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Pantsuits for Women Were Once Illegal

A brief history of the ultimate power item.

A black and white photo of a woman in a pantsuit sitting in a backwards chair Photo: Ben Weller/Trunk Archive

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Perhaps you thought that the time for pantsuits is over. You’d be wrong.

The time for pantsuits is just beginning.

The term has been around since the 1860s, but back then it only referenced suits worn by young men. The reason they were called pantsuits rather than just normal “suits” had to do with the fact that the pantsuits came with short pants for boys. Real suits came with long pants. Up until the mid-20th century, it would be a big deal for a boy to get his first pair of long pants. You’d usually receive them around 13, when a young man might be old enough to not outgrow them immediately. So, the term “pant-suit” in the 1860s was largely simply to indicate that someone who was not a full-grown man would be wearing a suit.

Sarah Bernhardt in her pantsuit.
Sarah Bernhardt in her pantsuit.
Photo: Heritage Images/Getty Images

Which perhaps made the public realize that people who were not men could wear suits. People like women.

George Sand had been wearing men’s clothing as early as the 1830s, but, in 1870, the actress Sarah Bernhardt wore a custom-made Worth pantsuit. She was painted in it, and referred to it as her “boys clothes.” However, Bernhardt was all about subverting gender norms — she played the male role of Hamlet onstage and she dressed her son in women’s clothing. The fact that she wore a pantsuit didn’t mean that many other women did.

Then the ‘30s came. Many more women would begin wearing suits. However, in the ‘30s they would be referred to not as pantsuits, but as “masculine style lounge suits.”

You just have to look at a Marlene Dietrich movie from the 1930s to see that could be a very chic look. However, it was intended to be a very chic look. Dietrich, Greta Garbo, Katharine Hepburn, and other movie stars could wear suits and pants to portray glamorous lounge singers or adventurous women about town. They were seen as both sexy and subversive — when Dietrich wore one in the 1932 film Morocco, for instance, she kissed another woman onscreen. Perhaps because wearing them flew so much in the face of the norms of the time, regular women could be arrested if they wore pants in public. Some were accused of, and arrested for, “transvestitism.” To that end, while some designers, like Elsa Schiaparelli, offered what today seems like a standard pantsuit, it was not for the average woman. In the late ‘30s, according to the Museum of Modern Art, “only the most unconventional designer would offer a straightforward pantsuit, and only a fearless woman would wear it."

Marlene Dietrich, in a jacket-less pantsuit.
Photo: Laszlo Willinger/Getty Images

They certainly weren’t yet an item for the workplace. There, you’d wear a skirt or a dress.

It wasn’t until the 1960s that women began wearing pantsuits into the office. And they were not popular. The encyclopedia remarks that “Younger women began wearing them and were scornfully viewed not only by the male establishment but by their older female coworkers as well.” Older women, sadly, are sometimes not thrilled about younger women demanding better conditions than they themselves were accorded.

Yves Saint Laurent often gets the credit for the pantsuit’s massive surge in popularity. He designed the famous Le Smoking tuxedo suit in 1966, and advertised it paired not with other deliberately masculine attire, but with bright lipstick and high heels. His biographer, Alice Rawsthorn, wrote, “An Yves Saint Laurent smoking became the uniform of a new generation of women who, by appropriating a masculine style, were signaling that they did not defer to men as second class citizen.”

A model in Le Smoking tuxedo suit, 1967.
Photo: Staff/Getty Images

While women weren’t thrown in jail for wearing pants anymore, pantsuits remained an item to be worn by fearless women. The New York socialite Nan Kempner (who famously said, “I want to be buried naked — there must be a store where I’m going”) donned her Le Smoking suit when visiting the fashionable restaurant La Cote Basque in 1969. They declared that a pantsuit no more belonged there than did a swimming suit. So Kempner stripped off her pants and entered wearing only the suit jacket, claiming it was a mini-dress.

To some women, such restrictions only made the pantsuit more desirable. By the 1970s, many women were tired of being told what they could wear or what they could do. By 1972, they were demanding more freedom in what they wore — Title IX of the Education Amendment said that schools could no longer forbid young women from wearing pants. And in 1973, the perfume Charlie by Revlon was launched. The advertising campaign featured women wearing pantsuits by Ralph Lauren as they went out for a night on the town or walked jauntily through the city streets. The advertisement claimed that “You can do anything you want to do, without any criticism being directed at you. If you want to wear pantsuits at the office instead of a skirt, fine." You can watch one of their ads here, but brace yourself for the fact that the jingle by Bobby Short will burrow its way inside your brain and never leave:

Only one year later, in 1974, you’ll see a picture of a young Hillary Clinton wearing a pantsuit when she was a 26-year-old attorney. She looks so of the moment! She kept wearing them, as followers of her career will know, so much that she sometimes called her campaign staff the “sisterhood of the traveling pantsuits.” Women, still eager to break boundaries almost 100 years after pantsuits started being worn, wore them to the polls this November in a symbolic act of solidarity. And while the election may be over, the nearly 4 million members of the Facebook group Pantsuit Nation remain.

Because, as it’s become increasingly clear in this past year, women still aren’t treated as first-class citizens in some aspects of life. As we fight for those rights in the years to come, we’ll need a uniform befitting fearless women.

Watch: The Politics of Pockets