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Thursday, November 4, 1999 Published at 21:35 GMT


Who's wearing the trousers?

"Warm and practical" biflocated garments

By BBC News Online's Liz Doig

A century ago, prescribed sartorial propriety for women meant torsos had to be trussed up in corsets and bare flesh kept to an absolute minimum.

The undeniable biological fact that women had legs, and were able to do anything other than keep them firmly together, had to be kept secret at all costs. Even horse riding was carried out sideways-on, legs together and heavily swathed.

Times have moved on, and the sight of a woman in jeans or shorts is no longer motivation for panic and rioting on your average city street.

But although a century has passed since the likes of Radclyffe Hall scandalised polite society by wearing men's clothes, girls and women are still being told that they can't wear the trousers.

[ image: Women were once obliged to wear corsets]
Women were once obliged to wear corsets
Jo Hale, a 14-year-old, was told by her school that dress code for girls did not include trousers.

Judy Owen has taken the Professional Golf Association to industrial tribunal, claiming sex discrimination, after she was banned from wearing trousers.

And Eurostar has told two female security staff that they will not be able to return to work until they agree to wear skirts.

The train company says that unless they wear skirts, they may not be immediately identifiable as women. A bit like a ladies' loo sign without a skirt on it.

When the Human Rights Act becomes law in the UK next year, it may become impossible for employers and institutions to stipulate dress codes. But in the mean time, gender is seen by some as a good enough reason to restrict dress.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word "skirt" as "a woman's outer garment hanging from the waist".

"Trousers" on the other hand, is not deemed to be a gender-specific word. "An outer garment reaching from the waist usually to the ankles, divided into two parts to cover the legs," says the OED.

[ image: Ms Booth's wardrobe boasts an array of trouser suits]
Ms Booth's wardrobe boasts an array of trouser suits
At the turn of the 19th Century, of course, trousers would have definitely fallen into the male domain.

Rosemary Harden, from the Museum of Costume in Bath, says that apart from a dalliance with "petticoat breeches" a couple of centuries ago, David Beckham's sarong and Jean Paul Gaultier's attempt to introduce male miniskirts, men have always worn trousers.

"There is of course a whole clan history of kilts, too, but the overwhelming trend throughout history has been for men to wear biflocated garments, that is, garments with separate compartments for legs."

Biflocated garments allow ease of movement, and the more you move away from petticoat breech, the safer the garment becomes, say, for working with machinery or just being able to run.

Ms Harden says that women wearing trousers is the most important fashion phenomenon of the 20th Century.

[ image: WWII wed women to trousers]
WWII wed women to trousers
Mrs Bloomer's discovery in the latter part of the 19th Century, that baggy hareem-style pants were infinitely better for getting around on a bicycle than the conventional long skirts, was not greeted with open arms.

Although at the time a number of working class women wore trousers to facilitate their heavy manual labour, trousers on "polite" women, in any shape or form were simply not condoned.

The First World War was the event that served to introduce large numbers of British women to their first pair of trousers, says Ms Harden.

Women were literally, as well as figuratively, wearing the trousers, as they temporarily took up the jobs their soldier fathers, brothers and husbands had vacated.

In the inter-war years, trousers for women became acceptable for the upper classes, and ranges of leisure and sports wear were not complete without baggy, floor brushing, light fabric ladies' trews.

By the 30s, film stars like Katharine Hepburn and Lauren Bacall had put the Hollywood stamp of glamour onto women's trousers, which during the 20s were only worn in the country or for sport.

"The Hollywood touch was very important at the time in terms of whether a look became fashionable or not," says Ms Harden.

And then the Second World War made women and utility trousers almost inseparable. Land girls and munitions workers couldn't really do their jobs in skirts - and besides, there just wasn't enough material available to waste on the non-functional.

[ image: And the bride wore ... trousers!]
And the bride wore ... trousers!
"The 50s," says Ms Harden, "Saw a return to what was perceived as feminine".

Even so, Brigitte Bardot got away with wearing Capri pants, and trousers began to make more of a return throughout the 60s.

Ms Harden says: "In 1969, Mick Jagger married Bianca, and she wore a trouser suit. Before then, trousers had been leisure wear for women, but not smart, not something you could wear in church or at work. Trousers became smart in the 60s."

And it's only been in the past 10 years, she reckons, that trousers have become acceptable work wear for women. But not all women.

The Equal Opportunities Commission said in a statement relating to Jo Hale's situation: "Many women wear trousers to work - including MPs, businesswomen and barristers.

"For schoolgirls trousers can be a smart alternative to skirts as well as being warm and practical."

The EOC says it receives many complaints and enquiries from girls barred from wearing trousers at school, and says it hopes that "out of date stereotypes of appropriate dress for girls" will not stop them wearing clothes which have "considerable practical advantages".

But it seems clear that even though the politics of sexual equality are as unfashionable as 70s flares, men are still considered by some to be the ones wearing the trousers.

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