She Wears the Trousers:
Power Pants, Then and Now
by Alexa Hotz
It’s not uncommon for women to wear pants. In 1938 it was. When Los Angeles school teacher Helen Hulick wore them to court to testify as witness to a burglary, the judge ordered her to return in a dress. “I’ll come back in slacks and if he puts me in jail I hope it will help to free women forever of anti-slackism,” she told the Los Angeles Times. She came back wearing pants and was sentenced to five days in jail. Hulick had many women before her—nineteenth and early twentieth century women in the US and abroad—who were stringent trouser-wearers, against all odds. Profiling these pant pioneers is She Wears the Trousers, a research project from Ruby Woodhouse and contributor Harriet Vogeler, two pant purists (“I wear a skirt maybe five days out of the year,” says Ruby). Today, the trouser is the great multi-tasker worn in the office, the studio, on set, and outdoors; worn for sport, power, and panache. Here, Ruby leads us through archival images and the women who wear the trousers—both literal and proverbial. “Put on a pair of trousers and you’re sorted,” she advises.
By 1941, American women began wearing trousers outside of socially acceptable scenarios like factory work and athletic activity. For a walk through the park in early November, as illustrated here by two friends, trousers are the more sensible option (particularly in pinstripe and lofty tweed).
[These women wearing trousers] all seem to be bucking the trends, and even the law in some situations, to feel strong and powerful in themselves.Ruby Woodhouse
German photographer August Sander took this image of Helene Abelen looking directly into the camera. “I later discovered that her husband [architect Peter Abelen] dressed her for the photo,” says Ruby about the image. “Although his intent to dress her in masculine clothing was in favor of women’s rights at the time, it wasn’t, in fact, what she felt most comfortable wearing. An interesting photo, and still a strong image—subtext or no.”
Yachting fashion was a gateway to the everyday trouser for twentieth-century women. The change started with utility in mind: in 1881, the Rational Dress Society was formed in London to advocate for a weight limit to women’s underskirt layers (no more than 7 pounds) and industrial work into the twentieth century led to allowances for pant-appropriate activities such as factory work, boating, tennis, and cycling. Here, a plucky pair of proportion-playing pants are worn for both fashion and function.
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