Did Women Wear Pants in the 1920s? Yes! sort of…

1920s sporting women MDafoeMay1924Crop pD

Sporting pants and knickers were somewhat acceptable for women to wear in the 1920’s

The fact that the debate over women and pants was still happening the 1960s tells you that in the 1920s, women wearing pants were likely to raise eyebrows. Even Katharine Hepburn and her newsworthy trousers in the 1930s could not shake the public perception of women strutting around town in what was widely considered men’s clothing. 1920s pants for women were not common or widely accepted in public with a few exceptions.

1920s Knicker Sport Pants

1920s womens pants knickers

1920’s Knickers Pants for Sports

Knickers fell into a gray area. They were acceptable as sportswear. It was fine for a woman to pull on checked wool knee-length knickers and pair them with a tweed shirt, knee-high socks, and lace-up shoes as long as she had a golf club in her hand. But were they acceptable as an outfit for lunch with the ladies? No. In a small town in West Virginia, it was against the law for women to wear knickers at all until a referendum was passed. Many golf courses banned women from wearing knickers until the mid 20’s. Knickers were common for other sports too like hiking, riding (called breeches), and tennis. They were comfortable, sporty, and fit right in with the “boyish” style of the youth culture.

1923 ladies knickers

1923 Replica Sporting Togs Made by Lady Carolyn Runnells

Women’s knickers were made of grey or tan serge, tweed or jeans cloth often with pressed center legs, cuffs below the knee that fasted with buttons and a waistband that fastened with buttons on the side.  Slash pockets on either side of the crotch line added more style then functionality to the design. In the late 1920’s corduroy velour became another fabric choice for knickers complete with matching corduroy sport shirt. The new matching ensemble was much more fashionable than practical and women appreciated wearing the sporty look without needing to play a sport.

Sporting clothes were often called togs in the early 1920s. On the left my good friend Lady Carolyn made replica sporting togs from the 1923 Sears catalog. She did an amazing job and they look so fun to wear. No wonder women loved sporty “mens” clothes.

1920s Girl’s “Bloomer” Knickers

1920s ladies knicker pants

Tweed Knicker Sports Outfit

School girls wore bloomers, a softer form of knickers, in school as well as part of their gym uniform. Black or navy boomers with a Middy top had already been in fashion for girls for a decade or more. It stayed on trend into the 1930’s. One woman as a school girl in the mid 1920’s recalls “The girls all wore middy blouses rolled up at the sides and pinned to look more in style. We also wore sateen bloomers in blue, red, green  or purple, they were tightly fitted below the knees with an elastic cuff. Oftentimes on hot afternoons in our country school, one girl would snap an elastic cuff, then another girl would snap hers. Pretty soon, the snap-snap-snapping sounds were coming from every desk!” Genevieve Brandon, From Flappers to Flivvers. 

1920a Beach Pajama Pants

Ladies 1920s pants beach pajamas

Late 1920s Beach Pajama Pants

Besides bloomers and mens knickers, a more feminine pant was the two-piece beach pajama. They were not sleeping pajamas. They fell closer to the sportswear category. The very very very wide leg pants were one of the earliest forms of bell bottoms for women and they were made of crepe-de-chine, cotton, or silk. Coco Chanel – of course – is credited with introducing these pants for women who were looking for something that was not a skirt but was still a comfortable and stylish option for boating. Chanel called them yachting pants. Paired with a matching jacket, the pajama ensemble made a nice swimsuit cover-up on the beach or at resorts.

1920s beach pajama pants

Actress Gertrude Olmstead, 1920s Beach Pants

Women liked their beach pajamas so much that as the calendar hit 1930, pajamas became acceptable attire for hosting parties, visiting good friends, and for those less concerned with tradition, the theater. Those who were not going to a resort anytime soon simply adopted the style for relaxing at home and called them “lounjamas.” Linen or cotton was favored over lace or silk- satin to make sure it was clear that these were not sleeping pajamas. Again this was really a thirties style not twenties, but the look began in the 20’s.

1920s Mens Pants for Women

1920s women wearing pants trosuers

1920’s Paris Woman in Pants

But, did any woman wear pants in the way that we think of pants today? Not flowing pajama bottoms or knickers, but actual trousers? Yes, a few women did that but make no mistake that a woman had to be as bold as Amelia Earhart to do that. Even fewer women, if any, bought pants. They borrowed them from men or they made them at home. For the women who opted for pants as daywear, they wore them the same way that man did; with mens white shirts, neckties, vests and blazers.

What is all this fuss about pants, anyway? After all, it was just in February 2013 that it became officially legal for Parisian women to wear pants when a law dating back to 1799 was stricken from the books. Reasons for this pants phobia vary. Religion, modesty, and gender roles top the list. Even the Jazz Age was not enough to fully bring women’s pants into fashion, but it was the start of fashion revolution that would continue to evolve for decades to come.

Further Reading:

I just found this interesting book on women who wore pants from 1850 to the 1920’s. I didn’t get to read it yet but I bet it’s on my list.  Women in Pants: Manly Maidens, Cowgirls, and Other Renegades 


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