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    HISTORY OF...TROUSERSUITS: Social (R)Evolution - part 1

    The trouser suit – in the form of a ‘power suit’ – has not had a long history in terms of being a socially acceptable staple in women's wardrobes. Its long history consists of ordinary women making extraordinary feminist efforts to rid men of their sense of superiority in the workplace, through the medium of fashion. Ultimately, it is their bravery and innovative thinking that helped to transform women physically wearing trouser suits, into females metaphorically ‘wearing the trousers’, so to speak. This turn of phrase signified a shift in power norms through women's gradual introduction into the workforce, delegating power and influence on those sporting this kind of clothing. In this series focusing on the trouser suit, we are taking a trip back in time to discover more about the complex history and evolution of this inimitable ensemble in the world of women, meeting a few famous faces along the way.


    The complex nature of gender identity can be traced back in the centuries to the example set by prominent French historical figure, Joan of Arc, who joined the predominantly male effort in the Hundred Years War. Wearing the traditional male clothing attributed to soldiers for both practical reasons and as a deterrent to rape, she was scrutinised as going against gender norms and, thus labelled as unholy. The importance of the Church’s values on societal doctrines can be seen in Deuteronomy 22:5, where it claims, ‘the woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man’. The role of a soldier, including the attire, was reserved for men. Joan of Arc chose to demonstrate her brave ignorance of this, and it later led to her conviction and execution. From this, we can infer that Joan of Arc must have posed a problem for the church – thus posing a threat to masculinity in general – which suggests she intimidated the male sphere. Joan of Arc, however, has lived on in the fashion industry where, for example, Alexander McQueen paid homage to this pioneering woman through his 'Joan of Arc' Pant Suit with red lining in 1998, exemplifying how her decision to ignore fashion guidelines has had long-lasting, inspirational effects. effects.

    'Joan of Arc at the Coronation of Charles VII', by Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres (1854)
    Alexander McQueen, 'Joan of Arc' inspired suit (1998)
    Alexander McQueen, 'Joan of Arc' inspired suit (1998)
    'Olga Anderson'. Article 'History of Trousersuits: The Social Evolution of the Trouser Suit'. Source of the image:
    Amelia Bloomer


    Nevertheless, obstacles continued to remain in the way of feminist fashion. In the 1800s, it was technically illegal for women to wear trousers in Paris without a police permit, but the 19th century did witness sparks of optimism for improvements in women’s rights, and it’s no surprise that trouser suits were involved! Amelia Bloomer was an American women’s rights activist to whom the breakthrough of more women wearing trousers can be attributed, her name often associated with the bloomer trousers. Absentmindedly contributing to the early stages of a fashion revolution, Bloomer recognised that women had the choice to replace tight corsets and endless layers of petticoats for freer clothing that was more indicative of the desire for social freedom.

    In the April 1851 edition of The Lily, her choice of dress was announced through the media, causing the outlet’s circulation to rise from 500 per month to 4000 – demonstrating that her controversial fashion statements sparked interest, and thus became the catalyst for further brave women to walk in Bloomer’s path. Living nearby to Bloomer, suffragette cousins Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Elizabeth Smith Miller soon adopted outfits that Bloomer had discussed in the press, which consisted of knee-length skirts with loose pants. Fashion, therefore, became more than mere pieces of fabric strung together: a politics of clothing was emerging where one could choose to be fashionable, in order to identify with the struggle and fight for female rights such as emancipation.

    Mrs Tibitts (1850-60's)
    Mary Edwards Walker, Civil War Hero


    Moving into the 20th century, we see a more collective effort to use fashion as a way to integrate women into – and also challenge – patriarchal societies. As a practical necessity of wartime struggles, women were deployed across the general workforce in a variety of industries and required the appropriate clothing in order to do so. The siren suit was a staple style – much like a boiler suit – that protected women from the dirt of air raid shelters and acted as a shield in dangerous workplaces. The suit was also available with puffed shoulders, bell bottomed legs and a fitted hood, which was often preferred by most females; in such dire times, adding a feminine touch to unisex fashion was deemed a necessity. However, Winston Churchill posed as the poster boy for the siren suit, so we still had a way to go for women to be a visible fashion symbol.


    In the 1940s, we also greet the Zoot Suit Girls, who mimicked working-class attire. It consisted of skirt suits but also of wide leg, pegged high-waist pants with a long, cardigan sweater jacket and was a symbol of rebellious fashion, as it was illegal to cross-dress during the 1940s, and many women were often arrested. Creating their own identity, these women refused to be condemned to and defined by the traditional feminine clothes that society set as their fate.

    'Olga Anderson'. Article 'History of Trousersuits: The Social Evolution of the Trouser Suit'. Source of the image:

    Ultimately, the social evolution of the trouser suit has not developed with ease. Legislation, social norms and masculine superiority – to name but a few – have subjected women to limited fashion that has mirrored their limited rights in society. Nevertheless, it is a testament to the ordinary yet extraordinary women who have rebelled against this limitation and sparked revolutionary ideals for the women of today to both relish in and develop further. In the next part of this series, Popularising the Trousersuit, we explore the traditional suit's various interpretations over time, as well as the influence of different mediums on the redefinition of the trousersuit as a bold, innovative choice for women.

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