Women in Trousers

Published 1st June 2016

Amelia Bloomer, American women’s rights advocate, gave her name to the emancipatory bloomer style of clothing because of her prestige as a spokesperson for women. Her newspaper, The Lily, promoted a change in dress standards, arguing that ‘the costume of women’ should be ‘suited to her necessities’. in 1851, Elizabeth Smith Miller, of New England, became the first to adopt the loose trouser ‘bloomer’ style. The rational dress reform movement of the Victorian period encouraged the adoption of practical clothing for women, raising awareness of the damaging effects of tight corseting which had been the mainstay of fashionable dress for women, and advocating more comfortable alternatives. It drew considerable derision and mockery from contemporary commentators.

The national suffrage amendment of 1920 and increasing career options for women led to a more profound shift in fashions, as masculine-inspired clothing was used to emphasise the more equal social status of women. Androgynous fashion, including sober suits, were emblematic of the ‘new woman’ and her independence.

And yet, the dress of women in the legal profession continued to attract close scrutiny for decades after their revolutionary career opportunities first came to the fore in the early twentieth century. The 2014 Bar Council report on the experience of self employed women at the bar interviewed female lawyers, and its findings demonstrate the continued focus on what women wear in the workplace. One barrister commented:

When I came to the Bar it was still considered risqué for a woman to wear trousers and that was only in the mid to late 90s’

This woman clearly felt a social pressure to dress in traditionally feminine clothing, and avoid the clearly controversial trousers. But the pressure was not merely social. Surprisingly recently, firms issued actual restrictions on women wearing trousers. As another female lawyer recalled:

‘When I was a lawyer before my recruitment career, it was announced at our firm that women could start wearing trouser suits, it wasn’t really that long ago either – about 1999 / 2000!’

In the past century, women have taken huge strides in their presence in the legal profession. It was perhaps the shock of this change which produced these attempts to keep the clothing of women traditional, whilst their behaviour became increasingly modern. Whilst firms did relax their restrictions on women wearing trousers, it was still suggested that women should dress in a feminine manner to improve their careers, e.g. to ingratiate themselves with judges and clients. Another quote from a woman interviewed by the Bar Council report reads:

‘I was told by my senior clerk that instead of wearing trouser suits I ought to wear shorter skirts’

The recent media uproar after the dress code controversy when a woman was obliged to wear high heels to work provides an opportunity to examine the role of clothing as an effective means of communication. For individuals whose voices are repressed, dress is a way to express oneself, a site of political importance and an opportunity to send a powerful message when words do not. Yet for many women, wearing trousers was primarily an act of practicality and functionality, particularly gaining ground when women had a more important role in the workplace. But at the same time, the association of trousers has continued to be with masculinity, and through wearing a traditionally masculine type of clothing, women demonstrated their irrevocable and insistent entrance into the male world of the public sphere.