FASHION FORWARD: A Brief History of Women’s Fashion

By on March 3, 2013
SWM March Fashion Forward


In 1851, Elizabeth Smith Miller donned the first pair of pants for women everywhere. She was well known for her “bloomers” which were a style she saw in Europe. Miller was not only starting a trend for women everywhere in the United States but more specifically right here in Central New York. Miller, a profound force and advocate for the women’s rights movement, was the daughter of Gerrit Smith. The Smith home is still located in Peterboro, and was a station in the Underground Railroad.

In the Elizabeth Smith Miller collection, available at the New York Public Library, she describes the moment she wanted to throw out the concept of women only wearing skirts. She stated, “In the spring of 1851, while spending many hours at work in the garden, I became so thoroughly disgusted with the long skirt, that the dissatisfaction — the growth of years — suddenly ripened into the decision that this shackle should no longer be endured. The resolution was at once put into practice. Turkish trousers to the ankle with a skirt reaching some four inches below the knee, were substituted for the heavy, untidy and exasperating old garment.”

Soon after, Miller ventured to Seneca Falls, to visit her cousin Elizabeth Cady Stanton who also shared her disdain for the “crippling fashion.” Miller stated, “I wore the short dress and trousers for many years, my husband, being at all times and in all places, my staunch supporter. My father, also gave the dress his full approval, and I was also blessed by the tonic of Mrs. Stanton’s inspiring words: ‘The question is no longer [rags], how do you look, but woman, how do you feel?’”

The idea that we were finally considering how we felt was just the beginning of how women’s (acceptable) fashion evolved and how we approach our own wardrobe choices today.

During the early to mid-1900s, Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel stepped out in one of her boyfriend’s suits and began designing pant suits for women and French designer Paul Poiret created the first loose-fitting, wide-leg trousers for women called harem pants.

This groundbreaking fashion trend for women is more than a century old now and pants and trousers continue to be a preferred choice when we know we’ll be working a lot. While skirts and dresses can be fun, we can all admit there are days when pants are just far more functional, comfortable and ideal for any day of the week.

During World War I, men went into the military and women won jobs for that period of time. Women who took on public positions still wore skirts while women working in factory jobs were able to wear pants. At this time, the very idea of women wearing trousers was seen as an oddity and as a representation of masculinity. In the 1930s, many Hollywood leading ladies began sporting pants to gatherings and on movie sets. And by 1939, Vogue magazine for the first time published photographs of women in trousers. And with the coming of World War II came a new wave for women in the workplace and another wave of popularity in trousers for women.

Although the 1950s can easily be seen as a decade where women’s femininity was encouraged more than ever, the style for women’s casual wear and runway style most definitely included pants. Plus, we know that no matter what generation we grew up in, we all have at least one pair of bell bottoms somewhere in our wardrobe.

By the 1990s, women in the United States were wearing trousers to work several times a week and today that fashion trend is seen more, if not every day.

So, next time you’re getting dressed for the day, whether it’s for work or leisure and you’re putting on one pant leg at a time — say a little “thank you” to Elizabeth Smith Miller for having the audacity to establish a skirt as an option, not an obligation.


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