Trousers as women's clothing

Trousers or pants (American English) first appear in recorded history among nomadic steppe-people in Western Europe. Archaeological evidence suggests that men and women alike wore trousers in that cultural context.[1] However, for much of modern history, the use of trousers has been restricted to men. In many regions, this norm was enforced not only by social custom but also by law. There are, however, many historical cases of women wearing trousers in defiance of these norms, for a variety of reasons, including comfort, freedom of movement, fashion, disguise (notably for runaway slaves[2]), attempts to evade the gender pay gap, and attempts to establish an empowered public identity for women.[3] Especially in the 20th and 21st centuries, the customs and laws restricting this manner of dress have relaxed dramatically, reflecting a growing acceptance and normalization of the practice.

Anita Krohn Traaseth in trousers, Norway, 2013
Amazon wearing trousers and carrying a shield with an attached patterned cloth and a quiver. Ancient Greek Attic white-ground alabastron, ca. 470 BCE, British Museum, London.

Various US cities, in the 19th and 20th centuries, passed legislation barring women from wearing trousers. Representative among these was an 1863 law passed by San Francisco's Board of Supervisors criminalizing appearing in public in "a dress not belonging to his or her sex", although similar laws existed in Columbus, Ohio (passed 1848); Chicago, Illinois (passed 1851); Houston, Texas (passed 1864); Orlando, Florida (passed 1907), and approximately two dozen other US cities.[4] (Anti-crossdressing laws continued to pass well into the 20th century, with Detroit, Michigan, and Miami, Florida, passing laws as late as the 1950s, and Cincinnati, Ohio, passing one in 1974.[4])

Additionally, existing laws such as anti-vagrancy statutes were pressed into service to ensure that women would dress in accord with the gender norms of the time. One such instance would be New York's anti-vagrancy statute of 1845, which stated that "Every person who, having his face painted, discolored, covered or concealed, or being otherwise disguised, in a manner calculated to prevent him from being identified, shall appear in any road or public highway, or in any field, lot, wood or inclosure, may be pursued and arrested”[5]. This law was used to prosecute women for cross-dressing, on the grounds that their dressing outside of gender norms constituted a "disguise".[2] Boston used similar anti-vagrancy laws to arrest Emma Snodgrass and Harriet French in 1852. (Snodgrass would be arrested again in Cleveland in 1853, and French would be arrested again in New York in 1856.) French reportedly broke with convention in order to pursue job opportunities open only to men: she claimed to the New York Daily Times that she could "get more wages" dressed as a man.[6]

Anti-vagrancy laws were also used to arrest Jennie Westbrook in New York, in 1882 and 1883. Westbook's case was said at the time to have "awakened deep interest" among the public, as it was understood that she was attempting to "escape from that bondage [to] which social laws have subjected the sex". Like Harriet French in Boston, West identified work opportunities as her reason for cross-dressing: "Her excuse was that she could make $20 a week in her disguise, while as a 'saleslady' in a fashionable store the pay would be only one-third that amount."[7]

Early dress reformEdit

Mary Edwards Walker, c. 1870. Walker was arrested several times for dressing in male attire.

In 1851, early women's rights advocate Elizabeth Smith Miller introduced Amelia Bloomer to a garment initially known as the "Turkish dress", which featured a knee-length skirt over Turkish-style pantaloons.[8] Bloomer came to advocate and promote the dress, including instructions for making it, in The Lily, a newspaper dedicated to the "Emancipation of Woman from Intemperance, Injustice, Prejudice, and Bigotry". This inspired a craze for the dress, which came to be known as bloomers.[9]

Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Lucy Stone, other early advocates for women's rights, also adopted this style of dress in the 1850s, referring to it as the "freedom dress"[citation needed].

Concurrently, some female laborers, notably the pit brow women working at coal pits in the Wigan area, began wearing trousers beneath a short skirt as a practical component of their uniform. This attracted the attention of the public, and various photographers produced records of the women's unconventional manner of dress through the mid- to late 19th century.

Another woman who advocated publicly for dress reform was Mary Edwards Walker, the abolitionist and Civil War surgeon. Walker, who had worn bloomers while working at a military hospital, wrote in 1871 that women's dress should "protect the person, and allow freedom of motion and circulation, and not make the wearer a slave to it".[10] Walker openly wore men's trousers, and was arrested several times for wearing male attire (her earliest arrest was 1866, in New York, and her final arrest was in 1913, in Chicago, at the age of 80 years.[2]

Changing normsEdit

20th centuryEdit

United States and EuropeEdit


An updated version of the bloomer, for athletic use, was introduced in the 1890s as women's bicycling came into fashion. As activities such as tennis, cycling, and horseback riding became more popular at the turn of the century, women turned to pants or knickerbockers to provide comfort and freedom of movement in these activities, and some laws made allowances for women's wearing of pants during these activities.[1]

Women wearing knickerbockers 1924

However, arrests for women wearing trousers did not cease. For instance, in 1919, labor leader Luisa Capetillo became the first woman in Puerto Rico to wear trousers in public. Capetillo was sent to jail for what was then considered to be a crime in Puerto Rico, although the judge later dropped the charges against her. She would repeat this act of rebellion again stepping off the boat into Cuba where the judge was not so lenient leading to her serving time.[11]

Women increasingly wore trousers as leisurewear in the 1920s and 30s, and working women, including female pilots, often wore trousers[citation needed].


Actresses Marlene Dietrich and Katharine Hepburn were often photographed in trousers in the 1930s; Dietrich famously appearing in a black tuxedo and matching fedora at the 1932 premiere of The Sign of the Cross.[12]

Eleanor Roosevelt became the first First Lady to appear in pants at a formal function, presiding over the Easter Egg Roll in 1933 wearing riding pants, a consequence of not having time to change after an early morning ride. However, she seemed to embrace the unconventional circumstance, posing for a photo in the pants on the South Portico of the White House.[13]

Vogue featured its first spread of women wearing slacks in 1939.[1]

1940s and 1950sEdit

During World War II, women working in industrial work in war service wore their husbands' trousers, and in the post-war era trousers were still common casual wear for gardening, socialising, and other leisure pursuits[citation needed].

Similarly, in Britain during the Second World War, because of the rationing of clothing, many women took to wearing their husbands' civilian clothes to work while their husbands were away in the armed forces. This was partly because they were seen as work garments, and partly to allow women to keep their clothing allowance for other uses. As the men's clothes wore out, replacements were needed, so that by the summer of 1944 it was reported that sales of women's trousers were five times more than in the previous year.[14]

In 1959, the Government Code Section 12947.5 (part of the California Fair Employment and Housing Act, passed in California) expressly protected the right to wear pants (American English for trousers).[15] Thus, the standard FEHA discrimination complaint form now includes an option for "denied the right to wear pants".[16]

1960s and 1970sEdit
Yves Saint Laurent, Le Smoking, 1966

In the 1960s, André Courrèges introduced jeans for women, leading to the era of designer jeans. And in 1966, Yves Saint Laurent introduced Le Smoking, a woman's tuxedo intended for formal occasions,[12] famously photographed by Helmut Newton in a manner emphasizing the wearer's androgyny and suggesting lesbian overtones.

In 1969 Rep. Charlotte Reid (R-Ill.) became the first woman to wear trousers in the U.S. Congress.[17]

Also in 1969, Barbra Streisand became the first woman to attend the Oscars in pants, accepting an award for her role in Funny Girl dressed in an outfit designed by Arnold Scaasi.[12]

In 1972, Pat Nixon was the first American First Lady to model pants in a national magazine.[18] However, First Ladies had been seen earlier wearing pants, including Lou Hoover (photographed privately wearing riding pants at the presidential retreat Camp Rapidan) and Jackie Kennedy (photographed wearing pants and a sweater on Cape Cod in 1960 and wearing palazzo pants in Italy in 1962).[13]

In 1972, the Education Amendments of 1972 passed in the United States, which, as part of the Title IX non-discrimination provisions, declared that dresses could not be required of girls. Dress codes thus changed in public schools across the United States.

In the 1970s, trousers became quite fashionable for women. Jane Fonda, Diana Ross, Katharine Hepburn, Tatum O'Neal, and Diane Keaton all helped to popularize the wearing of pants, appearing at high-profile awards ceremonies dressed in suits or pants ensembles; Tatum O'Neal notably accepted an Oscar at age 10 while wearing a tuxedo.[12]

1980s and 1990sEdit

In 1989 California state senator Rebecca Morgan became the first woman to wear trousers in a U.S. state senate.[19]

Hillary Clinton was the first woman to wear trousers in an official U.S. First Lady portrait.[20]

Women were not allowed to wear trousers on the U.S. Senate floor until 1993.[21][22] In 1993, Senators Barbara Mikulski and Carol Moseley Braun wore trousers onto the floor in defiance of the rule, and female support staff followed soon after, with the rule being amended later that year by Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Martha Pope to allow women to wear trousers on the floor so long as they also wore a jacket.[21][22]


In 1994, Malawi women became legally allowed to wear trousers under President Kamuzu Banda's rule[23], originally prohibited by a law introduced in 1965.[24]

21st centuryEdit

Journal Amusant, number 737, 12 February 1870

International normsEdit

Since 2004 the International Skating Union has allowed women to wear trousers instead of skirts in competition if they wish.[25]

In 2013, a bylaw requiring women in Paris, France to ask permission from city authorities before "dressing as men", including wearing trousers (with exceptions for those "holding a bicycle handlebar or the reins of a horse") was declared officially revoked by France's Women's Rights Minister, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem.[26] The bylaw was originally intended to prevent women from wearing the pantalons fashionable with Parisian rebels in the French Revolution.[26]

Also in 2013, Turkey's parliament ended a ban on women lawmakers wearing trousers in its assembly.[27]

In 2014, an Indian family court in Mumbai ruled that a husband objecting to his wife wearing a kurta and jeans and forcing her to wear a sari amounts to cruelty inflicted by the husband and can be a grounds for divorce.[28] The wife was thus granted a divorce on the ground of cruelty as defined under section 27(1)(d) of Special Marriage Act, 1954.[28]

Workplace normsEdit

In 2012 the Royal Canadian Mounted Police began to allow women to wear trousers and boots with all their formal uniforms.[29]

Until 2016 some female crew members on British Airways were required to wear British Airways' standard "ambassador" uniform, which has not traditionally included trousers.[30]

In 2017, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced that its female employees could wear "professional pantsuits and dress slacks" while at work; dresses and skirts had previously been required.[31] In 2018 that same church declared that their female missionaries could wear dress slacks if they wanted, except when attending the temple and during Sunday worship services, baptismal services, and mission leadership and zone conferences.[32]

In 2019, Virgin Atlantic began to allow its female flight attendants to wear pants.[33]

School normsEdit

Most UK schools allow female pupils to wear trousers, but many girls still wear skirts in primary and secondary schools, even where the choice of trousers is given. In the late 20th and early 21st century, many schools began changing their uniform rules to allow trousers for girls amidst opposition to skirts-only policies - the most publicised possibly being Jo Hale vs Whickam Comprehensive in 2000.[34] Although commonly accepted that girls may wear trousers to school, no test case is known to have been brought before the courts, making the legal position uncertain on requiring skirts as part of girls' uniforms. The rule is still enforced in many schools, particularly independent and selective state schools. In fact, government guidelines expressly state the decision of allowing girls to wear trousers is with individual schools.[35]

Remaining prohibitionsEdit

Religious prohibitionsEdit

There are a number of religions that prohibit women from revealing their legs, requiring all women and often young girls not to wear trousers but a long dress[citation needed]. By contrast, a sizable majority of Sikhs often believe wearing trousers is preferred for Sikh women to maintain modesty.

Although many contemporary Mennonites have no dress code, among traditional, conservative Mennonites, sometimes referred to as "Old Order Mennonites", long skirts or dresses covering most of the legs are required. They also wear dresses and skirts because they believe men and women should be distinguished from one another, citing Deuteronomy 22:5, “The woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man, neither shall a man put on a woman's garment: for all that do so are abomination unto the Lord thy God." (KJV) Conservative conferences usually demand that women wear a specific style of dress. This is usually in the style of the cape dress, with a double covering or "cape". Most non-conservative conferences allow for the wearing of trousers by women.[citation needed]

Pentecostal women typically wear skirts because of the Biblical commandment in the Old Testament that women must not wear men's clothing; this is mandatory in some Oneness Pentecostal churches (at the individual pastor's discretion).[citation needed]

Many Independent Fundamental Baptist churches, colleges and universities prohibit females from wearing trousers. For example, at Pensacola Christian College, female students may only wear trousers or shorts for "recreational purposes" only. They are also required to wear skirts or dresses until 5:00 PM on workdays.[36]

In Orthodox Jewish belief, the space between a woman's legs is considered to be a private area, and therefore, must be covered by a garment[citation needed]. However, in other cultures wearing men's clothing is forbidden biblically under the prohibition of Lo Silbash ("A woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man", Deuteronomy 22:5). In some Jewish communities, such as the Jews from Arab countries and Modern Orthodox communities, it is reasoned that trousers provide an extra form of modesty.[citation needed]

On 13 November 866, Pope Nicholas I wrote to King Boris I of Bulgaria: "Whether you or your women wear or do not wear trousers neither impedes your salvation nor leads to any increase of your virtue"[37] (sive vos, sive feminae vestrae, sive deponatis, sive induatis femoralia, nec saluti officit, nec ad virtutum vestrarum proficit incrementum - Patrologia Latina, CXIX, 1002).[38] Some members of the Society of Saint Pius X have spoken of the preference of women's wearing skirts rather than trousers.[39] Cardinal Siri's letter has also been cited as justification for women wearing skirts and dresses.[40] In addition, Saint Thomas Aquinas, the Church's principal theologian, also taught that "outward apparel should be consistent with the estate of the person, according to the general custom. Hence it is in itself sinful for a woman to wear man's clothes, or vice versa; and it is expressly forbidden in the Law (Deuteronomy 22)..."[41]

In 2012 and 2013, some Mormon women participated in "Wear Pants to Church Day", in which they wore trousers to church instead of the customary dresses to encourage gender equality within The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church).[42][43] Over one thousand women participated in this in 2012.[43] In 2017, the LDS Church announced that its female employees could wear "professional pantsuits and dress slacks" while at work; dresses and skirts had previously been required.[44] In 2018 the LDS Church declared that their female missionaries could wear dress slacks if they wanted, except when attending the temple and during Sunday worship services, baptismal services, and mission leadership and zone conferences.[32]


Many forms of dancing require females to wear skirts or dresses, either by convention or competition rules. In Scottish highland dancing for example, women don't wear trews, but instead either wear a skirt or dress including the Aboyne dress (for the national dances) or the kilt-based outfit for the Highland dances. However, tartan trews can be worn by women in the United States.


In Sudan, Article 152 of the Memorandum to the 1991 Penal Code prohibits the wearing of "obscene outfits" in public. This law has been used to arrest and prosecute women wearing trousers. Thirteen women including journalist Lubna al-Hussein were arrested in Khartoum in July 2009 for wearing trousers; ten of the women pleaded guilty and were flogged with ten lashes and fined 250 Sudanese pounds apiece. Lubna al-Hussein considers herself a good Muslim and asserts "Islam does not say whether a woman can wear trousers or not. I'm not afraid of being flogged. It doesn't hurt. But it is insulting." She was eventually found guilty and fined the equivalent of $200 rather than being flogged.[45]

Trousers and sexual violenceEdit

In Rome in 1992, a 45-year-old driving instructor was accused of rape. When he picked up an 18-year-old girl for her first driving lesson, he allegedly raped her for an hour, then told her that if she was to tell anyone he would kill her. Later that night she told her parents and her parents agreed to help her press charges. While the alleged rapist was convicted and sentenced, the Italian Supreme Court overturned the conviction in 1998 because the victim wore tight jeans. It was argued that she must have necessarily have had to help her attacker remove her jeans, thus making the act consensual ("because the victim wore very, very tight jeans, she had to help him remove them...and by removing the was no longer rape but consensual sex"). The Italian Supreme Court stated in its decision "it is a fact of common experience that it is nearly impossible to slip off tight jeans even partly without the active collaboration of the person who is wearing them."[46] This ruling sparked widespread feminist protest. The day after the decision, women in the Italian Parliament protested by wearing jeans and holding placards that read "Jeans: An Alibi for Rape." As a sign of support, the California Senate and Assembly followed suit. Soon Patricia Giggans, Executive Director of the Los Angeles Commission on Assaults Against Women, (now Peace Over Violence) made Denim Day an annual event. As of 2011 at least 20 U.S. states officially recognize Denim Day in April. Wearing jeans on this day has become an international symbol of protest against such attitudes about sexual assault. As of 2008 the Italian Supreme Court has overturned their findings, and there is no longer a "denim" defense to the charge of rape.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b c Steinmetz, Katy. "From Horse People to Hillary Clinton: A History of Women Wearing Pants". Time. Retrieved March 13, 2018.
  2. ^ a b c "Fashion Crimes: The Rabbit Hole of Criminalized Cross-Dressing in US History: Mallory Drover '19 at Boston MFA". Antioch Engaged. Retrieved March 13, 2018.
  3. ^ Mattingly, Carol (2002). Appropriate[ing] Dress: Women's Rhetorical Style in Nineteenth-Century America. SIU Press.
  4. ^ a b "Arresting Dress: Duke University Press". Duke University Press. Retrieved March 13, 2018.
  5. ^ Fay, Joseph (1874). Digest of the Laws of the State of New York: Comprising the Revised Statutes and Statutes of General Interest in Force on January 1, 1874, Volume 1. James Cockcroft. p. 116.
  6. ^ "Emma Snodgrass, Arrested for Wearing Pants". New England Historical Society. Retrieved March 13, 2018.
  7. ^ "Iron County Register (Ironton, Iron County, Mo.) 1867-1965". Library of Congress: Chronicling America: Historical American Newspapers. Retrieved March 13, 2018.
  8. ^ "Elizabeth Smith Miller - Women's Rights National Historical Park (U.S. National Park Service)". Retrieved 2018-12-23.
  9. ^ "Amelia Bloomer - Women's Rights National Historical Park (U.S. National Park Service)". Retrieved 2018-12-23.
  10. ^ Walker, Mary Edwards (1871). Hit. The American News Company. p. 58.
  11. ^ Luisa Capetillo Perone Archived September 7, 2008, at the Wayback Machine
  12. ^ a b c d Finamore, Michelle. "The Audacity of Pants". Los Angeles Archivists Collective. Retrieved March 14, 2018.
  13. ^ a b Anthony, Carl. "First Ladies Wearing Pants". Retrieved March 14, 2018.
  14. ^ L.W.N. Smith. Clothes Rationing in World War 2 Archived 2016-03-03 at the Wayback Machine
  15. ^ California Government Code Section 12947.5.
  16. ^ Instructions to Obtain Right to Sue Notice by Mail Archived 2013-05-31 at the Wayback Machine, California Department of Fair Housing and Employment, February 2013.
  17. ^ Reliable, The (2011-12-21). "Update: First woman to wear pants on House floor, Rep. Charlotte Reid - The Reliable Source". The Washington Post. Retrieved 2014-07-30.
  18. ^ "The First Lady a Nation Never Knew: Pat Nixon in Private Taped Phone Calls & 100 Pictures on Her Centennial". Carl Anthony Online. March 16, 2012. Retrieved March 15, 2018.
  19. ^ "Lodi News-Sentinel - Google News Archive Search".
  20. ^ Betsi Fores (2013-06-19). "Flashback: Top 7 Hillary Rodham Clinton pant suits | Rare". Retrieved 2014-07-30.
  21. ^ a b Robin Givhan (January 21, 2004). "Moseley Braun: Lady in red". Retrieved 2014-07-30.
  22. ^ a b Cooper, Kent (2005-06-09). "The Long and Short of Capitol Style : Roll Call Special Features 50th Anniversary". Retrieved 2014-07-30.
  23. ^ Sarah DeCapua, Malawi in Pictures, 2009, pg 7.
  24. ^ "Beeld JOHANNESBURG FINAAL Woensdag 1 Desember 1993 Bl. 9: Malawi-vroue mag broek dra". Archived from the original on 2016-03-04. Retrieved 2014-07-30.
  25. ^ "Slovak Pair Tests New ISU Costume Rules - Skate Today".
  26. ^ a b "It Is Now Legal for Women to Wear Pants in Paris". Time. 4 February 2013.
  27. ^ "Turkey lifts ban on trousers for women MPs in parliament - Yahoo News". 2013-11-14. Retrieved 2014-07-30.
  28. ^ a b PTI (2014-06-28). "Wife's jeans ban is grounds for divorce, India court rules". Retrieved 2015-10-28.
  29. ^ Moore, Dene (2012-08-16). "Female Mounties earn right to wear pants and boots with all formal uniforms". Retrieved 2014-07-30.
  30. ^ "Because It Is 2016, British Airways Finally Agrees Female Employees May Wear Pants To Work". ThinkProgress.
  31. ^ "The Mormon Church Just Allowed Female Employees To Wear Pants. Here's Why That's A Big Deal". Retrieved 2017-07-04.
  32. ^ a b "Female Mormon missionaries given option to wear dress slacks". WSB Radio.
  33. ^ "Virgin Atlantic Won't Make Female Flight Attendants Wear Makeup or Skirts Anymore - The New York Times". Retrieved 2019-03-07.
  34. ^ Rebecca Smithers Education Correspondent (2000-02-24). "Girl wins battle to wear trousers to school | Education". The Guardian. Retrieved 2014-07-30.
  35. ^ "School uniform". GOV.UK. 2014-06-27. Retrieved 2014-07-30.
  36. ^ "College Standards · Student Responsibilities · Pathway · Pensacola Christian College". Retrieved 2017-12-20.
  37. ^ The Responses of Pope Nicholas I to the Questions of the Bulgars A.D. 866 (Letter 99), translated by W. L. North (1998) from the edition of Ernest Perels, in MGH Epistolae VI, Berlin, 1925, pp.568-600.
  38. ^ "RORATE CÆLI: Search results for femoralia".
  39. ^ "Letter on trousers".
  40. ^ "Notification Concerning Men's Dress Worn By Women".
  41. ^ "SUMMA THEOLOGICA: Modesty in the outward apparel (Secunda Secundae Partis, Q. 169)".
  42. ^ Gryboski, Michael (16 December 2013). "Mormon Women Observe 'Wear Pants to Church' Sunday to Promote Gender Equality". Christian Post.
  43. ^ a b Seid, Natalie (14 December 2013). "LDS Women Suit Up For Second 'Wear Pants to Church Day'". Boise Weekly.
  44. ^ "The Mormon Church Just Allowed Female Employees To Wear Pants. Here's Why That's A Big Deal". Retrieved 4 July 2017.
  45. ^ Gettleman, Jeffrey; Arafat, Waleed (8 September 2009). "Sudan Court Fines Woman for Wearing Trousers". The New York Times.
  46. ^ Faedi, Benedetta (2009). "Rape, Blue Jeans, and Judicial Developments in Italy". Columbia Journal of European Law. Archived from the original on July 24, 2012. Retrieved April 26, 2011.