The “scandalous” history of female trousers. Experiments in fashion up until the 20th century

While in ancient times, men and women wore one piece of clothing – the Greek or Roman tunic – from the late Middle Ages onwards through to the emancipation of women halfway through the 19th century and up until the 1960’s, the garment made up of two pieces, one of which a pair of trousers, was a true symbol of masculinity in the Western world. During the strengthening of the male-female stereotypes at the heart of society, a norm was established about the use of a different kind of clothing for men and women: therefore, trousers were worn by men and skirts by women, much conditioned by the different types of work they did, men linked to the world of politics, war an work while women were linked almost always to their activity in the home.

Aristocrats, in the Western world, from the Middle Ages to modern times, lived on horseback, travelled, fought, took part in duels and consequently, the use of trousers became more and more the prerogative of men, which was very different from what was happening in the Orient where, in the 19th and 20th centuries, European travellers liked to go to, full of curiosity and admiration, and where they were amazed to find a totally different way of dressing. Fashionable with Ottoman women were wide trousers hidden under an undergarment and a cloak; Tunisian Jewish women wore tight trousers with a top over them; while women in the Balkans preferred wide, silk trousers. In China, and in some areas of Japan, as well as in the Arctic regions, and obviously for climatic reasons rather than cultural ones, trousers once again were a part of female clothing while, often, men wore a tunic of some sort: consequently, clothes lost their gender differences and trousers were not considered to be a sign of masculinity.

However, if these were general tendencies in the history of the emancipation of women, there have also been women who refused the role that society had given them by the ancient regime which meant that they had to submit to male authority; instead, they wanted to emerge and become protagonists themselves, refusing to take on an exclusively female identity, as a wife, daughter, sister, widow. As far back as in Greek and Roman mythology, the prototypes of female warrior divinities – like Athena, Minerva or the Amazons – were depicted as courageous warriors, who even cut off their breasts so as to hide their femininity, and who fought riding horseback against their enemies – among whom were the Greeks in the Trojan War. 

With the passing of time, ambitious women understood that, as man was always the dominant figure, they could only assert themselves properly by actually disguising themselves as men. The story of Joan, the legendary female pope, is a striking case of female independence in the world of men: she was a woman who dressed up in men’s clothes even to the point of becoming a monk (Johannes Anglicus) and then pope. According to the legend, she paid early with her life for this deceit of hers when she was discovered by the crowd in an accident during an Easter procession, who found out she was pregnant; furiously angry, they stoned her to death.

Centuries later, Joan of Arc, the French national heroine, became a symbol of patriotism by leading the French army against England during the Hundred Years War, dressed in white armour which prevented her from standing out from the men who were fighting at her side. Captured by the Burgandians and sold to the English, she was accused of heresy, condemned to death and burnt at the stake in Rouen (1431). In 1909, she was beatified by Pope Pius X and 11 years later, was declared a saint by Pope Benedict XV.

In gender historiography, we come across women who wished to leave the extremely limited female sphere and to become part of political and cultural society. For centuries, queens, sovereigns, favourites and concubines influenced the powerful men they had at their sides and were at the heart of court and political life, reaching a good cultural level, which was the first step towards freedom from gender slavery.

Christine of Sweden was an intellectual, independent and strong-minded queen of Vasa lineage, who was interested in philosophy, art and the theatre while, at the same time, was capable of spending days on horseback, riding and hunting. This queen used to dress as a man, she shaved her head and wore a male wig, a velvet jerkin, a tie, low-heeled shoes and boots, and according to some, had a man’s voice. Christine refused to marry but she had love stories with both men and women, thereby scandalizing many. In 1654, she gave up the throne in order to be free and she converted to Catholicism, as she did not appreciate the strictness of protestants just as, later on, she would not like the Vatican’s ostentatiously pious atmosphere.

During the French Revolution, women and also Jews were granted equal political rights, so much so that the French female rebels decided to render their clothes more masculine, often using at the same time both male and female clothing. The idea of fashion of the so-called Amazons had little appeal in French society also because, after the Revolution, trousers were forbidden to be worn by women of any social class.

Another courageous contribution to the evolution of the history of clothes came from the American feminist, Amelia Jenks Bloomer, who in the magazine she herself edited, The Lily, presented to the public an creation of hers, the so-called bloomer, a short garment with trousers finishing around the ankle. Many of her female contemporaries – due to the considerable weight of their underclothes and the difficulty of wearing tight corsets – were looking for a new sort of clothing which would make work and everyday life easier. So, at that time, the request to have the right to wear Ottoman style trousers, as a model for the Western woman, was predominant. Bloomer wore the article of clothing she gave her name to only from 1851 to 1859, mainly because her bloomers were made fun of and verbally attacked not only by men but also by those women who were against social change of any kind.

In the same period during the 19th century, women began to practice sport more and more: they wanted to do gymnastics, they played tennis, they rode, fenced and cycled. But to do sport, they needed more comfortable and lighter clothing. Fashion designers, therefore, started to create new clothes which were more suitable to a more dynamic lifestyle, as, for example, suits with wide trousers.

Although this radical change in fashion was not an official part of the women’s movement, many of them believed that the way they looked was important and showed, too, the seriousness of their ideas. While conservative thinkers still insisted on the different nature of woman making her unsuitable for studying and for any intellectual work, the first female students in Paris (from 1863 on) and Zurich (from 1867 on) caught the public’s attention not only for the fact that they had entered university but also because of their look, of their dressing rather like men, so much so that they were often scorned with the word “hermaphrodite”. However, despite the fact that women began to increase their knowledge by going to university, 19th century and early 20th century female intellectuals still found it extremely arduous to enter the world of work. Rosa Luxemburg, well-known representative of the German social democrats and Marie Curie, awarded the Nobel prize for physics and chemistry, were indeed exceptions to the rule.

Wishing to find a way of realizing their dreams and of developing their talents, other women – courageous, extravagant and heedless of any anti-feminist prejudice – decided to “become” a man in order to have access to public life which, until then, was only for men. A perfect example of this is that of Amantine Aurora Lucile Dupin, excellent writer and dramatist, who got around every obstacle and objection to women in the field of intellect, by deciding to use, for her first novel Indiana, the pseudonym George Sand. As a man, she could mix in literary and artistic circles, then forbidden to women, and could open up her Parisian house for parties and guests such as the writers, Gustave Flaubert, Honoré de Balzac and Alexandre Dumas, where she would be the host, dressed as a cigarette-smoking man. 

Another protagonist of her times, between the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the next one, was Isabelle Eberhardt, an important explorer and writer who travelled widely in North Africa, attracted by the fascination of the Sahara Desert. In order to enter the Magreb area and all that world which was forbidden to women, she dressed up as an Arabian knight with the name of Mahmoud Saadi and so was free to go anywhere she wanted, following her thirst for knowledge and her innate curiosity. Enthusiastic about Islamic culture and in love with an Arabian officer, Slimène Ehnni, she entered the sufi confraternity, living in poverty. 

With the dawn of the 20th century, women’s emancipation is further sustained by some avant garde fashion designers, in both Paris – then the capital of fashion – and Vienna. Paul Poiret, one of the first great fashion sylists, in 1909, after having seen a Russian ballet, designed some Oriental trousers over a veiled tunic. This particular model of his did not have a great success; however, later on, thanks to other clothes he designed, he succeeded in luring away clients from his rival dressmakers.

With the arrival of the First World War, life totally changed. Women were needed to take the place of men who were at the Front; therefore, they went to work in factories, in hospitals, in infrastructures, in education. For the feminists, the start of the conflict opened up more roads to emancipation; women refused to sit still and not to do anything in front of this terrible event which was shocking everybody’s life. Women in uniform soon became an everyday sight, even in unexpected situations like that of Dorothy Lawrence who, as a freelance journalist, entered the war zone passing through France but was then arrested and forced to return to Paris, where she met some English officers who she persuaded to give her some of their uniforms. At this point, disguised as a man, with short hair and a darkened complexion, she went under the name of Denis Smith and returned to the Front; however, after a while and fearing to be discovered, she reported herself to the authorities. Captured as a spy, she was declared a war prisoner, thus creating considerable embaressment for having succeeded, as a woman, in breaking through the army’s security. She later published her memories, though without success, and was even committed to a psychiatric hospital.

A fact that is not well known and which has been little studied was the situation of women in Northern Albania, Kosovo and Montenegro, who dressed up as men for other reasons. In these areas, some women decided to become men for the rest of their lives, either so as not to be forced to leave their own family – according to the patriarchal system, when marrying, the wife was then included into the husband’s circle of relations – or so as not to have to submit to a combined marriage, or to be able to inherit their father’s land or to take the place of male members of the family who had been killed in war. They were called burnessh (sworn virgin), virgin, tobelija or woman-heroine; they assumed all the social responsabilities of men which meant that they also had to go to war – both to the Balkan Wars and to the First World War. 

Due to the First World War, female fashion followed the change in the different status of women who, then having to go out to work, needed more practical clothes which would allow them more freedom of movement in diverse situations. Nurses, bike-riding postwomen, factory workers – all of them needed a different way of dressing in comparison to the elegant ladies living in fashionable circles. The fashion designers – first and foremost, Coco Chanel – rapidly brought out new ideas and designed functional trousers and skirts to meet with this new reality.

Apart from the war, the contribution of the feminists – such as the pedagogue Ellen Key in Sweden, the Member of Parliament Marie Elisabeth Lüders in Germany, and the suffragette Christabel Pankhurst in Great Britain – favoured the new path of women who, in the 1920’s, began to enter the professional world, even if to a lesser degreee than men and depending on which geographical area they lived in, and began working as doctors, lawyers, university lecturers. In many countries – in Russia, the United States, Spain, Germany – women were granted the right to vote and could enter politics, thereby finally leaving behind the pionieristic phase of the battle for their rights.

*Martina Bitunjac, moses Mendelssohn Zentrum/University of Potsdam

Martina Bitunjac