Who wears the trousers?  

How a humble laundrywoman’s daughter challenged the fashion industry and liberated 20th century women.  

Throughout much of the Western World’s history, due to society’s rules of the need for individuals to dress according to their gender, trousers have always been defined as men’s clothing.  Society strongly disapproved of women wearing them. 

In 1992 I worked as an Agricultural Engineer on a wheat farm in Zambia and on a rice project in Malawi.  Malawi’s President at that time was Hastings Kamuzu Banda, a man who governed his people through strict conservative rules – one of them being the introduction, in 1973, of a dress code.  For women, see-through clothing, skirts or dresses above the knee, visible cleavage and trousers were all forbidden.  The rules applied to foreign visitors too, and only if women were at a holiday resort or country club, where they could not be seen by the general public, were those rules waived. When asked about these restrictions, Banda explained that they were not designed to oppress women, but they were to instil respect and dignity.  The code seemed strange to me, a woman who had grown up in the UK, and had practically emerged from her mother’s womb in a pair of jeans!  But if I wanted to work in Malawi, I had no choice but to respect Banda’s rules, and so my trousers stayed scrunched in the bottom of my ruck-sack, and taking their place grew a colourful collection of Chitenje.

Planting and harvesting one of their country’s emerging crops, Cassava, was not easy for Malawian women dressed in a wrap-around skirt.  Neither was it easy walking in a strong wind when both hands are raised, holding a water-filled earthenware pot that’s balanced on your head!  Riding a bicycle, which was often the only life-line out of a remote village, was exclusive to men: how could a woman ride a bike and maintain her dignity, or balance, in a wrap-around skirt?  The constraints of Banda’s dress-code had an impact across so many aspects of his country-women’s lives.  

When I crossed the border again into Zambia, shook out my trousers and stepped back into them and their practicality, I had no idea that some years later I would be living in the country that forged the way for me, as a woman, to be able to do so.

In France, at the end of the 19th Century when she was 12 years old, Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel’s mother died.  Coco, along with her two sisters were sent to a convent orphanage. They lived a stark and frugal life, with strict discipline, but whilst there during six years, Coco learned to sew: a skill which eventually set her up for life.  Once she left the convent, she found work as a seamstress. She was observant of the fashions around her, was desperate to become part of ‘high society’, and developing her skill with needle and thread she qualified as a milliner.  Coco entered into a series of relationships with wealthy men, and was supported in opening her first hat-shop in Paris in 1910.  Coco watched so many wealthy women come and go from her shop in their fine, but cumbersome tight-corseted dresses. She wondered how they could possibly carry out even the simplest of tasks whilst so trussed up.

France was the fashion hub of the world at the time, and Paul Poiret was considered by most as THE top designer.  He rejected the corset and introduced a new concept to women’s fashion: freedom of movement.  He designed loose-fitting garments that were less about attracting men’s gaze with corseted silhouettes, and more about comfort.  Many were displeased with his revolutionary designs.  Coco, ever eager to dive deeper into the fashion scene, and not one to shy away from controversy, embraced Poiret’s new direction.  She, however, started designing easy comfortable clothes for women made out of far less expensive materials than Poiret was using.  One of these materials was Jersey cotton.  If people had been shocked by Poiret’s new dress-styles, imagine how they felt when Coco was making them out of a material previously reserved for men’s underwear!  

During the era of World War I, many women were recruited into jobs left vacant by men that had gone to fight. Those who worked within the office-based public sector wore skirts, but those who took on more manual roles, such as in the munitions factories: out on farms: as bus conductors: railway guards: firefighters and even pilots, began to wear trousers and overalls in the workplace. Coco wanted those women, through their clothes, to have the freedom that men took as their right, and they came to embrace Coco’s view that they could dress for their own comfort rather than for their men.   

Coco herself, loved wearing trousers and apparently often used to borrow her boyfriend’s suits. Now with shops in Deauville and Biarritz, both playgrounds for the wealthy, Coco introduced wide-legged trousers – apparently to help women clamber about the yachts.  She designed trousers for women to wear whilst riding, replacing the previously-worn cumbersome, impractical skirts. Basically, Coco took an essential item of men’s clothing and transformed it for women in a time when wearing trousers was still not acceptable.  Thanks to Coco, trousers soon became a fashion choice for women rather than merely a functional garment, and in a male-dominated fashion industry, Coco revolutionised the way women wore clothes. 

Whilst the majority of fashion designers were keeping their creations exclusive, Coco was allowing her designs to be copied and reproduced at a more affordable price, making them accessible to far more women.  In 1939 Vogue magazine featured pictures of women in trousers for the first time, making their popularity grow.  This was boosted further by WW II when women once again worked in wartime jobs. But it still wasn’t until the late seventies in the Western World that trousers had become acceptable for women, both in the workplace and for leisure wear.  

In 1994 Banda’s 31 years of dictatorship came to an end, with a new democratic constitution coming into force a year later.  With this new democratic form of governance came a freedom for Malawians to express themselves.  Women’s voices were heard, and they were finally liberated from Banda’s dress code.  In 1995, Malawian women were now free to wear trousers, an act that I had always taken for granted.

For Coco Chanel all those years previously, it had been about designing clothes for women to have the freedom that men had for so long taken for granted.   I believe she increased the power and significance of women through the fashions she created for us.  

By Sarah Tyley with thanks to Erica Lainé


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