Throughout much of Western history, women's clothing has been very different from men's clothing, and society has made strict rules requiring individuals to dress according to their gender. For the most part these rules have defined trousers as men's clothing. For centuries society's disapproval prevented most women from wearing pants. Though in some Eastern cultures, such as those in China or Malaysia, both women and men have long dressed in trousers, most European cultures have only very recently permitted women to wear them. The trend began during the early 1900s, became more widespread during the 1920s and 1930s, and continued to grow, until by the late 1990s a majority of women regularly wore pants, not only for casual wear but also to work.
It was Eastern culture that inspired French designer Paul Poiret (1879–1944) to become one of the first to design pants for women. In 1913 Poiret created loose-fitting, wide-leg trousers for women called harem pants, which were based on the costumes of the popular opera Sheherazade. (Written by Nikola Rimsky-Korsakov [1844–1908] in 1888, Sheherazade was based on a famous collection of legends from the Middle East called 1001 Arabian Nights. )
Trousers have always been the preferred dress of women who had to do physical work. The arrival of World War I (1914–18) gave many women jobs as men went to join the military. Though women who worked with the public still wore skirts, many women wore trousers and overalls to work in factories. After the war ended women were reluctant to give up the freedom of movement their pants had given them. Another French designer, Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel (1883–1971), loved wearing pants herself, often dressing in her boyfriend's suits, and she began designing pants for women to wear while doing sports and other activities. Chanel designed horseback riding trousers for women, who had previously ridden sidesaddle in heavy skirts.
During the 1930s pants continued to be stylish, although they were still shocking to many. Audiences were both fascinated and horrified by glamorous actresses of the time, such as Marlene Dietrich (c. 1901–1992) and Katharine Hepburn (1909–2003), who wore trousers regularly. Though some designers created tailored slack suits for women, wearing pants was still not widely accepted. Some conservatives considered women in pants unnatural and masculine. However, by 1939 Vogue, the respected fashion magazine, pictured women in trousers for the first time, and many women wore pants for playing golf or tennis and riding or bicycling.
The 1940s placed more women in wartime jobs as World War II (1939–45) began, and trousers once again got a boost in popularity. Although the very feminine look of the postwar 1950s discouraged many women from wearing pants, by the 1960s and 1970s extremely casual clothes were the fashion. By the late 1960s pants on women became completely accepted, first for casual wear and finally for the workplace. Fashion leaders such as Yves St. Laurent (1936–) designed dressy pantsuits. By the late 1990s two-thirds of women in the United States wore pants to work several times a week.
Ewing, Elizabeth. History of Twentieth Century Fashion. Revised by Alice Mackrell. Lanham, MD: Barnes and Noble, 1989.