Dresses versus Pants–A Tale of Two Women in the 1970s

Nell Blair and Mary Murphy, 1973

Nell Blair and Mary Murphy, 1973. Click to enlarge

Reader Keri Payne sent me stories about two older relatives who had radically different styles, one always in dresses and the other always in pants.

On her mother’s side was her grandmother Nell Blair, born in 1906.  She wore muumuus and house dresses when in casual settings, while putting on nice dresses with a girdle when she received company or went outside.  Here’s Keri vivid description of her grandmother: “I’m pretty sure she made this dress [pictured on the left]–she taught me to sew as a child and sewed for herself, me and my mom all the time.  She never got her ears pierced because she was scared, so always wore clip-ons and a brooch.  She loved a pretty brooch!”  Keri doesn’t remember her Grandmother Blair ever wearing pants.

At the other end of the clothing spectrum was her Great Aunt Mary Murphy, the sister of her paternal grandmother. Widowed at an early age, she got a job as the entertainment director at a retirement home.  “Mary’s nickname was ‘Babe’ and I LOVED my Auntie Babe,” writes Keri.  “She was fabulous and always had some kind of pant suit on.” In the picture above on the right, Babe wears a nautically inspired pants outfit.  Although she doesn’t remember her exact age, Keri guesses that she was in her fifties when the photo was taken.

Keri’s stories raise tantalizing research questions.  By the 1970s, many women were turning to pants suits, including older women.  But how old exactly? My maternal grandmother was just a few years older than Keri’s and she also never wore pants outside the home (or in the home either, to my knowledge.) Do any of you know women born in the first decade of the twentieth century who switched to pants as their basic attire by the seventies?

Mary was at least a decade younger than Nell and worked outside home.  Do these factors help explain her embrace of pants suit so soon after they became acceptable street wear?

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9 Responses to Dresses versus Pants–A Tale of Two Women in the 1970s

  1. My maternal grandma, Edna, was born in 1908. She wore pants and pantsuits frequently in the early 1970s, and through her entire life. I have many photos of her wearing pants as early as the 1920s, when she wore knickers! Many of the photos show her wearing them as casual wear, on vacations or while camping, but I wouldn’t be surprised if she wore them to work. She was a little non-traditional for the era; she and my grandpa had my dad later in life, when she was 38, and he was their only child. She worked outside the home for most of her life, also. I also have many photos of her in dresses and suits, so I know that she didn’t only wear pants.

    My maternal grandmother died very young, but I also had a maternal great aunt, a bit younger than Edna, who wore only dresses, house dresses and muumuus, as far as I recall. She had 7 children and worked inside the home.

    Auntie Babe’s nautical pantsuit is fun!

  2. Lizzie says:

    This is so interesting.

    My grandmother, born in 1910, never wore pants, but her younger sister, born around 1914, started wearing pedal pushers in the early 60s on the most casual occasions, and then by the 70s was wearing pants all the time except for church.

    My mother-in-law, born in 1920 never worn pants either, which I always thought was odd, as many of her contemporaries were wearing them by the mid 40s. We bought her a pair when she was about 80 and was cold all the time, but she refused to wear them.

  3. Mary says:

    In New Zealand, my maternal grandmother, born in 1898 – started to wear pants in the home in the 1980s. She wouldn’t have worn them outside the home however. I think she appreciated the warmth they provided in chilly, underheated (by U.S. standards) New Zealand houses.

  4. Anne S. says:

    My mother born in 1923 started wearing pant suits outside the home in the 1970s, though she wore casual pants in the home earlier (as I recall in my early childhood). Now at 93 she wears pants exclusively. My grandmothers were born in 1888 and 1895 and never wore pants.

  5. Trish S says:

    My UK grandmothers born in the early 1900s never wore trousers, (pants) and my own mother, 1930s, only wore them infrequently in the 60s and 70s though she took to them in later life. I wonder if it was women who wore them, and saw them worn, during the 2nd World War and who were in essential services and industry.

  6. Helen Baczynski says:

    I was born in 1953 and I only wear pants when doing work, such as building work or heavy gardening. I do not own any dress pants or shorts. I much prefer dresses and find them so much more comfortable. In winter I wear thick, colorful tights for warmth. In the summer, I go bare legged.

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