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Monday, October 10, 2016

The Pantsuit

Though the cut of Hillary's pantsuits varies little, the colors
range all over the entire spectrum.
Even though I've dabbled in fashion design a few times, I seldom write about it. I don't claim to be an expert, even though I routinely shop for outfits making up my wife's wardrobe. She seldom returns anything I buy her so I guess I do have a modicum of fashion taste and expertise acquired over nearly fifty years of having been married to her. Moreover, I have tried to stay abreast of fashion trends down through the years as one of the finer of the fine arts. One of those fashion trends has recently moved into the foreground as the result of the presidential candidacy of Hillary Rodham Clinton. One fashion wag suggested she had done for the pantsuit what Brigitte Bardot did for the bikini fifty years ago. Perhaps, but in this case, let's not go there. I'm especially fascinated by the pantsuit phenomena because it is one which had developed mostly over the course of my own lifetime, though its roots go back to the 1930s or before (I'm not quite that old, though I feel like it at times).

Okay, now I remember
why the men's leisure
suit was short-lived.
I can remember the days when men wore pantsuits. Back in the 1970s, we called them "leisure suits." I had several, and found then quite comfortable, dressy, but more casual than the usual men's suit and quite practical for the art classroom environment. I'm not sure why they so quickly went out of style, but I did hate to see them go. The women's version of the leisure suit, the pantsuit, became popular about the same time. I can recall my wife having one or two such ensembles, though the tops were more often of a tunic style than today's matching jacket with buttons. Until recently it was thought that the term "pantsuit" was first used during the mid-1960s, but post-Hillary research has found the mention of "pant suits" or "pant-suits" in newspaper ads dating as far back as 1869. The only problem is that they were referring to boys' pant suits. The earliest such mention of girls' pantsuits would appear to be an ad dating from 1959. It sold for $6.99. At a garage sale today, it would probably still bring about that price. A few years later The Cleveland Plain Dealer ran an ad: The pantsuit … navy wool herringbone; 5 to 13. Jacket $25, Pants $15. The date was September, 1964. Though they could be purchased separately, given the size range and the prices, this outfit was definitely not for young girls...or boys. However, until the 1980s and after, pantsuits were more often referred to as women's "power suits," and usually featured short, tight skirts rather than pants (or slacks as they were sometimes still called).
Greek vase, with
Amazon warrior,
470 BC.
Although the terms may be relatively recent, women and pants go back in history much further than most people realize. Amazons (Scythian women) wearing trousers and carrying a shield with an attached patterned cloth and quiver can be found on Greek pottery dating from 470 BC. That's actually before men started wearing pants. These women wore pants because they rode horses and fought alongside the men in their army. There's no record as to what the men wore. In any case, this historic anecdote underlines one of the key reasons women began wearing trousers starting in the 19th-century--their occupations and lifestyles demanded it. As the American population began moving westward, long skirts, and western frontier living did not mesh. Skirts became shorter, footwear became taller, and all too often, even shorter skirts became utterly impractical as women began to share the hot, dry, physically demanding work of men. Incidentally, Parisians only recently repealed a law dating back to the French Revolution which required women to ask city officials for “permission” to wear pants. Even though the law had been unenforced for decades, men had not thought to change it. The law was finally revoked in 2013.
A caption on the men's side reads: "I'd rather die than let my wife
have my pants. A man ought to always be the ruler." His wife retorts:
"...Women is born to rule and to not obey those contemptible
creatures called men." The little girl below adds:
"Oh, Papa, let go, be gallant, or you'll tear'em."
With the coming of a new century, and especially their victory in winning the right to vote in 1920, women began to don trousers simply as a symbol of their rebellious nature. As with the winning of suffrage, the right for women to wear pants did not come easily, as the cartoon lithograph (above) demonstrates. As always, Paris was ahead of the pantsuit fashion trends as seen in the "Bloomer Club Cigar" below, probably from around the turn of the century. As usual, not everyone was in favor of radical ideas for change. Prominent feminists were more concerned with gaining women’s rights than dress reform, and most of them dressed like “ladies” to avoid detracting from their main cause of securing the vote.
Not only were the stylish French models wearing men's
pants, but smoking their cigars as well. I wonder if these
Parisian women had to get permission to do that too.

Some activities young women
began to enjoy simply precluded
the wearing of long skirts for
safety reasons.
Conservatives ridiculed “rational” styles, and warned that allowing “ladies” to wear pants would be more dangerous than a ticking time bomb. Many religious leaders feared that women wearing pants would become im-modest (read, promiscuous.) It wasn’t “lady-like” (questioning male authority). Girls would be wild, instead of quiet and modest, and no one would want to marry them. The family would be destroyed. Men would become weak and effeminate. They wrote editorials fretting that cross dressing by women would cause social and moral chaos, ranting that the differences between the sexes would be ob-literated. Sound familiar? Then, as now, the best way to make something more popular is to write sermons and editorials against it.

Pantsuits, circa 1943
Wars change things, and nothing so much as social norms. During WWI and WWII women wore pants while working as conductors, miners, factory workers, and many other jobs previously limited to men. When the wars were over women were fired and told to go back home and wear dresses. But after WWII wearing pants had become more socially acceptable as well as fashionable for sportswear and casual dress. Movie stars like Marlene Dietrich, and Katharine Hepburn, made wearing pants cool and sexy. By the 1950s, many young women were choosing the comfort of pants for casual wear. In the sixties most young women were wearing pants and even the more radical jeans without thinking twice (it was just a bonus when old people didn’t approve.) My wife recalls that, in riding a school bus on cold winter days during the 1960s, that her school allowed girls to wear jeans under their mandatory skirts or dresses, but they had to change out of them as soon as they got to school. That archaic rule bit the dust as a result of Title IX in 1972. Schools receiving federal funds were prohibited from discriminating on the basis of sex. Title IX made it law that school districts could no longer require that girls wear dresses to school.
The Allies won the war. Women won the war to wear pants.
During the 1970s and 80s, with the increase in the number of women entering the workforce as well as being elected to Congress and state governments, women were able to flex their growing political power and challenge laws restricting women’s clothing choices. In a great moment in pants-wearing history, Rep. Charlotte Reid wore pants on the floor of the House in 1969 with no known adverse effects to society. In 1993, Senators Barbara Mikulski and Carol Moseley Braun wore pants onto the floor of the Senate in defiance of an ancient rule. The rule was later amended by Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Martha Pope to allow women to wear pants in the Senate so long as they also wore a jacket. The pantsuit thus became legislatively legal.
Trim, elegant, flattering, even sexy, who could ask for more?
So, what does the future hold for this new standard in women's wear? Well, quite frankly, the traditional lady's dress seems to be an antiquated thing of the past. My wife and I the other day were pondering how long it had been since she'd worn a dress. We decided it had been well over a year, maybe two. If we look to the entertainment industry for future fashion trends, perhaps the knit outfit of Star Trek: the Next Generation's Counselor Deanna Troi (above) might become trendy. On the other hand, women of the U.S. Army seem to be moving in the opposite direction (below). And, although Hillary Clinton will be in no need of something tastefully elegant for an inaugural ball, she might still want to look at the sleek gown-like number at the bottom.
Camo seems to be a favorite with the Trump crowd.
Cameron Blake by Mon Cheri

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