living in a society which dictates what garments I can or can't wear based on my gender. I think we are ironically more fortunate than men as we have the choice of both masculine and feminine garments at our disposal to dress for self expression and comfort. How many men do you know would choose to wear a skirt (other than a kilt)? Do you know a guy who raids their girlfriend's or wife's closet as often as his is raided by her? Me neither.
Tuxedo trousers: Kate Moss for Topshop
I do love skirts but I have always worn trousers. My Mum was a chic young mother in the early 70's often wearing flared jeans and often dressed me in as a toddler trousers to let me run around freely. There is an early picture of me in canary yellow flares pushing a toy trolley at high speed. I look unencumbered and free. Dresses when I was a child were for special occasion. The rest of the time it was shorts, trousers or jeans.
When I grew older skirts and dresses became requirements of my school uniform rather than things I chose to wear out of my own free will. As girls attending a co-education school, suddenly we had to be wary of boys looking up or lifting our skirts, and we froze needlessly in the winter. The skirt as school uniform was an unpleasant lesson that being a woman was something to be ashamed of. I remember being mortified at having to wear a skirt so short for sports that we had to wear an unattractive pair of frumpy "bloomers" underneath to preserve our modesty when flying around the hockey pitch. Except the bloomers were just an unattractive version of a pair of big knickers anyway. We may as well have worn mini shorts, done away with the skirts altogether and we would have looked considerably more modest as teenage girls!
Every so often you still hear of girls campaigning to be allowed to wear trousers to school. Vix's story of her own campaign reminded me of a similar story I once read in the mid nineties about an Australian high school student campaigning in her school for the right to wear trousers. The local paper interviewed the school principal, a man, about the issue. He was adamant that trousers for girls would not be permitted but the reason he gave was that he believed the stench of dried urine on girls trouser legs in classrooms would be unbearable. This quite disgusting level of ignorance came from an adult in a position of considerable authority and responsibility in society. Was he unaware of how female anatomy works?
Plaid trousers: T.M. Lewin
While wearing a skirt or dress definitely makes me feel more feminine, the choice is purely an aesthetic one as there is absolutely nothing practical about wearing one. No matter the length or the cut, you are wearing a garment which has one hole for both your legs. There is the immediate potential for an embarrassing exposure of your nether regions by falling over, strong winds, open staircases, sitting down the wrong way etc... etc...
The classic staple in every woman's wardrobe is the trusty pencil skirt and is the daily uniform of working girls the world over. But spending long hours seated at a desk in one can be dreadfully uncomfortable. Your posture is so constricted for all those hours, your knees bound together by your skirt hem. Forget about running for the bus or tube. You are forced to totter. In winter I crave the warmth of trouser legs as no matter how thick the woollen tights I wear are, a skirt is drafty!
The instant I put a skirt on I am restricted in movement and freedom. I have to consider how I sit down, where I put my legs when I'm seated, how I get up, how I get in and out of a car, whether I need to hold on to my skirt when a breeze starts up, whether a long shoulder bag is causing it to ride up or how I should walk up and down staircases which allow a view up my skirt from below. In effect I have to consider how to be ladylike and demure at all times so as not to flash anyone inadvertently. By this constant wariness of the shame of exposing part of me, I am effectively reminded of my gender constantly. Very ironic when religious reasons for banning women wearing men's clothing items is often about preserving their modesty! When I put on a pair of trousers I free up brain cells immediately by removing these concerns. I can just be. In this respect trousers are the ultimate triumph for a feminist!
Leopard print trousers: Topshop
However reading accounts like those of Vintage Vix highlights that although we expect that we should be able to wear what we like including trousers, there are probably still views held by men and women that we ought to be wearing skirts. Although bosses like the one who gave Vix her warning in the nineties may not be able to force a woman to wear a skirt for work today, it is unlikely that their opinion will have changed in the last fifteen or twenty years and their attitude to female employees is likely to be coloured by it. A Google search I conducted for this post unearthed a disturbing amount of websites still arguing that women wearing trousers is immoral on religious grounds.
I personally have noticed since moving to the UK that when I attend interviews or big meetings where I am likely to be meeting with senior male staff I will choose to wear a skirt suit whereas on a normal office day you are more likely to find me wearing trousers. Somehow during my exposure to corporate culture in the UK I have subconsciously picked up the subtle message that to appear more formal and pulled together to men in charge I should be wearing a skirt. Conservative attitudes that can hold us back still prevail today about what we should be wearing as women, they just remain a little more hidden. Which makes it all the more important that we never take for granted that the battle for equality is won and there is not more work to do.
Wool sailor trousers: Kate Moss for Topshop
Sabine of Psynopsis commented on my FFB post that "there were times when dressing like a man expressed rebellion against the inequality between men and women". And understandably so. It was a strong statement that they were equals, that they refused to live with the restrictions imposed on them by society because of their gender, that they had the right to the same freedoms and choices as men. So many strong women throughout history have historically claimed the right to wear menswear when it was considered unacceptable to do so - Marlene Dietrich, Coco Chanel and the writer George Sand are some of my favourite examples.
I am no less of a woman when I am wearing trousers. I actually feel less restricted as a human being going about my day in trousers. That there still exists the possibility that I can be judged morally or professionally wearing them is completely unacceptable. To me the freedom to wear trousers is symbolic of my right to freedoms reclaimed for me by feminists throughout history. Not just the freedom of self expression in dress and the right to be physically and psychologically comfortable, but freedom from restrictions and freedom of choice.
PS: I would be very interested to hear from you whether each pair of trousers featured had a male or female associated for you according to the title given to it!