Pants are certainly a staple in anyone’s wardrobe these days, – especially jeans. Yet, trouserrs were not always for everyone. Before 1930, it was unacceptable for a woman to wear true pants unless they were a specific type of pant meant for sleeping, work or sports activity. Such garments were not worn in the public eye and considered immodest. Many articles of clothing that women wear today were somewhat socially restricted and only meant for men’s use. The 1920’s saw the beginning of change.
At the beginning of the 20s, women were given the right to vote. This legislative decision led to many women feeling more empowered and in charge of their lives. Dresses became more simplistic so that women could dress themselves; they also became notably shorter and sleeveless to show off the legs and arms when dancing.
Sportswear also became stylish off the court for women, where it had only been acceptable for men before. At Shippensburg University, or the Cumberland Valley State Normal School, sportswear was also in style. The Fashion Archives highlights some of these styles.
Myrtle M. Shipp was a part of the Girls Athletic Association and wore the gym outfit pictured on the right during her time at the school. The outfit on the left belonged to Helen Drais, who graduated in 1921. While women did not wear pants, bloomers like those on the left were acceptable sportswear. The sailor-style blouse, or middy, also reflects the inspiration taken from men’s styles in the 20s.
20s style focused on obtaining a gamine body type through somewhat boxy dresses and bobbed hair. This style was nicknamed “La Garconne,” from the French for “boyish.” La Garconne fashion pushed the boundaries of what was appropriate for women, which also fell in line with ideas about the “New Woman” of the 20s. These women drank, smoked, danced, and dated somewhat freely; activities that were not seen as ladylike. 1920’s Fashion and Music jokes that “women of the 1920’s knew how to infuriate their mothers and grandmothers and the La Garconne style was an apt way to achieve this.”
The style consisted of more masculine styles and integrated androgynous aspects. While women still sported strings of pearls and lipstick, they also embraced ties, hats and dresses that resembled suits. Coco Chanel introduced the first suit for women in the 20s, and this encouraged women to take even more charge over their lives in the workforce, another male dominated area.
Where the 20s were daring and raucous, the 1930s were more conservative. The 30s were punctuated by the stock market crash in 1929 and the resulting Great Depression, which lasted through the decade until 1941. Women’s styles thus became more conservative and focused on highlighting the figure in a simple fashion. The bias-cut ruled evening wear, creating a body-skimming fit. To cut fabric on the bias means to cut it 45 degrees against the weave. Dresses with low backs were also popular in the 30s. This style of dress is reflected in Helen Grove’s 1930s gown at the Fashion Archives, which was worn to an unidentified campus event. The dark blue crepe dress features beading for glamor and a belted waist to accentuate the figure, as well as a deep-V on the back.
Fashion History Timeline discusses how daywear became more feminine and romantic – a contrast to the 20s “garconne” look – highlighting the waist and shoulders. The Depression had a major influence on the styles available, not only impacting fabric affordability, but the patterns themselves. While previously, patterns were available through resellers who bought designs from Paris and sold copies, in the 30s there were duties placed on these designs. Toiles, a muslin cut-out pattern of a design, were allowed duty free. The original dress style was then available for far cheaper than originally offered.
While Zelda Fitzgerald was photographed wearing pants in the 20s, it was still not socially acceptable for women to do so. Trousers were limited to breeches or knickers. In the 30s – with the help of movie stars Marlene Dietrich and Katherine Hepburn – things began to shift. Fashion was highly influenced by movie stars, and women wanted to emulate the looks they saw on screen.
It began with beach pajamas, a wide legged pant that was comfortable, glamorous, and available in many colors and patterns. Overalls were also made fashionable instead of being limited to “men’s work.” This was another shift influenced by Hollywood stars and helped to usher in the acceptance of pants. A major influence was Navy Men’s sailor pants, which were high waisted with a wide, flared leg. Many styles of women’s slacks followed this, but did not include a front fly, as it was considered too masculine.
Film was not the only avenue promoting women in pants. Vintage Dancer notes that in 1931, Lily Alvarez wore a “trouser skirt” to the Wimbledon Championships. The skirt led to the development of culottes, which looked like a skirt, but had two pant legs. Tennis was not the only sport that influenced fashion. As women began to become more involved with traditionally male activities, their fashion changed with their interests. Horseback riding and other outdoor activities increased the popularity of breeches or jodhpurs, pants that were high waisted with a ballooned thigh and tighter calf. This style of pants eventually also made its way into the fashion world in the 30s.
The feminine styles of the 20s and 30s were slowly integrating more and more aspects of masculine fashion while remaining deeply rooted in femininity. With these changes in fashion came changes in ideology. Women had more freedom in their wardrobes and became increasingly focused on their own freedoms as well. As seen with La Garconne and flapper attitudes, the 20s were full of rebellious women. The 30s brought in pants for women, which was previously not accepted. These women were pioneers of what fashion has come to be today in a time where it was more socially dangerous to rebel against norms.
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