One of the first challenges I set myself when starting this blog just over four years ago was to find out when older American women started wearing pants. Now I know that it wasn’t really a precise enough question. I needed to add Where? Why? And How Many? Certainly a few older women already donned pants in the nineteenth century for politics, work, and sports. And I am sure that the big push towards pants during World War One also affected older women, although the visual record I’ve found shows only the young taking this step.
In photo archive I’ve collected older women started wearing pants in greater numbers in the World War Two era. The war lasted a long time and women of all ages entered jobs that required pants. Photos taken by the government’s Office of War Information document this extensively. In addition, pants had gained a lot of ground as leisure time apparel, as seen in the wonderful California birthday party photo above found by my friend Sally. So I have images of women at work and at play in pants. But did older women wear pants to the store and out on the street? I don’t have any evidence for that.
Pictures of women in pants proliferate during the 1950s, but still largely in leisure time settings. Maybe in 1959 Vida was headed out to the store, but my thrift store photo didn’t come with a story behind it.
So when did older women take to pants as their go-to clothing choice for events beyond work and play? I start seeing them around the mid 1970s, that confusing decade when skirts lengths changed often and women of all ages made the switch to pants.
In the seventies, French-American designer Pauline Trigère (herself then in her sixties) advocated the pantsuit as the very first thing a fashionable woman should buy. Even Vogue Pattern Magazine was showing pictures of older women in pants, offering patterns so that women could make their own
So here’s what I know so far. In the US older women started wearing pants in greater numbers in the World War Two era, but the trend didn’t hit the streets until the 1970s. But there is so much more to learn. Can you help me with pictures and stories about the older women in your life?
That transition to pants is interesting. Being raised in southern California, I do know that most housewives (my friend’s moms) wore pants at home but wore a shirt waist dress if shopping at a department store or other location (but not the market). What I notice is that women who were high school or college age during the transforming ‘roaring twenties’ were more open to wearing pants and followed fashion innovations. Women who matured before WWI or during the earlier part of the century seemed to retain their corset posture and wore skirts or dresses. These women would have been in their 50’s and 60’s at the time of the war (the Mamie Eisenhower generation).
My maternal grandmother was born in 1900–I don’t remember ever seeing her in pants.
My grandmother was one of four sisters. I can remember only seeing the youngest one, born in 1910, wearing pants. She was different in other ways, as she was the only one to hold a job outside her home, and though married, she never had children. She always wore pants around the house, and was known to run errands in them. This was in the early 60s when she was over 40, and pants were pretty much still for kids.
Even she did not wear them on shopping outings, or even on family picnic gatherings. I’ve looked through all my photos and can’t find any of her in pants.
I can remember when, in the mid 1970s, out 80 year old neighbor got her first pair of pants. She wore them everywhere!
So she would fit Jen’s theory–a flapper girl who grew up to be experimental!
I am from Ireland, I remember a neighbour and my mother sewing a pair of tailored-style pants – maroon velvet – in the early 70s. my mother didnt sew very well and I think the neighbour was helping her figure it out as trousers were seen as very difficult to sew (my mother was not a great sew-er). most women in our village used wear skirts and nylons (tan italiano being a fave shade), however, the ladies that farmed would have used trousers or overalls for the rough work. My dad used deal in shares on the side, and he had shares in a Jeans company in the early 80s and he was wondering if jeans were just a fashion fad – as the relatively sudden increase in their popularity could equally decrease – (we were teenagers and kept telling him that jeans were here to stay!)
Well, as a seamstress I can say that velvet tailored pants are not a good project for a beginner!
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I just discovered your blog tonight, and am enjoying my tour through your archives. You have been added to my blog reader list.
My grandmother died in 1978, at the age of 55. She owned jeans to wear in the garden, but otherwise she NEVER wore pants. We used to play dress-up with the clothes in her closet, and it was nothing but dresses. My other grandma, roughly the same age, often wore pants or shorts. I’ve got a picture of her in 1978 with all 4 granddaughters, and between the 5 of us, I think we cover the full range of 70’s summer fashion.