I Guess I Have To Start Wearing The Pants Now
I have a complicated relationship with trousers. (For the sake of our UK readers I'm going to stumble through this by using ‘trousers’ instead of ‘pants.’ I wouldn't want you to think the following is about undergarments, although I'm sure I'll also get to that piece eventually.)
Growing up in a fairly religious household, trousers on women were basically vestimentum non grata, and because I believed everything I was told, I didn't question it. I remember feeling a slight twinge of jealousy seeing the other girls at school running around in their cute gingham capris, their cool flared jeans. I chose to believe that so long as my skirts and dresses were cute enough too, I still had a chance at fitting in.
The first time I remember even wearing trousers was around the time I was ten, when the school had written to inform my parents that for my own safety, and for the security of my physical education, I was required to wear something I could easily exercise in. (We didn't have gym kits in primary school, and up to this point I had basically sat out the more complicated activities. Little Raquel, already a lush.) I have to admit, I didn't love it. All of that desire for a simple bifurcated piece of clothing and its representations of freedom, and I felt constricted. Suddenly my legs were no longer free to move about as I saw fit. At the same time I felt a sort of relief in looking like all of the other girls, no longer fielding constant questions as to why I wore such elaborate, lace trimmed things to school everyday. There's a freedom, when you're not like everybody else, to look as though you just might be.
As I grew older, and grew to care less, I stuck to wearing what I liked. A proper California girl, I did amass a stack of jeans almost as tall as myself, but to be honest I rarely wore them, and despite the hyper-feminine struggles of my childhood, I somehow became the girl in the full circle skirts. Every length, volume, color—you name it, I've worn it. I'm not one to apologize for my femininity; I love skirts, and dresses, and I always will. But in looking outside of myself, and my history, I've begun to reconsider the trouser.
The first modern attempt at dress reform occurred in the early 1850s. Women of the time were fighting for other rights and sought comfortable clothing outside of the normal societal constraints, better suited to a life of activism and activity. The corsets and petticoats of daily life were no longer relevant to them. One of these activists, Elizabeth Smith Miller, had seen women in Europe wearing short skirts over Turkish trousers while staying at health sanitariums, and she was inspired. The style was adopted by her fellow feminists (your veritable who’s who; the Ms’ Anthony, Stanton, et al) and came to be known as ‘The Bloomer Costume,’ after activist and political writer Amelia Bloomer, who championed the style publicly.
Unfortunately, I think you can guess where this went. The women were ridiculed and the style was promptly abandoned. There was a light resurgence in popularity forty years later. As athletic wear for women became more prominent, with the advent of bicycles and physical activity targeted at the female market, the style was shortened and made more flexible. In everyday wear, however, the trouser was not seen again until the late 1920s.
As a woman it feels as though everything I do or don't do is a political statement these days. I wear a floral print and I'm not to be taken seriously. I consider a cocktail dress for a night out, ‘Male fantasies, male fantasies,’ Margaret Atwood slaps me in the face. An entire movement, grew out of support for Hillary Clinton in last year’s Presidential Election; Pantsuit Nation. And it was mocked by conservatives. But in a shining moment of hope, unlike our predecessors one hundred and sixty years ago, I don't know a single person who was deterred.
After the election and subsequent inauguration of Donald Trump, being a woman felt exhausting. Femininity felt exhausting. I had to relearn that age old lesson: when they take your willpower, that's when they win; and so I forced myself into every sequin, every lace trim, every floral print, until I felt human again. In early February of this year, just days after being sworn in, Trump made another in his countless series of waves with a memo instructing female White House employees that they were to ‘dress like a woman.’ The statement caused backlash, naturally, as well as a viral Twitter hashtag with responses from women of all professions sharing photos of how they ‘dressed like a woman.’ Doctors, military, race car drivers, it was sensational.
Two weeks later as I got ready for a night out, I inadvertently opted for a black suit consisting of a blazer stolen from my brother's wardrobe and an old pair of trousers I had pulled from storage. Realizing later what I had worn I felt empowered, as though the confidence and ease I felt all night were not my own, but handed to me by so many women in my place before. It seems innocuous, but somebody had to fight for it, and I felt ungrateful for not appreciating that sooner. The next week, I searched my storage and unpacked every last pair of trousers I could find. And then I bought two more.
*All historical information courtesy of my Second Year History Of Fashion course notes.