Costume in Context: Women in Trousers

Women in trousers -- beach pajama outfits -- in Woman's Home Companion, Nov. 1937.

Women in trousers — beach pajama outfits — in Woman’s Home Companion, Nov. 1937.

Costume in Context:  Just because a fashion existed, we should never assume it was worn everywhere and by everyone who could afford it.

Women wearing beach pajamas and playsuits in a an illustration by Weldon Tranch, Woman's Home Companion, Nov. 1937.

Women wearing beach pajamas and playsuits in an illustration by Weldon Trench, Woman’s Home Companion, Nov. 1937.

These women in trousers are engaged in idealized farming, milking and harvesting. They are not in a public or urban setting. If you remember your grandmother shopping, dining out or selling real estate in trousers, you may find it hard to believe that most women did not wear trousers to work until the late 1960’s, although some wore them for casual events, like picnics in public places. The kind of restaurants that have a “dress code” today did not admit women in slacks.

A playsuit with shorts and a long skirt to wear as a cover-up. WHC, 1937.

A playsuit with shorts and a long skirt to wear as a cover-up. WHC, 1937.

The woman on the far right is wearing a popular option, a separate skirt that buttons over her shorts, creating a dress look that she can wear in public, perhaps on her way to the farm, or for a trip to the village.

I finally stopped reading a popular mystery series set in the 1920’s because of the very proper female detective’s jarring clothing choices. The author kept putting her in trousers (not breeches) during an era, and in settings, where they would have made her very conspicuous — not to say scandalous. [E.g., alone in London or a rural French village.] Although fashion magazines like Delineator showed patterns for evening pajamas in the late twenties and early thirties, the text always suggested that they be worn at private parties, at members-only country clubs, on cruises, or at resorts. I was reminded of their unsuitability for wear in public places by this story illustration — “a raffish crowd of Bohemians” — from 1935.

“A Raffish crowd of Bohemians;” story illustration from Delineator, Feb. 1935.

The young woman in trousers is surrounded by men and women in a state of undress — not “respectable” people. Is her outfit historically accurate? Yes. However, context matters. One of the men in trenchcoats [detectives?] has just told her, “Come with me.”

“What a thrill!” said the girl.


Filed under 1920s, 1920s-1930s, 1930s, 1930s-1940s, Old Advertisements & Popular Culture, Sportswear, Uniforms and Work Clothes, Women in Trousers

6 responses to “Costume in Context: Women in Trousers

  1. I had to stop watching Miss Fisher’s Mysteries for the same reason. The wardrobe is stunning, but she wears slacks everywhere in a show set in 1929.

    I’m not sure how commonly worn were “beach pyjamas.” I see them for sale in vintage catalogs and magazines, and there were patterns, so they were readily available, but considering the short amount of time they were popular (about 7 years) there are an awful lot of them that come up for sale today in excellent condition. It seems to me they were bought for beach trips, but seldom worn otherwise.

  2. Thank you for the reminder that fashion depictions do not show “real life” and real situations, much as today’s Vogue shows an idealized fantasy of fashionable life. It’s hard for a lot of people to remember this and not take material history so much at face value.
    I love the Miss Fisher series, and aside from the plucky story lines, the costuming choices are a big reason. It doesn’t bother me that she wears trousers to so many places. It’s in keeping with her character. As depicted on the show anyway, she is a rule breaker. She flouts just about every societal norm she comes across for the sheer enjoyment of turning expectations upside down and keeping people unbalanced around her.

  3. Nancy N

    WHAT THE HECK is the guy in the cummerbund and string tie (bandana??) around his white shirt wearing hanging from his waist? A bar apron that has somehow gotten caught in a fan? An old chamois he picked up in the garage? Bohemian? Mais oui!! The advent of trousers is an interesting question. My mom always said it was Kate Hepburn who paved the way for them to become more acceptable. Mom wore them in the late 30s and 40s, but her mom, who was 30 in 1921 always wore dresses, even tho she and grandad were very much lower middle class. I’m sure WW2 ushered in new thinking about slacks and working women, but they seemed to drift back into the specialty column in the 50s. I don’t remember my mom wearing pants in the 50s except in very casual wear until the pants suit burst onto the scene in the early 70s.

    As usual, thanks for this! You’ve piqued my curiosity — I must look up some old family photos…
    Nancy N

    • You’re right — it does look like the chamois skin my uncle cleaned his car with! I have no idea what it’s meant to be — I confess I thought it was just the shine on his suit, till you pointed out its odd shape. (Is he a pimp? a jazz musician? a barman? He almost foreshadows the zoot suit. The woman on the right whose dress is sliding off has a man’s hand on her shoulder….) He’s definitely not the kind of guy you want dating your daughter.
      I thought of Hepburn, too, and reminded myself that she spent a lot of time on estates in the country, or even in Beverly Hills. I don’t suppose she played golf or tennis in public parks, either.
      It was Marlene Dietrich who — legend has it — wore a man’s suit to a restaurant, was refused a table, and simply took off the trousers and was seated wearing the jacket. If it happened, I bet she planned it — right down to the stockings that would be seen on her pretty legs.

      • Nancy N

        Haha Dietrich, yes, I’d heard that story too, which probably accounts for why my Mom did NOT think of her as setting the trouser fashion. Mom was much more a Hepburn kind of gal!
        Nancy N

  4. What a helpful reminder–and I love Lizzie’s comment about what she’s found on the vintage clothing front. I certainly hope that people 100 years from now won’t think that we dressed like the women in Vogue photo shoots!

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