Trousers vs Skirts


Image: Cosimo Matteini

Are trousers a masculine garment? Is a dress or a skirt the true expression of a woman?


The enigma of feminine and masculine garments makes me curious about the roots of trousers and skirts. Why are they connected to gender?


Trousers first entered recorded history in the 6th century BC, with invading horse-riding people from the east.


The ancient Greeks did not wear trousers. They actually saw them as something ridiculous. In their eyes the draped clothing of Egypt, Babylon, Greece and the Minoan culture of Crete, was the emblem of civilization and culture. Trousers were the mark of barbarians.


But, as the Empire expanded north in the first centuries AD, the greater mobility and warmth provided by trousers led to their adoption. Two types eventually became widespread in Rome; the Feminalia, which fit snugly and usually fell to knee of mid-calf length, and the Braccae, a loose fitting trouser which was closed at the ankles. Both garments were adopted from the Celts of Europe.

Trousers were first used as military garments, later spreading to civilian dress.


As trousers become the common masculine garment, the gender roles were clear. Men were mobile and active. They were the ones who rode, ran and fought, while women had a passive and more limited existence in the outer world.


During the latter part of the 19th century, women scandalized Victorian society by wearing trousers for their work at the local coal mines. Skirts were worn over their trousers and were rolled up to their waist to keep them out of the way. Their task of sorting and shoveling coal involved hard manual labour, so wearing the usual long skirts would have greatly hindered their movements. Women working the ranches of the 19th century American West also wore trousers for riding.


Fashion mirrors the constant development of culture.


Frequent photographs from the 1930s, of actresses Marlene Dietrich and Katharine Hepburn in trousers, helped make them acceptable for women. During World War II, women working in factories, and doing other forms of "men's work" in war service, wore their men’s trousers when work demanded it, as they were, of course, the most practical garment for work.


As this practice became more widespread, and as their men's clothing were worn out, replacements were needed. By the summer of 1944 it was reported that sales of women's trousers were five times more than they had been in the previous year.


In the post-war era, trousers became acceptable casual wear for gardening, the beach, and other leisurely pursuits. Apart from these occasions it was taboo for women to wear trousers.


Nobody laughs at a woman dressed in men’s clothes. But everyone, especially men, laughs at a man in women’s clothes. ~Tonie Lewenhaupt


In the 1960s, André Courrèges introduced long trousers for women as a fashion item. This led to the era of the pantsuit and designer jeans. There was a gradual eroding of social prohibitions against girls and women wearing trousers in schools, the workplace and in fine restaurants.


Today, this all seems ridiculous. Nobody would even think of questioning a woman for wearing trousers. Is this shift a sign of equality between the sexes? Or, has the balancing pole swung to the opposite side?


Some women don’t even own a skirt anymore. Others wear skirts or dresses very seldom.


When we want to express our femininity, we usually change into a skirt or a dress. Is this the same as changing into a more passive, susceptible mode?


The clothing tradition of Madagascar brings further light on these opposing qualities. Here, the rectangular piece of cloth known as the lamba, draped differently according to age, sex and circumstances, is the common form of dress.


Despite the simplicity of this piece of cloth, styles express a broad range of opinions. One group, Tsimihety, wear their body wraps only to just below the knee, while the Sakalawa wears it to the ankles. The opinion of the Tsimihety is that if you wear the body wrap to your ankles you can’t be strong. ”Those people drag along, weak, lethargic and lazy."


The Sakalawa walks slowly, in a stately, calm manner and their opinion is that the Tsimihety are always running, always in a hurry, with their head forward.


This biased way to look at different modes (of life) probably originated from the early twentieth century, when French administrators distinguished different groups according to their capacities to work, which equaled ”progress” in the Western perspective. A masculine active mode is still seen as superior in our culture, which is, of course, expressed in fashion.


It's time for re-evaluation! Walking slowly in long skirts we are anything but weak, lethargic or lazy. We might be more connected. More present. We have time to smell the flowers, to be mindful and to listen within.



Are you interested in conscious clothing and the future of clothes?

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