Friday, 1 April 2011

FFB: Our Right to Wear the Trousers

Rap Star
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.

Motorcyclist/Rock Star
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.

Conductor/Magician/Waiter/Snooker Player
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!


  1. It's disturbing to hear about this problem--no matter how many times I hear it. I still remember vividly the horror of boys looking up my skirt during the first week of first grade! No one told my grandmother we could wear shorts underneath. It took years to live down the shame, and well, I still get peeved at the stupidity of it all.

    It was a high school friend who introduced me to the religious restrictions on pants. Her family's form of Baptist wouldn't allow it. Ever. And skirts always below the knees. She always wanted to try pants out, but then worried she might be in an accident, exposing her moral crime to her parents. To this day (thank you, Facebook), she still wear skirts.

    I feel infinitely more free in pants. Unless it's a lazy summer dress/skirt worn on a lazy, hot day--then I feel equally free in that. But that dress-wearing is on MY terms. Men shouldn't be telling women how to dress anymore. Let them wear pencil skirts.

  2. Ooh, I like being quoted! What a very insightful post (with many very cool different trousers). I don't think any woman/girl under 30 ever thinks that trousers might not be appropriate for them. Although... just when I'm writing this I realise that my daughter who has recently changed to a girl's grammar school is only allowed to wear (black) skirts or dresses to school. So perhaps I was slightly over-optimistic.

  3. I'm really admiring the bull-fighter pants...but I totally failed to keep track of connotations for each pair. For aviators, I immediately think of Amelia Earhart (from my home state of Kansas). You make a very strong case that pants are actually more modest...would that more folks thought this way.

  4. A most thoughtful post. I'm starting to think that my region of northern middle class Middle America is more enlightened than I thought; I never felt there was tacit or explicit discouragement of slacks in any academic or corporate environment I experienced. In fact, a skirt might be considered "too much" except for the most important meetings or presentations.

    I agree with you that women do, in fact, have many more options than men. Not just in terms of clothing, but also in terms of grooming and even career choices.

    As I replied to Abs recently, "It's much easier for a woman (straight or not) to go about with short hair, a bare face, a menswear shirt and trousers, and loafers, and become a carpenter or a mechanic, than it is for a man (straight or not) to go about with long hair, makeup, a silk dress, high heels, and become a daycare employee or pro scrapbooker."

    I'd've been interested to track responses from the newspaper readership about that school principal's icky, uninformed, and just plain weird assumptions about girls' bodies and slacks.

    As for the trouser pictures -- I read each picture as "female" immediately. This is a woman's blog about her personal style; I've seen you wear some of the trousers; I've seen similar items styled on women in fashion magazines; and finally, I just don't have the built-in mindset that a woman _shouldn't_ be wearing any of those trousers. It's a non-issue for me. Even after I took note of the titles, most of the connotations were still female, except perhaps Bullfigher. However, I'll admit that the female images sometimes shifted to become that of a female "playing" a bit with a classically masculine role, like a woman "playing" roguish sailor in sailor pants and a striped bateau top. Still very female, but with a touch of playacting the male.

  5. Great overview of a topic that sadly enough still seems a current one. (That school principal? Disgusting!!) I personally prefer to wear skirts, which is atypical of the country I live in (Germany) - but I find them just as practical as pants, especially in fall/spring when I put on opaque tights underneath. Tight jeans are actually less comfortable and more restricting than most of the skirts I own! The only annoyance is that most skirts don't include pockets... Lately I've started thinking about the message I might be sending with my skirt-wearing but I convinced myself that outside of the fashion bloggers world few people analyze clothing as much as I do, so it will hopefully not influence the way people view me too much!

  6. " the stench of dried urine on girls trouser legs in classrooms would be unbearable. " WTF!!! That has to be one of the most ludicrous things I have ever heard! Anyway yes, good points. I recently went for an interview and was to that if I wanted to get the job, do not wear trousers! How silly in this day and age, but very true. When we were at school we had to wear Gym Knikers which were basically big knickers in a thick itchy material, where is the dignety in that?

  7. love the embroidered and leopard-print pairs!

  8. A agree with hope and I think the leopard pants are adorable!!

    Monique xx

  9. @Terri - aviator for me called to mind Earheart as well!

    @Cloud of Secrets - interesting! Mr V and I both felt many were more masculine which is pretty depressing really! The exceptions were aviator for me and sailor in the same way you saw it - a woman adopting the role through fashion in the sailor trousers and breton top.

  10. You've got great trousers! I particularly love the rock star one !

  11. Hi there-a very intuitive and insightful post and it shows even after all this time that there are still those instincts that we do wear skirt suits for interviews, I myself would do this even though my outfits of choice tend to be jeans/trousers orientated. Very thought provoking and a great read xx

  12. I had a similar experience re: work wear during an internship at Citibank, when one day a fellow intern openly admired the fact I was wearing dress pants. Apparantly in her department, she was forbidden to wear anything but pencil skirts. A year later when I was interning for Ernst & Young, I wore pants yet again and only 'got away' with it, because I wasn't fully employed. The girls there were not allowed to wear open shoes or any type of trouser when visiting clients. All of this was the early 2000s. I think some of that may have prompted me to choose a job in the creative field.

    Strangely, I rarely wore skirts and never wore dresses until I left university. I don't associate any of the trousers above with any particular gender, but maybe it's because I grew up in Asia where girls were wearing drop-crotch pants and cargo gear before the rest of the world thought it was fashionable. Great post and lots of food for thought!

  13. For me it sounds absolutely crazy to be restricted to wear pants to school! Living in a country where jeans is unofficial school uniform this sounds totally absurd! I may not work in the most corporate world but even my friends working in banks have never been 'suggested' to better wear skirt. Also my friend who's lawyer in the EU parliament have never experienced anything like that!
    Women have rights to choose to wear whatever they want! :) I'm not the biggest pant wearer myself but I want to keep that option open. :)

  14. Very thoughtful post! When I began working in health care in the 60's, all nurses wore uniforms (skirts). There has been a dramatic change and today I seldom see a nurse in anything but pants. Feminism equals freedom, including freedom of movement.

  15. I prefer the sailor pants!

    I talked to my mom recently and she said she wasn't allowed to wear pants to school--even in the cold Canadian winters! My grandmother great up having to wear dresses but as soon as they were allowed in the workplace (early 70's in her office) she switched to pants and never looked back. It's great to have choices.

  16. Very interesting post V!

    To first answer your question about the trousers, my first thoughts on seeing them was whether I would wear them or not!

    I guess being a reformed ton-boy, pants were never off limits to me. I think a woman can be just sexy in pair of pants than in a skirt. Yes, skirts are restricting and I wear pants more often than not. Crazy to think how soceity dictates something as insignificant as pants!

  17. My dear friend, I agree with you that being able to wear trousers was an achivement. Even so, I never liked trousers, and I never will.
    I find them an easy trap to fall in.
    If you feel lazy, just put on your pants and whatever and off you go...
    Wearing a dress or skirt requires thinking, planing, mix and matching.
    Have a grand day.

  18. @sacramento - well there I will have to respectfully disagree with you. There is nothing lazy about thinking about or planning what to wear with such variations on trousers in shape, cut, style, proportion and print. It's certainly not easy to style up harems, wide legged trousers, peg legs, gathered ankle cuffed cargoes or leopard print trousers - in fact I would argue that a skirt is a far easier wardrobe option that actually requires less forethought!

  19. My dear friend, I think in the end it is what we love and feel best in.
    But we have a wider range of options than men when we come to dress, now. I am sure many of them would wish they could wear pretty dresses and floaty skirts, as well as trousers.Hehehhehe

    Mil besos, guapa.

  20. Trousers - you ain't stealing mine out of my wardrobe that's for sure.
    Congrats on making the IFB weekly roundup!

  21. Great post, extremely informative and inspirational. Have just read the post you mention on Vintage Vixen and I am sure she is not the only one with a story like this, with some sort of sad recent discrimination. It still happens, every day. As women we are closely observe and because we have more freedom, or more of an array of things to wear than men, we are more judged according to what we wear. Fashion is a statement, and we need to be aware of it, what it means, and what it meant when years ago our mothers, grandmothers couldn't wear the same garment.
    There is sooo much I could say on this subject, I think you have written a fantastic post on it!

  22. What a really interesting article! I had never thought so deeply about pants before.

    Funny thing is, for me, I find skirts MUCH more comfortable than pants. I only have a couple pairs of jeans, other than that, no pants at all. They're just too binding! Isn't that funny?

    Here in LA, the flared suit fabric trouser is a working woman's staple. You can almost tell which women are going to an office just by the trousers they're wearing. As a freelancer working from home, I put on a comfortable knit skirt for my working days.

    Thanks again for the great post!


  23. I once knew someone whose pastor told her that her youngest child had been born impaired because she (the mother) sometimes wore pants and make-up. Years later, I am still outraged!--thissideofgaudy


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