Let Women Wear Pants Already

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The mayor of Philadelphia is cool with it. Why isn’t everyone?

By Kate Wheeling


Aniya Wolf. (Photo: WPXI)

The mayor of Philadelphia seems like a pretty cool guy. Last Friday, a Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, teenager was kicked out of her Catholic high school’s prom for wearing a suit. On Monday, Mayor Jim Kenney voiced his support for the teen, Aniya Wolf, on his Facebook page, writing: “Aniya, I believe in Jesus, and I love your suit! Keep being yourself.”

While great strides have been made in reducing sex discrimination—women can now vote, get credit cards, and join combat units in the military—the fact that they still can’t always wear pants when they want to highlights the progress that’s left to go in reducing discrimination based on gender stereotypes. Both men and women are still penalized for breaking gender norms. Though it is not always so blatant as school administrators informing female students that in order to attend prom they must wear dresses — and threatening to call the police when one shows up in a suit — dress codes have long been used as a form of social control.

“The female dress has historically limited the social roles of women both physically and symbolically,” Zoi Arvanitidou and Maria Gasouka wrote in the Mediterranean Journal of Social Sciences in 2013. The authors note that, as recently as the mid-19th century, both men and women wore ostentatious, and often impractical, outfits that included “abundant lace, rich velvets, silks, decorated shoes, elaborate hats, wigs and plenty of perfume.” For men, practicality eventually superseded aesthetics without much resistance; the same cannot be said for women.

“The female dress has historically limited the social roles of women both physically and symbolically.”

Take, for example, the history of women in pants. The trend of women wearing trousers began to grow at the start of the 20th century. Fashion designers like Paul Poiret, who was inspired by Eastern cultures where women have long worn pants, began to design and popularize ladies’ legwear.

Women’s pants really caught on after World War I; when men went off to war and women took over the factory positions, pants became the appropriate, and thus acceptable, work attire for women. Once women realized how great pants were, they were reluctant to go back to their pre-war dress.

Still, by 1969, when Charlotte Reid became the first congresswoman to wear pants on the chamber floor, men hadn’t grown used to the sight. “I was told there was a lady here in trousers, so I had to come over and see for myself,” one congressman remarked, according to the Washington Post. The United States Senate bannedwomen from wearing pants on the floor until 1993.

In reality, women were wearing “men’s” clothes long before it was socially acceptable. Kathleen Hooper’s history of women in pants in the Toast points to the many documented cases of women serving in the Civil War:

Dressed as men, they served alongside their husbands or brothers, or took their places in secret. Some were only discovered after they were wounded or killed. Many of these women continued to dress and live as men for the rest of their lives, preferring the freedom that wearing pants gave them. Ironically enough, current day female Civil War re-enactors frequently face resistance to their participation from the male re-enactors. Even though the presence of women in uniform on Civil War battlefields is historically accurate, some men continue to deny that women have a right to participate as soldiers.

The fight off the battlefield that female Civil War re-enactors face, and Aniya Wolf’s ordeal, show the progress that’s left to be made. We need to move past our issues with women in pants if, as a society, we’re ever going to tackle the prejudice against wearing pajamas to the office.