On the Street in Chinatown, ca. 1900

Photograph by Arnold Genthe, Library of Congress. Click to enlarge

Photograph by Arnold Genthe, Library of Congress. Click to enlarge

When did women in the United States start wearing pants on the street?  It depends on where you look.  This picture from San Francisco’s Chinatown shows that pants were common attire for women of Chinese descent at the turn of the twentieth century.

To learn more about Chinese women’s clothing, friends put me in contact with Antonia Finnane, an expert in the field. She informed me that pants with a tunic or jacket were standard dress for rural and non elite women in China from the fifteenth century onward.  In Southern China, where most of these immigrants came from, pants outfits were standard on the street. When they came to the United States, the women continued the tradition.

The San Francisco based photographer Arnold Genthe chronicled San Francisco’s Chinatown before the 1906 earthquake.  In this particular shot, he caught the contrast between standard American fashions and the Chinese style.  Eventually pants came to have plebian connotations, says Finnane, and Chinese American women would leave them behind as they rose in social status.

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6 Responses to On the Street in Chinatown, ca. 1900

  1. Jann Gumbiner says:

    Very interesting. I like this look, pratical and comfortable. Interesting contrast with the Victorian clothing. Those are women in front?

  2. Carol in Denver says:

    I love the look: simple, practical, yet elegant, to my eye at least. My daughter-in-law is in China now. She asked me if there was anything I wanted her to bring back and I said “peasant clothing.” I will be extremely surprised if she finds any.

  3. The shoes are fascinating. Peeping out from under the hem of the trousers, they suggest “lotus feet” and must have been painful to walk on — but not as painful as lotus feet!

    • Lynn says:

      The shoes are called “Manchu Platforms” and you have intuited their purpose. They were worn by women with unbound feet, but created the impression (and the walk) of bound feet. You can read about them here.

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