The Turn to Pants in the 1970s

Documerica, Kansas 1974

When did older women take to pants in significant numbers? It isn’t easy to prove.  You can find evidence in photos and in the impressions of people selling clothes.  But perhaps the best way is to ask women themselves. 

It just so happens that a number of students pursuing higher degrees in the broad field of Home Economics did just that: they developed detailed questionnaires to study women’s clothing choices.  Each of the dissertations is limited by number, time, and location.  Nonetheless, they offer real insights into what older women wore. 

I was fascinated by the 1978 Master’s Thesis of Charlotte Weaver Cross, “Women’s Clothing Practices for Specific Occasions at Age 65 or Older as Compared with Recall of their Practices in their 40s.” She surveyed 102 women ages 65 to 102 in Benton Country, Oregon. (Her home institution, Oregon State University, is located in the country seat of Corvallis.)  Using voter registration rolls, she chose 34 women each in the age categories of 65-74, 75-84, and 85 and above. Her detailed questionnaires asked what her subjects wore to all kinds of different events, from grocery shopping to church.

Snapshots from the seventies

The answers showed that pants had made a real breakthrough.  Eighty percent of the women questioned wore pants, with the percentage rising in the younger age group.  Similar studies from the 1960s had found no older women in pants.  Furthermore, Cross discovered that her subjects didn’t only wear pants at home. They chose pants to visit friends, to go shopping, and to see the doctor.  Some women in the younger bracket even wore dressy pants suits to church.  “These results should certainly help to dispel the myth that older women are set in their ways and do not accept fashion change,” she concludes. (54)

Of course one shouldn’t generalize from one small study in Oregon to the entire nation.  But this certainly verifies what I have seen in photos—the seventies were a breakthrough era for older women in pants. Do you have any snapshots to share?

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4 Responses to The Turn to Pants in the 1970s

  1. JS says:

    In 1970, one of my grandmothers was 69, the other 58. Both lived in NYC. One was rather dowdy, the other quite stylish. Neither ever wore pants.

  2. Val says:

    I often wonder how different the fashion time-lines were between the UK (where I am) and the USA. My mother wore pants (which we usually call trousers, here) in the mid-1950s and I remember seeing photos of her in the from the 1940s, too. She was young then, obviously, but she continued to wear them into her old age. In fact, from her fifties or sixties, I rarely ever saw her in a dress. Many of her contemporaries dressed the same way as well. I do recall her saying (as I’ve said since) that she just wanted to be comfortable. To me, this indicated that dresses and skirts really weren’t as comfortable, and with the possible exception of dressing for very hot weather, I’d agree.

    • Susan says:

      Skirts and dresses were comfortable in the 60s, but the undergarments were not. Wearing a skirt and blouse or a dress usually meant wearing a bra, a slip, panties, a girdle or garter belt, and nylon stockings. (I attended college classes dressed like that!) That meant a lot of layers, often of polyester, and in hot or muggy weather, very unpleasant. If you didn’t have firm thighs, the flesh between the top of the stockings and the bottom of the panty-girdle was apt to bulge and get heat-rash. Also, stockings or pantyhose were a constant budget item; wearing pants or trousers was cheaper. Keeping your knees together while sitting in a short skirt required constant exertion, which age and inactivity make difficult. My aunt, born in 1899, adopted pant suits in the 1960-70s almost as soon as they became available. I’ll try to find a photo.

  3. Alyssa says:

    This is fascinating! Where were you able to access her thesis?

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