Thursday, September 1, 2011

Who wears the pants around here?

This morning, I got out of bed and mindlessly pulled on a pair of jeans. Since I live in the country and am semi- retired, a pair of jeans usually covers any situation a country girl might encounter during a humdrum day. I have a few famous women to thank for my no-brainer decision on what to wear - Marlene Dietrich and Katherine Hepburn being the first that come to mind.

But before I talk about some of the women to whom we owe the wonderful freedom of pants, let me tell you how my day started. My first task (after downing a cup of coffee) was to go on a hunt for my cat, Sam, who is sick and on a medication avoidance vigil. I found the king of my little jungle positioned safely under a shrub, which he knows I couldn’t crawl under, not even on a wish. As I write this, he is still in his safe place, waiting patiently for me to forget the whole nasty business of shoving a vial of antibiotics between his feline fangs. You’ll soon see who wears the pants around here, Sam.

Medicating Sam is nothing short of an Amazonian feat,which brings me to something I discovered about the Amazons that has some bearing on the subject of pants. There’s an Ancient Greek vase in the British Museum upon which is painted an Amazon wearing…you guessed it…pants. This vase is dated 470 BC. Whether the Amazons existed is a subject of debate, however, here’s food for thought. According to Wikipedia, “Trousers first enter recorded history in the 6th century BCE, with the appearance of horse-riding Iranian peoples in Greek ethnography. At this time, not only the Persians, but also allied Central Asian peoples such as the Bactrians, Armenians, and the Tigraxauda Scythians are known to have worn them. Trousers are believed to have been worn by both sexes among these early users.”

Moving fast-forward into the 20th century AD,we see the emergence of pants as popular female attire. Although I couldn’t find a photo of Bette Davis in pants, she was among the vanguard of Hollywood stars who transformed what had been the exclusive domain of men into a fashion statement for women during the 1930s. However, showing up at functions in menswear wasn’t the only way in which Davis was a pioneer. She was the first female president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the first woman to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Film Institute and the first person of either sex to receive ten Academy Award nominations for acting. Other women who dared to wear pants at a time when such a thing was sure to raise eyebrows were Joan Crawford, Katherine Hepburn and Marlene Dietrich who appeared in her signature men's suits on and off screen.
But were these famous movie stars the first modern women to break through the barrier that divided men and women’s clothing? I think not as I recall a story my grandmother once told me. She was invited to a dance and could not afford a gown. Determined not to miss the event, she borrowed a suit from a friend’s brother and went dressed as a man. This took place before Grandpa started courting her. I don’t remember the exact year they married (after a long courtship), but my mother, their first child, was born in 1922. I can therefore safely say Grandma arrived at that dance dressed in men’s clothing quite some time before the dawn of the year 1920, considerably more than a decade before Dietrich set the stage for men’s-style suits.

It would be remiss of me to omit the pit brow girls who scandalized mid 19th century English society by wearing pants for their work at the Wigan coal mines. The pit brow girls weren’t the only 19th century women to break the rules where fashion was concerned. Here on the other side of the Atlantic, the cowgirls were also wearing trousers as they rode the ranches of the American West. Thanks to these women who paved the way for us, we have our pick of pants, from the flowing harem style to skin-tight jeans. They’re available in every imaginable fabric from linen to metallic lycra. And what about shorts, you ask? Well, that’s another story. I’ll save that one until summer.

Do you know how much Dorothy's ruby slippers sold for at a Christie's auction in 2000? I'll be writing about that and more in my mid-month post, so please come back and visit.

Elle Magazine’s pants line-up for Fall:

The new men’s look trend at Net a Porter:


  1. I can hear your voice. Well done, send it to Vanity Fair.

  2. And it just so happens that I'm not wearing pants today because that's all I wear! so I opted for the casual flowy polyester dress which I don't need to iron. Totally informative yet fun and easy to read. I love historical accounts and to learn about the 'why of things.' Two thumbs up on this one Joan -

  3. Wouldn't you know it - I seldom wear jeans to work and opted for them this morning. I always said that the women of this world have been "wearing the pants" for many years, but I wasn't aware that it is literally so. I love reading everything you write - easy yet captivating reading. The Tangled Web only lasted me a night or two! Can't wait for that historic romance. Ana S.

  4. Thanks for your comments! It's great to hear from you. Now let's see if I can figure out how to post this one (:

  5. Jeans are not my thing, but I'm close...for my log cabin out in the woods, it's shorts in warm weather and sweats in cold...I love the comfort any type of slacks provide! Just wish I looked like one of the Amazonian women while wearing them... LOL

    Best, Glenda

  6. History presented in this format is as "COOL" as Katherine's striking pose....Thanks Joan!

    As a young girl growing up in Guyana, I was NOT allowed to wear pants...I destroyed many dresses climbing in & out of trees...thank God for these
    gutsy fashionistas who stuck their necks out to make our lives sooooo comfortable in 2011.

  7. Thanks again for all the comments. Keep them coming. I used to venture up trees too, Nesta (: