Bitches with Britches: A Salute to Wartime Fashion and the First Feminists Who Rocked Them

Posted on Posted in Articles, Not In My Colour Blog, Womanswear

Bitches with Britches

On November 8th, 2016, Donald Trump became the 45th President of the United States of America and Hillary Clinton became the first woman in American history to ever come close to snatching that victory away from a male presidential candidate. This being Remembrance Day weekend, I’m compelled to remind some of the more currently disheartened members of the ‘sisterhood’  that she actually won the popular vote and the main reason “the Hair” scored 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is because of what film-maker Michael Moore calls, “an arcane, insane, 18th-century idea called the Electoral College.” Although Secretary of State Clinton and her trademark pantsuits did not make it to the Oval Office this time, November 11th is an opportunity to celebrate the home-front ‘warriors’ who laid the groundwork for her political odyssey and standard sartorial selection.

How Historical Events Brought About Britches

On June 28th, 1914 Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated in Sarajevo by Serbian military nationalists. His murder became a catalyst for the Great War, an event that resulted in unprecedented political and social reform for Western women. How this played out within the context of women’s new roles and responsibilities outside the home is reflected in the fashion of the day, which became a mirror for these societal shifts and how everything frWar-time Fashion Adom—the length of women’s hair to the height of their heels—reflected their competency and commitment to the cause. In this image [see right], we see how the media scrutinised women via their own wardrobes and workplace attire.

The biggest change in women’s wear was undoubtedly the arrival of women’s trousers. The bi-product of a pressing workplace need, these pants were initially just a belted or altered version of men’s pants. Truth be told, they were functional, but butt ugly. The silhouette they offered was sloppy, not sexy, and it would have been easy to give them a hard pass. However, over time, the look evolved and we began to see a more originality and diversity when it came to cuts, fabrics and style. Regardless, normalising their wear remained quite a feat.

Pants were considered men’s clothing and for centuries women had been legally prohibited from dressing like men and religiously forbidden from doing so as well, as per the Vatican. The only women that could somewhat get away with it were those living on farms, logging camps or cattle ranches. Fashion blogger Kathleen Cooper thinks this may be one of the reasons the frontier women from the Western states got the vote first. According to her, they were able to show they were equal to the men. Wearing pants will do that for a woman.” During WWI, seeing women in pants, denim or overalls was a common occurrence in mines, farms, munitions factories or airplane hangars. However, as Huffington Post blogger, Tove Hermanson explained, “this kind of outfit was purely occupation-driven and women would absolutely not wear it outside the work environment.” The only women who wore trousers in a social context were movie stars like Katharine Hepburn who felt they suited her athletic lifestyle and Marlene Dietrich who enjoyed the gender-bending controversy her tailored sexy men’s suits generated.

How Coco Chanel Popularised Britches

Of course, this was the exception, not the rule. “Slack Girls”, as they were known, belonged in factories, and not Coco Chanelelsewhere and beautiful slacks weren’t yet on offer in every local shop, despite the growing demand for some. In general, women were limited to wearing a modified version of their husband’s or say brother’s pants or making their own by using the few models featured on the Butterick or McCall’s patterns they bought. Enter Coco Chanel: a milliner and dressmaker from France determined to bring women and their attire into the twentieth century. A spirited and active woman, she had a love for horses, but found riding in long skirts uncomfortable. One day, she decided to solve the problem by literally taking the pants off a male rider and making them her own. The look and fit of them pleased her so much she added them to her clothing line and within a few years all the other fashion houses followed suit. This bold move aptly reflected Chanel’s singular views on French society and the status of women, at the time. An early feminist of sorts, she felt women should enjoy the same freedoms as men and endeavoured to dress them to that effect. Her mission? To persuade French women to abandon the impractical, unhygienic and oppressive Victorian corsets, bustles and floor-length dresses which hindered their mobility and functionality and embrace a simpler, sleeker silhouette that is both sexy and sophisticated. As she famously stated,I gave women a sense of freedom…I gave them back their bodies: bodies that were drenched in sweat due to fashion’s finery, lace, corsets, underclothes and padding.”  

Like all her revolutionary designs, Chanel’s pants were born of practical considerations, like walking around, getting in and out of cars quickly and being able to enjoy sports and leisure, like horseback riding and dancing.

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As such, 1929 marks the start of the modern woman’s love affair with trousers; one that still burns strong today among powerful women of all ages, races, shapes and sizes. The fact of the matter is we all owe this renegade French fashionista big time. Whether you’re a hot up-and-comer like Sophie Grégoire-Trudeau with a tight jumpsuit game, a Beltway babe like Michelle Obama cool enough to rock leather pants or just a chick who loves the way her favourite jeans feel when she slips them on, you’re indebted to Coco Chanel.

She’s not the only one we should be grateful for, though. This Remembrance Day weekend we also give thanks to the fabulously fierce females who held it down on the home front during two world wars and showed the world women are equal to men and can pull through even in the most nightmarish of circumstances. To all the bad-ass bitches in britches who not only built B-17 bombers, but flew them: we salute you.

2 thoughts on “Bitches with Britches: A Salute to Wartime Fashion and the First Feminists Who Rocked Them

  1. Nice article! I like the direction you took with fashion. It makes me think of Frida Kahlo in the 1920s : http://bust.com/images/articles/36524/images/articles/33217/hinds_madrid/Frida_2.jpg

    I like the tone too. Not super negative coming out of the recent election when we are all exhausted/terrified, and also not preachy or hyper political. You just succinctly and clearly point to changes in fashion as they relate to the social and political status of women in western circles. This post is intelligent and digestible : I love the quote about wearing pants will show how capable a woman is. People forget that clothes can be used for many things beyond aesthetics or function.

    1. Oh wow, thanks! And thank you for dropping this comment.
      Fashion and makeup communicate without saying a word and are steeped in cultural histories.
      I hope you scroll down to the bottom of the page and subscribe! There is more coming!

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