Women in Pants – The Aftermath of World War I

While my main focus is sportswear, I sometimes have to take a slight detour to see other forces that were at work in the journey toward women wearing pants. One such detour is the influence of World War One. Many articles about women wearing pants will bring up WWII as being a watershed moment in the movement toward females in pants, and that is a true depiction. But we also need to remember the woman workers of WWI, as it was they who were truly the pioneers.

I’ve written a lot about how bloomer gym suits and knickers on the hiking trails helped ease women into pants. But we need to remember that these were mainly women with money. What about the working class woman who had little time for leisure pursuits and no money for college? It’s likely that the first pants experience of most working class women was with a bathing suit, but it was during WWI that so many women took over jobs traditionally done by men. It made sense to adopt the working attire of men as well.

The young workers above are wearing overall suits, and you can tell they have seen some very hard days. But note the shoes on the woman on the right. It looks as if she has pressed into service an old pair of dress shoes. One had to make do with what was available.

WWI ended in 1918, but work overalls continued to be offered to women. The illustration above is from a 1921 Montgomery Ward catalog. I have seen ads for sewing patterns for similar garments into the 1920s.

The wearing of overalls for work during WWI and the years immediately afterward did not directly lead to women taking up trousers for regular wear. It was, however, one of the many steps that allowed women to see the practicality of pants, and which got people used to the idea of women wearing pants.

This is a card advertising a calendar for 1919. It’s most likely that WWI was still going when the card was distributed to the customers of Swift & Company. Women working – and wearing pants while working – was depicted as the patriotic thing for women to do.

In writing about my photo I got to thinking about how history is taught. So often we look at WWI as a time period from 1914 to 1918, with battles from trenches, and poison gas, and No Man’s Land, and then the Armistice on 11/11/18. If individual people are considered at all, it is usually in anecdotes of Christmas Day cease fires or stories of heroic officers leading charges across barbed wire.

But how much more interesting history becomes when people, both men and women, are put into the big picture. By this I mean not just political changes brought about by war, but more importantly, the social changes. When you stop and think about it, your life today is influenced more by the social changes (including the beginnings of working women wearing pants) than by some of the political ones. (The formation of Czechoslovakia comes to mind, that is unless you live in the former country of Czechoslovakia.)

Looked at it this way, the history of clothing takes on a significance that is often overlooked.



Filed under Proper Clothing, Viewpoint

9 responses to “Women in Pants – The Aftermath of World War I

  1. Reba Worth

    Wonderful article, and especially helpful in putting our ancestors in perspective for those of us doing genealogical research. I remember when the rule at my public school was changed, allowing girls to wear pants (5th or 6th grade/1970-ish). I was the ONLY–very lonely–girl to wear pants the next day and felt like a fish out of water, but the Administration/Teachers went out of their way to reassure me. In some ways, pants were more modest than the dresses worn over shorts.

    The Women’s Liberation Movement is really responsible for the larger portion of society accepting women in pants in the workplace. In talking with some older ladies who worked in department stores at that time, they were required to wear tops that covered their derrieres/bums for modesty’s sake, hence the pantsuit.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I was a junior in high school (1971-2) when girls and women teachers finally were allowed to wear pants. The new rule mandated tunics over pants, but we paid little heed, and it wasn’t enforced. When I went back into the public schools as a teacher in 1977, I was reminded of the rule, and actually written up for not following it!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I imagine that he easiest way for women to get into trousers was by borrowing men’s bib overalls — the differences between male and female anatomy makes it difficult for many women to wear men’s trousers, since the waist is usually too big and too low; men’s trousers that hang from the shoulders solve this problem. I suspect there would be more early 20th century photos of farm women wearing bib overalls, if anyone had thought them worth photographing (and if the women themselves were not embarrassed to be seen and recorded that way.)


    • I’ve seen some fairly early photos (pre-1900) of woman on farms, and those working in mines wearing overalls or pants, but the one above (1915-1920ish) is the earliest one I’ve actually found for my collection. People wanted to be photographed at their best, not wearing work clothes!

      Liked by 1 person

      • I always wish the museum collections showed more working class clothes, but of course, those clothes were literally worn to rags. (In London, in the winter of 1978, you could still see workers on road crews, or painters and stonemasons, working outdoors in old tweed jackets, layers of sweaters, and mufflers.) Luckily, specialized museums sometimes have work clothes.


  3. Well, similar minds think alike! I photographed all the overalls I could find in the Montgomery Ward catalogs from 1900 to 1950 and will do a post on them soon. It was interesting to see what changed…and what didn’t.


  4. Another aspect of the overall suits pictured: if you cover up the outfit below the hips, these could be typical house dresses of the period. It seems logical then that the transition into bifurcate wear required the adoption of pants that were less obvious, with a silhouette that remained within the confines of the current fashion silhouette. Much less embarrassing to wear, I’d think.


  5. Nice article.
    I posted on this awhile back, just a couple of months before you posted your item, on my blog. That item is here:
    For anyone interested, the WWI connection is also noted there, but you’ll have to excuse the cheeky title, which was inspired by somebody who was still a bit upset about something we now regard as so routine.


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